Lexi-Lydia: An 'L' of a matchup

By Randall MellOctober 16, 2015, 3:43 pm

Lexi Thompson is on a nice little roll.

Now if she can just get past Lydia Ko ...

Thompson is turning up her game in this second half of the season, showing off the hard work she has put into her wedge game and putting. She won the Meijer Classic at the end of July, finished second at the Evian Championship a month ago. She has posted four top-10 finishes in her last six starts, and then there was her undefeated Solheim Cup performance.

Thompson’s game is in a good place, and that’s where it needs to be with another weekend date with Ko set up.

Ko is the hottest player in the women’s game, poised to return to Rolex world No. 1 with a strong finish this weekend at the LPGA KEB Hana Bank Championship in South Korea. Ko won the Canadian Pacific Women’s Open in late August and then won her next start, the Evian Championship, in September, becoming the youngest woman to win a major. In her next start after that, she tied for second in Malaysia last week. Ko has finished T-3 or better in five of her last six starts.

With a big finish this weekend, Ko could leave South Korea with the No. 1 ranking and as the LPGA’s leader in the race for Rolex Player of the Year points, for the Vare Trophy for low scoring average, money winnings and CME Globe points.


Scores: LPGA KEB Hana Bank Championship


“If there is a switch, the media is going to talk about it,” Ko said. “But, you know, I'm sorry, but I'm going to try and ignore you guys. I think that's the best way. Because when I'm out there, I'm just trying to hit a good shot and put myself in good position. If I thought about the rankings, the awards, it's just way too much. It's hard enough just trying to hit the ball straight out there.”

That brings us to this weekend and Thompson.

This young dynamic duo appears on another collision course, and that’s a good deal for women’s golf.

Ko, 18, and Thompson, 20, dueled head to head in the final round at Evian, but Ko was otherworldly. Two behind Thompson on that Sunday morning in France, Ko closed with a awe-inspiring 63. She hit every green in regulation but one. She posted a score seven shots better than anyone among the final 18 players teeing off in the final round. While it isn’t the lowest score a woman has ever shot in a major, it has to be the greatest round a woman’s ever played in one.

If you’re a late bird who likes women’s golf, you’ve got a treat in store tonight. Ko and Thompson are paired together in the final group off at the Sky 72 Ocean Course in Incheon. Ko’s 7-under-par 65 Friday moved her to the top of the leaderboard, a shot ahead of Thompson, who posted 67. Ko made her move playing alongside Rolex world No. 1 Inbee Park.

Ko and Thompson are scheduled to tee off the third round at 10:42 p.m. ET with Golf Channel picking up live coverage at 11:30 p.m.

“Every time you have to go up against any top player out here, Inbee, Lydia, Stacy [Lewis], you know you have to bring your A-game,” Thompson said. “You know you have to top them with birdies and make more birdies when they make pars. They are not going to make mistakes so you just have to keep on making birdies on them.”

Ko and Thompson know each other well. When Ko won the Canadian Women’s Open at 15 to become the youngest winner of an LPGA event, she broke the mark set by Thompson, who won when she was 16.

“I’ve played with Lydia a lot on the LPGA tour, and when she was younger in the Australian Masters and Australian Open,” Thompson said. “I knew she was going to be a great talent coming up the first time I ever played with her. She has an overall, very strong game. Not many weaknesses, great ball-striker, kind of sneaky long and putts it and chips it like God.”

Ko is first in scoring average on tour this year. Thompson is fourth. Ko is first in hitting greens in regulation, Thompson is third.

Of course, Ko and Thompson play different games. Ko is a tactical master, charting her way around golf courses so precisely. Thompson is a big hitter who can play bomb and gouge better than just about any other woman in the game. She has put a lot of work into her wedge game, and it’s showing in all those greens she’s hitting in regulation.

Saturday in Incheon could be fun.

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 Web.com 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 Web.com 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.