PHOENIX – The world No. 1 ranking can be a heavy weight.
It can be an onerous satchel of expectations the longer a player carries it, twisting reality to where winning is more relief than joy.
Lydia Ko carries the No. 1 ranking into the Bank of Hope Founders Cup this week, the 73rd week in a row she has been on top.
Only Lorena Ochoa (158) and Yani Tseng (109) have carried it over more consecutive weeks.
There was wear and tear in that long haul for both Ochoa and Tseng.
Ochoa retired with the No. 1 ranking to start a family, but you could see the effects of all the expectations on her at the end. While she was always a model of grace under pressure, Ochoa fought some growing frustration toward the end that she never really showed before.
Tseng conceded she nearly buckled under the pressure that grew so onerous near the end of her two-year run at No. 1.
“It just drove me crazy,” Tseng said back when she lost the top ranking. “Annika Sorenstam told me that world No. 1 is the loneliest place on the earth. As it becomes longer at No. 1, I feel more and more pressure.”
The men aren’t immune.
“I’ve never been more stressed in my life than right now,” Jason Day said on the eve of last year’s U.S. Open at Oakmont. “It’s just because being No. 1 in the world, having a lot of expectations on you, having to practice so hard to keep that No. 1 spot, trying to win as many tournaments as you can puts a lot of stress and pressure on your shoulders.”
Day carried the top ranking for 51 weeks before relinquishing it to Dustin Johnson a month ago.
Ko’s smile belies the idea that the No. 1 ranking comes with any extra pressure, because though she’s still a teenager at 19, she seems to enjoy the responsibilities that come with the top ranking as much as anyone ever has.
If you ask her about the pressure, Ko will tell you she deals with it by making the No. 1 ranking more a journey than a destination.
“There are expectations because you are the No. 1-ranked player, that you should play well every day, that you should be in contention every week,” Ko said. “I would love that, and I’m working towards being more consistent week in and week out.
“I’ve been thankful and lucky to have such a supportive team that has really helped me to stay in the moment that is coming up, what’s right in front, rather than think about what has happened and what might happen.”
There’s help in that thinking this week, because the pressure on Ko to stay on top is intensifying with her lead in the world rankings shrinking.
When Ko won the Marathon Classic last July, her world-ranking average moved to 15.47 points, which was 7.10 ahead of No. 2 Brooke Henderson.
After eight winless months, Ko’s average has shrunk to 9.69 points, which is just 1.89 ahead of No. 2 Ariya Jutanugarn.
The strength of field won’t be finalized until Thursday’s play begins at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup, but Jutanugarn is within striking distance of finally overtaking Ko.
How does Ko deal with the mounting challenges from players behind her?
“I think more about how I can get better results in a tournament, rather than how can I keep my ranking,” Ko said. “All I can do is try my best. If somebody ends up playing better, that’s totally out of my hands. It’s a good way to think about things.”
Ko said she tries not to focus on the big picture, on winning or the No. 1 ranking. She focuses on the details that fill out the big picture.
“I don’t set how many tournaments I want to win as a goal for the year,” Ko said. “I set how many more fairways I want to hit, and how many more greens I want to hit. If those improve, naturally, my results will improve.”
That might explain why Ko made the sweeping changes in her game coming into this season.
A new coach (Gary Gilchrist), new equipment (PXG) and a new caddie (Gary Matthews) are details she hopes will end her eight-month winless spell.
Karen Stupples, the 2004 Women’s British Open champ and Golf Channel analyst, believes Ko’s changes are a reaction to the pressure other players are applying.
“They want to be No. 1, and they’re improving and getting better all the time,” Stupples said. “It’s hard as a player to sit there and watch the new players coming up, chasing you down, without thinking, `I need to do something to my own game. I need to get better. I need to improve.’”
Ko says her changes are all about improving, regardless where she ranks.