No. 1 ranking fuels Park's confidence

By Randall MellJuly 8, 2015, 1:37 pm

LANCASTER, Pa. – Familiarity breeds ... comfort?

That’s the way it is for Rolex world No. 1 Inbee Park.

Park says being No. 1 for 76 weeks over the last three seasons and being in the hunt in so many major championships over that span are making her a lot more comfortable under pressure.

She arrived at the U.S. Women’s Open this week as the clear betting favorite with SkyBet setting the odds on her at 13/2. Lydia Ko and Stacy Lewis are next at 11/1.

Park is blazing a history-making trail in majors these days, and she’ll be looking to continue it at Lancaster Country Club, where the difficult green complexes, with their humps and swales, make even short putts adventurous. As one of the best putters the women’s game has ever seen, that should suit Park well.

Park, 26, is looking to win back-to-back majors after claiming the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship a month ago. It was her fifth major championship triumph over the last 12 majors played. She’s going for her seventh major championship title overall, a feat that would move her into a tie for seventh on the all-time list behind only Patty Berg (15), Mickey Wright (13), Louise Suggs (11), Annika Sorenstam (10), Babe Zaharias (10) and Betsy Rawls (8).

Back as a 19-year-old, Park made her first mark on the professional game in a major. She won the U.S. Women’s Open at Interlachen, her first victory as a pro. She won her second U.S. Women’s Open at Sebonack two years ago, back when she won the first three majors of that year, a feat nobody had achieved since Zaharias in 1950.

U.S. Women's Open: Articles, video and photos

“I am good at the tough golf courses,” Park said. “I am good under pressure. I just try to keep talking to myself that way, to try to give myself confidence coming into the major championships. I think that's how it's really worked the last few years. And I try to just keep that going.”

Park’s overall major championship record is impressive. In 35 majors played as a pro, she has finished in the top 10 in 19 of them. She has missed the cut in just one.

“I think it's so much fun being in contention in major championships, in the final rounds, when you play for the trophy,” she said. “I just had so much fun at KPMG, where I knew I had the lead in the final round, and I never really let it go.”

Park didn’t make a bogey over the final 56 holes in winning the KPMG Women’s PGA at Westchester Country Club.

Park is in her third reign at No. 1. She has learned to be comfortable with the extra scrutiny that comes with it.

“When I first became the No. 1 player in the world, I felt a lot more pressure,” Park said. “I felt like I have to show something to other people, that I'm the No. 1 player. I felt a little bit like maybe I'm not in a good spot. I felt more comfortable in the No. 2 spot. The second time I was there, I felt a little more comfortable, and I thought maybe I can probably treat this somewhat similar to No. 1, 2 and 3. But now, it's my third time being here, and I don't feel that much pressure anymore.

“I feel like No. 1 or 2, what's the difference? I'm just playing good golf. I don't need to show anybody anything. I just try to play my own golf and just not try to do something for other people. The more that I experience it, you're just another golfer." 

For Park, there were lessons in what she was feeling as she gained and lost the No. 1 ranking.

“The No. 1 spot, there's nowhere else to go but down,” she said. “So, you're going to come down at some point. But you don't have to be scared to go down, I don't think. That's the only place you can go. What you're trying to do is just stay there as long as you can. I'll have a time where I'm going to go down, as well. I'm just not going to be scared for that. I'm just going to try to enjoy while I'm here.”

Park actually learned to deal with pressure when she wasn’t playing well. Brad Beecher, her long-time caddie, saw that in the struggles Park endured trying to live up to expectations after she won her first major in 2008. Park had a top-10 finish the week after her U.S. Women’s Open victory at Interlachen and then went 14 months without another top-10.

The scrutiny on Park in that swoon was intense back in her South Korean homeland.

“She took that pretty hard,” Beecher said. “That stretch, there was just so much pressure on her, but she picked herself back up.”

Beecher says Park’s demeanor in majors is a vital part of what makes her so good in them.

“The way she handles herself, the way she stays so level, there’s a charisma in that,” Beecher said. “No matter what happens, she’s the same.”

While Park is renowned for her putting, she has become one of the most consistent ball strikers in the women’s game.

“Three years ago, it seemed like she was just riding her putter,” Stacy Lewis said. “That was pretty obvious. She was making putts from everywhere. Over the last year, I don’t think her putting has been as good, but her ball-striking has gotten better. She gets hot with her putter now, with her good ball-striking, it’s a pretty deadly combination.”

Park was 16th on tour in hitting greens in regulation when she won three majors in 2013. She’s fifth in GIR this year.

Park is coming off a missed cut in her last start at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship, but she wasn’t overly concerned. It was her first missed cut in 27 starts.

“My ball striking was still great,” Park said. “I putted really badly two weeks ago. That definitely gave me somewhat of a wake-up, because I haven't really had a bad tournament or a really bad week this year. That definitely made me practice harder and gave me a lot more motivation coming into this week. So hopefully that's going to work nicely playing this week.”

Getty Images

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.

Getty Images

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.

Getty Images

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.

Getty Images

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.