All eyes on Ko as she tries to make history at the ANA

By Randall MellMarch 31, 2015, 4:30 pm

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. – Lydia Ko is redefining the word phenom.

She is drawing history as her regular playing partner.

Even LPGA founders, the women who created the tour, are in awe of what Ko’s achieving.

“She’s a blossoming star,” Shirley Spork says.

Hall of Famers are gaping in wonder.

“She’s incredible,” Patty Sheehan says.

“She amazes me,” Annika Sorenstam says.

When Ko tees it up Thursday at the ANA Inspiration, the year’s first major championship, she will be looking to post her 29th consecutive round under par in an LPGA event. That would equal Sorenstam’s mark as best ever on tour.

It’s staggering what Ko is achieving given she doesn’t even have a driver’s license yet.

At 14, she became, at the time, the youngest male or female to win a professional golf tournament, claiming the NSW Open title on the Australian Ladies Professional Golf tour.

At 15, she became the youngest winner of an LPGA event at the Canadian Women’s Open.

At 16, she won the Canadian Women’s Open again and was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people.

At 17, she took home the biggest payday in the history of women’s golf, claiming $1.5 million as the CME Group Tour Championship winner and Race to the CME Globe winner. Still 17, with a staggering eight worldwide professional victories already on her resume, Ko ascended to Rolex world No. 1, becoming the youngest player to top the world rankings in men’s or women’s professional golf.

With some grumbling last month over whether she had yet done enough to earn the world No. 1 ranking, Ko answered eloquently, winning in back-to-back weeks, taking the Women’s Australian Open and New Zealand Women’s Open as her ninth and 10th pro titles.


Photos: Lydia Ko through the years

All of this leads to some big questions this week:

Is Ko ready to win her first major championship?

And does she need to win the ANA Inspiration to definitively separate herself from Inbee Park and Stacy Lewis as the best player in the women’s game?

History will be shadowing Ko once more. If she makes the leap into Poppie’s Pond Sunday, she will do so as the youngest major champion the women’s game has ever known at 17 years, 11 months and 12 days old. She would be almost a full year younger than Morgan Pressel was when she won the Kraft Nabisco in 2007. Young Tom Morris would be the only player to have won a professional major at a younger age than Ko, and he set the mark 147 years ago.

David Leadbetter, Ko’s swing coach, believes her game is in a good place at a major. The changes they made last year, turning her primary ball flight from a fade to a draw, have taken hold.

“She’s playing the game,” Leadbetter said. “She’s not playing swing, as was the case, to a certain extent, last year.”

Ko hasn’t logged a finish worse than T-7 this year. She is working on 10 consecutive top-10 finishes dating back to last year.

“She’s very confident right now,” Leadbetter said. “She’s ready to perform well. There’s no reason why not. She’s got the game.”

Ko is hitting the ball farther than she ever has. She averages 253 yards per drive, ranking 31st on tour in driving distance. That’s up from 66th her rookie year. She ranks better Stacy Lewis (58th) and Inbee Park (70th) this year.

Hall of Famer Judy Rankin believes Ko’s stats don’t fully capture how much more power she’s gaining.

“I think she has another gear when she wants to hit the ball farther,” Rankin said.

Ko is second in scoring on tour (69.0) to Hyo Joo Kim (68.87), and she’s second in greens in regulation (82.4 percent) to Inbee Park (83.1 percent). She’s sixth in putts per GIR.

With the ANA’s approach, Ko is hearing all the talk about the possible history this week.

“I've been watching Golf Channel, and they've been saying the spotlight is kind of on me,” Ko said. “It’s going to be, definitely, a tough week. I know that all the girls are trying to bring their A games together, and that's what I’ve got to do. I'm just going to try and have fun.  Hopefully, I'll hit some really good shots, make some good putts and give myself a good run for it.”

As precociously cool as Ko seems to be under pressure, she’s not immune to it.

This will be her 13th start in a major, but she’s still learning how best to approach them.

“Two years ago, I said, `Oh my God, it's a major.’ This is where everyone tries to perform at their best,’ and all I was thinking was, `Major, major, major. It’s a major,’” Ko said. “I think that kind of threw me off a little bit. At the end of the day, it should be another tournament. The greatest players are there, yes, but that's kind of what it's like every week.”

Ko’s best performance in a major was her second-place finish at Evian two years ago, when she pushed Suzann Pettersen hard to the end. Ko has three top-10s in her 12 starts in majors. She was third at last year’s LPGA Championship and tied for eighth at last year’s Evian. She tied for 29th at the Kraft Nabisco last year and tied for 25th there two years ago, her only starts at that championship.

“I don't know, just something about majors, it really makes me nervous,” Ko said. “I know the first major I played was the U.S. Open. I couldn't even line up my ball on the first green, because I was so nervous.”

Ko says her goal is just to give herself a chance to win majors. She’ll have five chances this year to beat Pressel’s record as the youngest winner of a women’s major.

