Ko's game taking shape, along with adjusted ball flight

By Randall MellJuly 8, 2015, 11:19 pm

LANCASTER, Pa. – Lydia Ko’s ball flight looks good this week.

David Leadbetter likes seeing that as her swing coach, but he also looks for other telltale signs she’s ready for the game’s biggest events.

“She’s smiling and laughing,” Leadbetter said with Ko preparing for Thursday’s start of the U.S. Women’s Open. “She’s feeling rested, and she’s feeling good about her game. When she’s that way, she normally plays well.”

With one of the most well-rounded games in women’s golf, Ko enters this week among the favorites to win. SkyBet has Inbee Park as the favorite at 13/2 with Ko and Stacy Lewis each at 11/1.

Though Ko just turned 18 in April, there’s rich anticipation every time she tees it up in a major championship. There’s also heightened pressure to make that first victory in a major historic. She’s already the youngest player to win an LPGA event. She has three chances left this summer to become the youngest winner of a major, to eclipse the mark Morgan Pressel set when she won the Kraft Nabisco at 18 years, 10 months and 9 days old.

Though it seems excessive loading that expectation on Ko, Leadbetter understands the fuss. She’s the most accomplished teen phenom ever to play the game.

“What’s the next step for Lydia?” Leadbetter said. “It’s to win majors. It’s brought up at every press conference she has. She knows it. I think she’s gotten a little too hyped up for the last two majors, and she’s trying to be more low key this week. A lot’s expected of her. I think she’s saying, `I’m just going to make this week like it’s a regular tournament,’ instead of getting bent out of shape about it.”

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Ko is off to another big year with three worldwide victories. She’s having a year just about any woman but Inbee Park would trade for, but Ko hasn’t been at her best in this year’s majors. She tied for 51st at the ANA Inspiration and missed the cut at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship. Those are her worst performances this season. She saw her record-tying streak of 29 consecutive rounds under par end at ANA, and she missed her first cut ever in an LPGA event at the Women’s PGA last month.

“It’s going to happen for Lydia,” Leadbetter said. “For me, it’s not a case of if. It’s a case of when.

“She’s just too good. She has a perfect game for the majors, and there’s no reason it can’t happen this week.”

Leadbetter deals with pressure, too. And he hears criticism with Ko missing the cut at the Women’s PGA. There was some over-the-top worry in social media circles when Ko went four consecutive events without a top-15 finish before tying for sixth in her last start at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.

Ko closed out Walmart with a 63.

“I didn't play well the last couple of weeks [before that], but it was great to finish with a low score on Sunday in Arkansas,” Ko said. “That gave me a lot of confidence coming into this week. And I know that I'm hitting the ball good, that I can be confident and just trust my game.”

Ko’s record since taking up with Leadbetter and his assistant, Sean Hogan, has been terrific. Since making the move 18 months ago, she has won six times. She also moved to Rolex world No. 1 under their watchful eyes, reigning there for 19 weeks. She’s No. 2 today.

Predictably, Ko’s sluggish month launched questions about whether Leadbetter should have changed her favored ball flight from a fade to a draw.

“Look, you’re always going to get that,” Leadbetter said. “She hasn’t played to her normal standard for a month, and all of a sudden you start hearing she’s in a slump and her swing isn’t working. They cut Phil Mickelson more slack than they allow her.

“The changes have actually been subtle, and she’s hitting the ball probably 15-20 yards farther than she was a year ago. That’s a big plus in today’s game. She’s not short now. She’s sort of medium long now where before she was medium at best. The changes we made were so she could draw the ball. Look, she’s not a big girl, so left to right isn’t going to maximize her distance.”

Ko came to Leadbetter and Hogan with a shut face at the top of her swing. They changed her to a more neutral grip to get her square at the top. It’s allowed her to hit the consistent draw she wanted and to gain the extra distance she wanted, but her miss has become a hard, pulling draw to the left.

“With the right to left, there’s a tendency, at times, where the club can drop beneath the plane and she can get too much of a draw shape, but overall I would say the benefits far outweigh the negatives,” Leadbetter said. “She’s happy with the draw, and the swing looks great.”

Ko leads the LPGA in hitting greens in regulation this season.

“There are always naysayers,” Leadbetter said. “That’s the way it is in the world. So, hey, you know what? I don’t really care what other people think. I care what she thinks and about the results. And the results have been pretty darn good since we started working together.”

Ko takes it all in with an equanimity belying her youth.

“Obviously, there are going to be days where I'm going to play good golf, but then at the end of the day there are going to be some where I don't get what I want,” Ko said. “You just have to kind of go with it. Golf is a game where we're going to play for many, many years. So there is going to be the good, but there are going to be some days where it won't be the way you want it to be.”

Ko could make this Sunday more than a good day. She could make a historic day.

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Hadwin returns to site of last year's 59

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 11:04 pm

Adam Hadwin had a career season last year, one that included shooting a 59 and winning a PGA Tour event. But those two achievements didn't occur in the same week.

