Fun-damental truth: Looser Ko opens with 66

By Randall MellJuly 30, 2015, 9:48 pm

TURNBERRY, Scotland – Lydia Ko’s laugh is an engaging burst of hearty delight.

It’s a really good laugh.

It sounds like it springs from such a sweet reservoir of spirit.

Her swing coach, David Leadbetter, loves hearing it, because he knows there’s a certain joy that is really the essence of her game. Yes, there is undoubtedly a dutiful component in Ko’s game, the good daughter wanting to please highly committed parents, a common dynamic in the culture of not just elite South Korean-born players, but elite Americans as well. But it’s the sheer joy of playing well that fuels her epic runs.

After a rough spell in the spring, where she said the game was beginning to feel too much like a job, Ko says she’s beginning to make fun a priority in her game again.

With a 6-under-par 66 Thursday in the first round of the Ricoh Women’s British Open, Ko had a lot to smile about. She’s one shot off the lead at Trump Turnberry.

It was her best round in a major championship.

“I tried to have fun out there,” Ko said.

That’s the mantra Ko’s taking to the first tee these days, an idea as helpful to her as any swing thought.  She talks as if fun should be the 15th club in her bag.

Ricoh Women’s British Open: Articles, photos and videos

“I think having fun is important,” Ko said at the U.S. Women’s Open. “That’s what I always say, because that’s the most important thing.”

Ko opened up after tying for 12th at the U.S. Women’s Open, saying she felt as if a recent run of less than inspired play was due to feeling homesick and to feeling as if “I was kind of out there because I was a tour golfer and needed to be out there.”

Playing the Scottish Ladies Open last week, Ko said she had a blast in the pro-am format with her celebrity partners there. She took that momentum with her this week.

“It’s beautiful out here, especially the ninth and 10th holes, all along the water,” Ko said after a round of seven birdies and one bogey. “I would love to be a photographer and take a couple photos.”

With pressure ratcheting up on Ko this year to win her first major championship, the majors haven’t been a lot of fun for her. She went to the ANA Inspiration reading how she had five attempts this year to surpass Morgan Pressel as the youngest winner of a major championship. Because, you know, she’s breaking all the young phenom records for winning, so that ought also belong to her, right?

Ko ended up tying for 51st at the ANA, her worst finish in a major. In her next start in a major, she missed the cut at the KPMG PGA Championship, her first MC ever in an LPGA event.

With that final-round 68 at the U.S. Women’s Open, Ko said she felt as if she were coming out of her little funk of playing too dutifully.

Jason Hamilton, her caddie, sees it.

“She has pressure from certain places,” said Jason Hamilton, Ko’s caddie. “If those aren’t weighing too heavily on her, she can just be herself.”

Ko has won 11 times worldwide already, but she doesn’t feel a burning need to win and break Pressel’s record as youngest major champion. She has, by the way, two more chances to do so. There’s this week and the Evian Championship.

Pressel was 18 years, 10 months and 9 days old when she won the Kraft Nabisco. Ko will be 18 years, 3 months and 9 days old this Sunday.

“There have been expectations,” Leadbetter said. “Everyone back home in New Zealand wants to know, `When’s she going to win a major?' That comes up every time a reporter or somebody from New Zealand calls me. I get asked it constantly. I keep reminding them she’s only at the start of her career. She’s still on a learning curve. People think she should be there already because of this meteoric rise, but she’s still learning things, still finding things out about herself, still learning about pressure and how to handle it. She’s learning to handle everybody’s expectations.”

That includes her father, Gil Hong Ko, who closely oversees Lydia’s game when she’s home in New Zealand but typically leaves those duties to Lydia’s mother, Tina, when Lydia’s on the road. Gil Hong is on the road more now, too. He was at the U.S. Women’s Open, and he is here this week.

Ko was asked after Thursday’s round how she deals with the pressure of being considered the best player in the women’s game without a major. Seems crazy she could be considered so at 18, but it’s part of the deal that came with being the Rolex world No. 1 for most of this year. After all, if you’re considered the best player in the game, don’t you have to have a major on your resume, regardless of your age?

“I just try and not think about it,” said Ko, who is now No. 2 in the world behind Inbee Park. “My goal is to hopefully have one major win in my career. I’ve been saying it doesn’t need to be now.

“To see some of the headlines, you kind of don’t know what to think about it. I try and not think about it, because at the end of the day, we’re all trying to play our best out here. That’s all we can do.”

That seemed to be Ko’s way of saying we should all chill out. It’s a tough game, and she’s doing her best.

Photo by Enrique Berardi/LAAC

Top-ranked amateur Niemann one back at LAAC in Chile

By Nick MentaJanuary 21, 2018, 8:44 pm

Argentina’s Jaime Lopez Rivarola leads the Latin America Amateur Championship at 5 under par following a round of 3-under 68 Saturday in Chile.

The former Georgia Bulldog is now 36 holes from what would be a return trip to Augusta National but his first Masters.