“Everyone says, `Oh, you're going to be the youngest winner in a major and all that,’” Ko said. “But to me, it's more important that I have fun playing the majors, and I play more consistently in them. That's been my goal because, you know, if I play consistently and get used to playing these great tournaments, I think that it will give me a better chance of hopefully being around the lead, rather than my goal being: `I want to win this major.’”

Given her impressive consistency, it will be an upset if Ko doesn’t give herself a chance to make more history this week.

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Crocker among quartet of Open qualifiers in Singapore

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 2:20 pm

Former amateur standout Sean Crocker was among four players who qualified for the 147th Open via top-12 finishes this week at the Asian Tour's SMBC Singapore Open as part of the Open Qualifying Series.

Crocker had a strong college career at USC before turning pro late last year. The 21-year-old received an invitation into this event shortly thereafter, and he made the most of his appearance with a T-6 finish to net his first career major championship berth.

There were four spots available to those not otherwise exempt among the top 12 in Singapore, but winner Sergio Garcia and runners-up Shaun Norris and Satoshi Kodaira had already booked their tickets for Carnoustie. That meant that Thailand's Danthai Boonma and Jazz Janewattanond both qualified thanks to T-4 finishes.

Full-field scores from the Singapore Open

Crocker nabbed the third available qualifying spot, while the final berth went to Australia's Lucas Herbert. Herbert entered the week ranked No. 274 in the world and was the highest-ranked of the three otherwise unqualified players who ended the week in a tie for eighth.

The next event in the Open Qualifying Series will be in Japan at the Mizuno Open in May, when four more spots at Carnoustie will be up for grabs. The 147th Open will be held July 19-22 in Carnoustie, Scotland.

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Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:40 pm

Ross Fisher is in the midst of a career resurgence - he just doesn't have the hardware to prove it.

Fisher entered the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship with a share of the lead, and as he made the turn he appeared in position to claim his first European Tour victory since March 2014. But he slowed just as Tommy Fleetwood caught fire, and when the final putt fell Fisher ended up alone in second place, two shots behind his fellow Englishman.

It continues a promising trend for Fisher, who at age 37 now has 14 career runner-up finishes and three in his last six starts dating back to October. He was edged by Tyrrell Hatton both at the Italian Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in the fall, and now has amassed nine worldwide top-10 finishes since March.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Fisher took a big step toward ending his winless drought with an eagle on the par-5 second followed by a pair of birdies, and he stood five shots clear of Fleetwood with only nine holes to go. But while Fleetwood played Nos. 10-15 in 4 under, Fisher played the same stretch in 2 over and was unable to eagle the closing hole to force a playoff.

While Fisher remains in search of an elusive trophy, his world ranking has benefited from his recent play. The veteran was ranked outside the top 100 in the world as recently as September 2016, but his Abu Dhabi runner-up result is expected to move him inside the top 30 when the new rankings are published.

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McIlroy (T-3) notches another Abu Dhabi close call

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:08 pm

Rory McIlroy's trend of doing everything but hoist the trophy at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship is alive and well.

Making his first start since early October, McIlroy showed few signs of rust en route to a tie for third. Amid gusty winds, he closed with a 2-under 70 to finish the week at 18 under, four shots behind Tommy Fleetwood who rallied to win this event for the second consecutive year.

The result continues a remarkable trend for the Ulsterman, who has now finished third or better seven of the last eight years in Abu Dhabi - all while never winning the tournament. That stretch includes four runner-up finishes and now two straight T-3 results.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy is entering off a disappointing 2017 in which he was injured in his first start and missed two chunks of time while trying to regain his health. He has laid out an ambitious early-season schedule, one that will include a trip to Dubai next week and eight worldwide tournament starts before he heads to the Masters.

McIlroy started the final round one shot off the lead, and he remained in contention after two birdies over his first four holes. But a bogey on No. 6 slowed his momentum, and McIlroy wasn't able to make a back-nine birdie until the closing hole, at which point the title was out of reach.

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Fleetwood rallies to defend Abu Dhabi title

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 12:48 pm

The 2018 European Tour season has begun just as the 2017 one ended: with Tommy Fleetwood's name atop the standings.

Facing the most difficult conditions of the week, Fleetwood charged down the stretch to shoot a 7-under 65 in the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, good enough for a two-shot win and a successful title defense.

Abu Dhabi was the start of Fleetwood's resurgence a year ago, the first of two European Tour victories en route to the season-long Race to Dubai title. This time around the Englishman started the final round two shots off the lead but rallied with six birdies over his final nine holes to reclaim the trophy.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Fleetwood was five shots behind countryman Ross Fisher when he made the turn, but he birdied the par-5 10th and then added four birdies in a five-hole stretch from Nos. 12-16. The decisive shot came on the final hole, when his pitch from the left rough nestled within a few feet of the hole for a closing birdie.

Fleetwood's 22-under total left him two shots ahead of Fisher and four shots clear of Rory McIlroy and Matthew Fitzpatrick. After entering the week ranked No. 18, Fleetwood is expected to move to at least No. 12 in the world when the new rankings are published.