Ko, 17, rises to No. 1 despite losing lead on 71st hole

By Randall MellFebruary 1, 2015, 1:18 am

OCALA, Fla. – Lydia Ko might not actually be the youngest No. 1 in the history of men’s or women’s professional golf with the release of the newest Rolex Women’s World Rankings.

Sure, her birth certificate may say she is 17 years, 9 months and 9 days old when she officially ascends to No. 1 on Monday, but the back nine at the Coates Golf Championship must have aged her 10 years.

It had to age Na Yeon Choi and she took home the winner’s trophy.

In a wild, nerve-racking finish to the LPGA’s season opener, Choi and Ko both went home winners, but not without passing through trials and tribulations that should have left them both plucking premature gray hairs.

After watching Ko birdie the first two holes Saturday to build a four-shot lead at Golden Ocala, Choi fought back to win, prevailing after Ko shanked a shot into the woods at the 17th hole, then skulled a wedge over the 18th green trying to get up-and-down to sneak into a playoff.

While Choi took home the $225,000 winner’s check, Ko took home a historic consolation prize. With her three-way tie for second, Ko secured enough world ranking points to overtake Inbee Park as the newest No. 1 in the Rolex rankings.

Ko beats the mark of Tiger Woods, rising to the top of the rankings 3 years, 8 months and 14 days younger than Woods was when he became No. 1. Woods was 21 years, 5 months and 16 days old in 1997 when he reached the top of the Official World Golf Ranking. Jiyai Shin was the previous youngest No. 1 in women’s golf at 22 years and 5 days old when she got there in 2010.

Coates Golf Championship: Articles, videos and photos

In the end, Ko would have preferred taking home her sixth LPGA title.

“It’s a little disappointing,” Ko said.

Ko said she didn’t realize anything less than a win would get her to No. 1 until her mother, Tina, and her agent, Michael Yim, told her after she signed her scorecard.

“I didn’t win at the end of the day, but I still became No. 1 and that’s pretty awesome,” Ko said.

While a lot of 17-year-olds, and pros a lot older than that, might have been devastated losing the way Ko did, she met the media afterward with poise and grace that belies her youth.

“I always joke that we have to send her to anger management classes, so she can learn to get angry,” David Leadbetter, her swing coach, said afterward.

By the time Ko walked out of the scoring tent, you couldn’t tell if she won or lost this thriller.

“She has an amazing temperament for the game,” Leadbetter said. “She’s just 17, but she walks on this cloud. She doesn’t get overly excited. She doesn’t get overly down.”

Leadbetter believes that same temperament will help Ko deal with all the extra pressure that comes with the top ranking. Standing behind the 18th green in the aftermath, Ko’s mother was asked what she thought of her daughter reaching such lofty status at such a tender age.

“She’s too young,” Tina said. “You just worry about what she feels.”

Heavy is the head that wears the crown. It’s a saying that the world’s best players can understand. The onerous weight of the No. 1 ranking was something Yani Tseng struggled with. She has spoken openly about it leading to her swoon after 109 weeks at No. 1.

Leadbetter is there with reassurance for Tina if she needs it.

“She is more worried about it than Lydia is,” Leadbetter said. “Lydia just takes it in stride. It’s not really a big deal to her.

“It’s like when she won CME last year. It was `Ho-hum, a $1.5 million.’ It’s the same way with this. I don’t think the No. 1 mantle is going to affect her at all. She could be there for a while. Although with a lot players right there at the top now, the No. 1 ranking could flip flop for a little bit, but Lydia will be right there. It’s just incredible to think she’s there at 17.”

Jason Hamilton, Ko’s caddie, loved the way Ko took Saturday’s loss in stride, the poise he saw after.

“It’s fantastic,” Hamilton said. “I’m glad you can’t bottle it. It’s one of the qualities that makes Lydia unique.”

Hamilton, by the way, was Tseng’s caddie through Tseng’s rise and fall.

Ko’s head had to be spinning when she signed her scorecard, so much changed so quickly on that back nine. She took a one-shot lead to the 17th tee before blocking her tee shot into a right fairway bunker. From there, she shanked a shot right, into the trees.

Ko said her driver got stuck behind her there, same with the 5-hybrid she half-blocked and half-shanked into the woods, leading to a double bogey. It could have been worse. She holed an 18-footer to avoid a triple bogey. Ultimately, that putt might have given her the points needed to get to No. 1 in the world.

Ko’s misses on the back nine seemed related to misses on the front. Earlier in the round, Ko pull-hooked a tee shot at No. 8 off a tree. She pulled her next shot, hooking it into a greenside bunker, leading to a bogey. At the 15th hole, she pulled a 7-iron wide left of the pin before recovering with a brilliant 60-foot birdie putt there.

“My miss is both right and left,” Ko said. “It’s just my club being a little late behind my body. It creates shots left and right.”

Ko said the same thing happened with her 5-hybrid that went into the woods. Hamilton said the sand was a factor.

“She lost her balance and footing,” he said.

At the 18th, needing to get up and down for birdie from left of the green to force a playoff, Ko skulled a chip over the green. Hamilton said it was a bit of a downhill lie, from a fairly tight lie, and she was trying to hit a flop with a 60-degree wedge that she had to hit precisely.

“I was just so eager,” Ko said. “I just kind of lifted up on it.”

Afterward, Ko wasn’t interested on dwelling long on Saturday’s finish or even a future as No. 1.

“It was my goal to one day be No. 1, but right now, I didn’t expect that,” Ko said. “Everything just hits me by surprise. Like that double at 17. That hit me by surprise, and a lot of good things, too . . . I didn’t win at the end of the day, but I still became world No. 1. That’s pretty awesome.”

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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.