LPGA celebrates another stellar season, bright future

By Randall MellNovember 24, 2015, 7:30 pm

Lydia Ko put her youthful mark on another LPGA season.

Inbee Park made 2015 a Hall of Fame year.

While these two players continued to emerge as friendly rivals, there were plenty of other compelling storylines worth revisiting with 17-year-old Brooke Henderson winning in Portland, with Solheim Cup controversy erupting in Germany, with rookie Sei Young Kim leading yet another new wave of South Koreans, and with one of the strongest rookie classes in tour history announcing its arrival in bold terms.

“It’s been a special year for the tour,” Ko said. “It's not like the spotlight has been on two or three players. I think we've had so many multiple winners. It's been really exciting.”

Ko, Park and Cristie Kerr took the drama in 2015 to the final hole in the final event of the year with the CME Group Tour Championship, Race to the CME Globe and multiple season-long awards decided Sunday in the season’s closing scene.

“For it to come down to the last hole, last group, last putt, it's been a great season on the LPGA,” Ko said.

Ko, 18, put an exclamation point on 2015’s youth movement theme. With so much attention on how young the men’s game is becoming, the women’s is even younger.

Ko became the youngest player to reach Rolex world No. 1 in February, the youngest to win a major championship in September, the youngest to collect a 10th LPGA title in October and the youngest to win the Rolex Player of the Year Award and LPGA money title Sunday in Naples, Fla.

“I don't think she's the age she is,” said Kerr, who became the oldest winner this season claiming the CME Group Tour Championship a month after her 38th birthday. “Lydia is such an old soul. It’s hard to believe she's that young.  She's been winning tournaments since she was 13 or 14 out here. What is she now, 18?  I'm over twice her age. That's crazy.”

Ko’s 63 in the final round to win the Evian Championship was a masterpiece, seven shots better than anyone else among the last 18 players off on that Sunday.

Ko isn’t alone making the women’s game feel so young.

Henderson became the third youngest winner of an LPGA event when she captured the Cambia Portland Classic as a Monday qualifier a month before her 18th birthday. She joined Ko and Lexi Thompson as the only players commissioner Mike Whan has granted waivers of the LPGA’s rule requiring members to be at least 18. Henderson made a strong impression winning her tour card without going to Q-School. She played on sponsor exemptions and Monday qualifiers. She excelled on big stages, tying for fifth in a pair of majors, the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship and the U.S. Women’s Open.

Rookie Minjee Lee won the Kingsmill Championship at 18.

In Gee Chun won the U.S. Women’s Open at 19.

The average age of the top 10 men in the world rankings is 32.6 years old. The average of the top 10 women is 23.5.

If Chun had claimed LPGA membership after her victory at Lancaster Country Club in July, six of the top 17 players in the Rolex women’s world rankings today would be LPGA rookies. It speaks to the strength of this year’s rookie class with rookies winning six titles.

Chun is already No. 8 in the world, and she won’t hit her first shot as an LPGA rookie until next season. That speaks to how strong the new wave of South Koreans continues to be.

Chun’s U.S. Women’s Open victory marked the sixth time in the last eight years that a South Korean won the most prestigious championship in women’s golf. Sei Young Kim won three times this season to become the fourth South Korean-born player in the last five years to win the Rolex Rookie of the Year Award. Kim’s win at the Lotte Championship in Hawaii goes down as the most spectacular finish in 2015. After hitting her approach in the water at the 72nd hole, she chipped in for par to force a playoff with Inbee Park. And then she holed an 8-iron from 154 yards for eagle to win on the first sudden-death hole. 

Park, of course, continues to be the undisputed leader of the South Korean contingent. Her five victories in 2015 equaled Ko as most on tour. Park’s two major championships this season were each memorable.

At the inaugural Women’s PGA at Westchester Country Club in June, the LPGA couldn’t have asked for a better winner. The event is a rebranding of the LPGA Championship. Whan wanted the LPGA Championship’s history kept intact, so the trophy and past champions and records are all preserved as part of this new collaboration with the PGA. That’s why Park was a perfect winner. With Park in the hunt early, the large storyline became whether she could “threepeat,” whether she could join Annika Sorenstam as the only players in the 61-year history of the event to win three consecutive years. Park pulled it off. Her “threepeat” helped connect the Women’s PGA to its LPGA Championship foundation. Park also won the Ricoh Women’s British Open, celebrated by the LPGA and by Park as the completion of her career Grand Slam.

In Naples Sunday, Park, 27, secured the Vare Trophy for low scoring average, a feat made especially meaningful because it came with the one LPGA Hall of Fame point Park needed to meet the points-based requirement to qualify for induction. When Park completes her 10th season as an active player next year, she’ll fulfill all the HOF criteria and become the youngest player ever inducted into the LPGA Hall of Fame.

Brittany Lincicome took a big leap in 2015, back into Poppie’s Pond after winning the ANA Inspiration. She eagled the 72nd hole, just like she did six years ago at Mission Hills. This time, though, she had to prevail in a playoff, beating Stacy Lewis.  

Count Juli Inkster as a big winner this year, too, leading the United States’ Solheim Cup team to victory in Germany in historic fashion. They overcame a 10-6 deficit Sunday, becoming the first team to come back from being four or more points behind going into Sunday singles.

The American victory resonated far and wide in great part due to the controversy that erupted over what may be remembered as the “phantom concession,” the furor that erupted Sunday morning when American Alison Lee scooped up a short putt on the 17th green saying she thought the Europeans conceded it. Suzann Pettersen alerted the rules official the putt wasn’t conceded, thrusting Pettersen into the middle of an international squabble over whether Pettersen violated the “spirit of the game” with unsportsmanlike conduct. Pettersen would end up apologizing, but not without enduring severe public backlash.

Ko, Park and Sei Young Kim weren’t the only multiple winners in 2015. Kerr, Lexi Thompson and Na Yeon Choi each won twice.

Lewis didn’t win an event for the first time in five years, but she won more money without a victory in a single season than any player in LPGA history. She won $1,893,423 thanks in great measure to six second-place finishes and three third-place finishes.

Michelle Wie was also winless, failing to follow up on her U.S. Women’s Open and Lotte Championship victories in 2014. A little sickness at year’s start, a lot of injuries in the middle of the year and a little too much tinkering with her swing through it all led to a long year without a single top-10 finish.

The season offered up a lot of promising answers as to where this tour is headed, but it ends with questions, too. Can Ko get even better? Will Park remain on a major march to more history? Is Thompson or Sei Young Kim ready to contend for No. 1? Will Lewis turn frustrating seconds into firsts? Is Henderson ready to join Ko and Thompson as the game’s best young stars?

The answers to those questions and more are about two months away from beginning to form.

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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.

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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.