"The truth is that I crossed off on my bucket list playing Augusta [National], because I happened to play there," Rivarola said. "I've played every year with my university. But playing in the Masters is a completely different thing. I have been to the Masters, and I've watched the players play during the practice rounds. But [competing would be] a completely different thing."

He is followed on the leaderboard by the three players who competed in the playoff that decided last year’s LAAC in Panama: Joaquin Niemann (-4), Toto Gana (-4), and Alvaro Ortiz (-3).

Click here for full-field scores from the Latin America Amateur Championship

Chile’s Niemann is the top-ranked amateur in the world who currently holds conditional status on the Tour and is poised to begin his career as a professional, unless of course he takes the title this week. After a disappointing 74 in Round 1, Niemann was 10 shots better in Round 2, rocketing up the leaderboard with a 7-under 64.

“Today, I had a completely different mentality, and that's usually what happens in my case," Niemann said. "When I shoot a bad round, the following day I have extra motivation. I realize and I feel that I have to play my best golf. The key to being a good golfer is to find those thoughts and to transfer them into good golf."

Niemann’s fellow Chilean and best friend Gana is the defending champion who missed the cut at the Masters last year and is now a freshman at Lynn University. His second-round 70 was a roller coaster, complete with six birdies, three eagles and a double.

Mexico’s Ortiz, the brother of three-time Tour winner Carlos, was 6 under for the week before three back-nine bogeys dropped him off the pace.

Two past champions, Matias Dominguez and Paul Chaplet, sit 5 over and 7 over, respectively.

The winner of the Latin America Amateur Championship earns an invite to this year’s Masters. He is also exempt into the The Amateur Championship, the U.S. Amateur, U.S. Open sectional qualifying, and Open Championship final qualifying.

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McIlroy gets back on track

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 21, 2018, 3:10 pm

There’s only one way to view Rory McIlroy’s performance at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship:

He is well ahead of schedule.

Sure, McIlroy is probably disappointed that he couldn’t chase down Ross Fisher (and then Tommy Fleetwood) on the final day at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. But against a recent backdrop of injuries and apathy, his tie for third was a resounding success. He reasserted himself, quickly, and emerged 100 percent healthy.

“Overall, I’m happy,” he said after finishing at 18-under 270, four back of Fleetwood. “I saw some really, really positive signs. My attitude, patience and comfort level were really good all week.”

To fully appreciate McIlroy’s auspicious 2018 debut, consider his state of disarray just four months ago. He was newly married. Nursing a rib injury. Breaking in new equipment. Testing another caddie. His only constant was change. “Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place,” he said, “and that was because of where I was physically.”

And so he hit the reset button, taking the longest sabbatical of his career, a three-and-a-half-month break that was as much psychological as physical. He healed his body and met with a dietician, packing five pounds of muscle onto his already cut frame. He dialed in his TaylorMade equipment, shoring up a putting stroke and wedge game that was shockingly poor for a player of his caliber. Perhaps most importantly, he cleared his cluttered mind, cruising around Italy with wife Erica in a 1950s Mercedes convertible.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

After an intense buildup to his season debut, McIlroy was curious about the true state of his game, about how he’d stack up when he finally put a scorecard in his hand. It didn’t take him long to find out. 

Playing the first two rounds alongside Dustin Johnson – the undisputed world No. 1 who was fresh off a blowout victory at Kapalua – McIlroy beat him by a shot. Despite a 103-day competitive layoff, he played bogey-free for 52 holes. And he put himself in position to win, trailing by one heading into the final round. Though Fleetwood blew away the field with a back-nine 30 to defend his title, McIlroy collected his eighth top-5 in his last nine appearances in Abu Dhabi.

“I know it’s only three months,” he said, “but things change, and I felt like maybe I needed a couple of weeks to get back into the thought process that you need to get into for competitive golf. I got into that pretty quickly this week, so that was the most pleasing thing.”

The sense of relief afterward was palpable. McIlroy is entering his 11th full year as a pro, and deep down he likely realizes 2018 is shaping up as his most important yet.

The former Boy Wonder is all grown up, and his main challengers now are a freakish athlete (DJ) and a trio of players under 25 (Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm) who don’t lack for motivation or confidence. The landscape has changed significantly since McIlroy’s last major victory, in August 2014, and the only way he’ll be able to return to world No. 1 is to produce a sustained period of exceptional golf, like the rest of the game’s elite. (Based on average points, McIlroy, now ranked 11th, is closer to the bottom of the rankings, No. 1928, than to Johnson.)

But after years of near-constant turmoil, McIlroy, 28, finally seems ready to pursue that goal again. He is planning the heaviest workload of his career – as many as 30 events, including seven more starts before the Masters – and appears refreshed and reenergized, perhaps because this year, for the first time in a while, he is playing without distractions.

Not his relationships or his health. Not his equipment or his caddie or his off-course dealings.

Everything in his life is lined up.

Drama tends to follow one of the sport’s most captivating characters, but for now he can just play golf – lots and lots of golf. How liberating.

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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.