While Hadwin's breakthrough victory came at the Valspar Championship in March, it was at the CareerBuilder Challenge in January when he first made headlines with a third-round 59 at La Quinta Country Club. Hadwin took a lead into the final round as a result, but he ultimately couldn't keep pace with Hudson Swafford.

He went on to earn a spot at the Tour Championship, and Hadwin made his first career Presidents Cup appearance in October. Now the Canadian returns to Palm Springs, eager to improve on last year's result and hoping to earn a spot in the final group for a third straight year after a T-6 finish in 2016.

"A lot of good memories here in the desert," Hadwin told reporters. "I feel very comfortable here, very at home. Lots of Canadians, so it's always fun to play well in front of those crowds and hopefully looking forward to another good week."

Hadwin's 59 last year was somewhat overshadowed, both by the fact that he didn't win the event and that it came just one week after Justin Thomas shot a 59 en route to victory at the Sony Open. But he's still among an exclusive club of just eight players to have broken 60 in competition on Tour and he's eager to get another crack at La Quinta on Saturday.

"If I'm in the same position on 18, I'm gunning for 58 this year," Hadwin said, "not playing safe for 59."

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Rahm: If I thought like Phil, I could not hit a shot

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 10:39 pm

When it comes to Jon Rahm and Phil Mickelson, there are plenty of common bonds. Both starred at Arizona State, both are now repped by the same agency and Rahm's former college coach and agent, Tim Mickelson, now serves full-time as his brother's caddie.

Those commonalities mean the two men have played plenty of practice rounds together, but the roads quickly diverge when it comes to on-course behavior. Rahm is quick, fiery and decisive; Mickelson is one of the most analytical players on Tour. And as Rahm told reporters Wednesday at the CareerBuilder Challenge, those differences won't end anytime soon.

"I don't need much. 'OK, it's like 120 (yards), this shot, right," Rahm said. "And then you have Phil, it's like, 'Oh, this shot, the moisture, this going on, this is like one mile an hour wind sideways, it's going to affect it one yard. This green is soft, this trajectory. They're thinking, and I'm like, 'I'm lost.' I'm like, 'God if I do that thought process, I could not hit a golf shot.'"

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The tactics may be more simplified, but Rahm can't argue with the results. While Mickelson is in the midst of a winless drought that is approaching five years, Rahm won three times around the world last year and will defend a PGA Tour title for the first time next week at Torrey Pines.

Both men are in the field this week in Palm Springs, where Mickelson will make his 2018 debut with what Rahm fully expects to be another dose of high-level analytics for the five-time major winner with his brother on the bag.

"It's funny, he gets to the green and then it's the same thing. He's very detail-oriented," Rahm said of Mickelson. "I'm there listening and I'm like, 'Man, I hope we're never paired together for anything because I can't think like this. I would not be able to play golf like that. But for me to listen to all that is really fun."

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DJ changes tune on golf ball distance debate

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 9:16 pm

World No. 1 Dustin Johnson is already one of the longest hitters in golf, so he's not looking for any changes to be made to golf ball technology - despite comments from him that hinted at just such a notion two months ago.

Johnson is in the Middle East this week for the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and he told BBC Sport Wednesday that he wouldn't be in favor of making changes to the golf ball in order to remedy some of the eye-popping distances players are hitting the ball with ever-increasing frequency.

"It's not like we are dominating golf courses," Johnson said. "When was the last time you saw someone make the game too easy? I don't really understand what all the debate is about because it doesn't matter how far it goes; it is about getting it in the hole."

Johnson's rhetorical question might be answered simply by looking back at his performance at the Sentry Tournament of Champions earlier this month, an eight-shot romp that featured a tee shot on the 433-yard 12th hole that bounded down a slope to within inches of the hole.

Johnson appeared much more willing to consider a reduced-distance ball option at the Hero World Challenge in November, when he sat next to tournament host Tiger Woods and supported Woods' notion that the ball should be addressed.

"I don't mind seeing every other professional sport, they play with one ball. All the pros play with the same ball," Johnson said. "In baseball, the guys that are bigger and stronger, they can hit a baseball a lot further than the smaller guys. ... I think there should be some kind of an advantage for guys who work on hitting it far and getting that speed that's needed, so having a ball, like the same ball that everyone plays, there's going to be, you're going to have more of an advantage."

Speaking Wednesday in Abu Dhabi, Johnson stood by the notion that regardless of whether the rules change or stay the same, he plans to have a leg up on the competition.

"If the ball is limited then it is going to limit everyone," he said. "I'm still going to hit it that much further than I guess the average Tour player."

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LPGA lists April date for new LA event

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 17, 2018, 8:18 pm

The LPGA’s return to Los Angeles will come with the new Hugel-JTBC Open being played at Wilshire Country Club April 19-22, the tour announced Wednesday.

When the LPGA originally released its schedule, it listed the Los Angeles event with the site to be announced at a later date.

The Hugel-JTBC Open will feature a 144-player field and a $1.5 million purse. It expands the tour’s West Coast swing, which will now be made up of four events in California in March and April.

The LPGA last played in Los Angeles in 2005. Wilshire Country Club hosted The Office Depot in 2001, with Annika Sorenstam winning there.