Ko coping with increased scrutiny in victory or defeat

By Randall MellFebruary 20, 2016, 7:04 pm

Lydia Ko’s back in the crosshairs again.

That’s what life is like when you’re the Rolex world No. 1 and you put yourself in position to win almost every week. Ko moved into position yet again Saturday at the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open, climbing one shot off the lead going into the final round.

If Ko wins, it’s another big story. It would be her second victory in a row and her fifth in her last 10 worldwide starts.

If she doesn’t win, it’s a big story, too.

That’s the growing challenge for Ko going into Sunday’s final round at The Grange Golf Club in South Australia. That’s how things are changing the more successful she becomes. That’s the burden of expectation the great ones carry.

At 18 years old, Ko is carrying that burden a lot earlier than anyone has ever carried it.

There’s more success when you’re on top of the mountain, but there’s a lot more failure, too.

Huh? How’s that?

Yes, relatively speaking, there’s more failure the better you become in professional golf, because so many more of the shots Ko hits are scrutinized by galleries, TV viewers and analysts than shots hit by her peers. It’s the nature of the beast when you’re No. 1 or near the top of so many leaderboards.

Every player misses shots, but when you’re Ko, Inbee Park or Stacy Lewis, people see a lot more of your misses. There is a tiny death in a big miss for those players, especially in misses that lead to the ultimate failure, the failure to win.

When you’ve proven yourself as gifted as Ko, good shots are expected, winning is expected.

That’s why bad shots are like tiny deaths. They’re subject to rigorous post-mortem analyses, to video being rewound to examine how every wayward swing went wrong.

So when you’re Ko, Park and Lewis, if you’re not careful, you can see a lot of folks carrying scalpels, ready to cut and dissect.

Of course, it’s a lot worse in the men’s game because the interest is even more intense. That’s also the added challenge for Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy and the best of the best today. Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer didn’t get that in the same way, not that they wouldn’t have handled it as brilliantly as they did everything else. There just wasn’t the same intense scrutiny, not as much media and no unrelenting waves of blogs and tweets.

Sean Foley, Tiger Woods’ former coach, observed this phenomenon at its most intense.

Foley nailed it when he said we subject Woods to “daily referendums.” Nobody has faced the kind of scrutiny Woods does. Obviously, with Ko, it’s nowhere near the same intensity, but it’s still becoming something of a weekly referendum.

While LPGA pros don’t get the same valued TV time slots the men get, or the same audiences, they’re playing more live TV events than they’ve ever played before.

This is Ko’s third start this year, and she has given herself a chance to win going into the final round of all three. Two weeks ago, Ko took a share of the 54-hole lead into her first LPGA start of the year at the Coates Golf Championship and uncharacteristically collapsed with three consecutive bogeys and then a double bogey in the middle of her round. Ultimately, she rallied to tie for third.

Last weekend, Ko successfully defended her title winning the New Zealand Women’s Open, but with no other player in the field among the top 70 in the world, there was some dismissiveness over the fact that she only won by two shots and some concern that her ball striking’s not quite right.

You know you’re reaching rarified air when even your victories aren’t good enough.

So that leads to Sunday in Australia, where a victory will make Ko’s weekly referendum favorable and anything less will make it unfavorable, possibly even troubling if there’s another Coates-like stumble. You think that’s overstated? Ask Yani Tseng how the No. 1 ranking skewed everything for her.

Ko got herself into contention Saturday in Australia with a fast start, making four consecutive birdies to being her round. She shot 68 despite hitting just four fairways. Karrie Webb hit all 14 fairways. That’s something to keep an eye in the weekly referendum, because one of Ko’s stated goals starting this year was that she wanted to hit more fairways.

Swing coach David Leadbetter feels the scrutiny, too, even with all the success the two have enjoyed over the last two years. He knew what it would be like when he and his assistant, Sean Hogan, signed up with Ko.

“In the beginning, to be honest, we were a little reluctant to take her on, because it was a case of you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” Leadbetter told GolfChannel.com at the end of last year. “If she played well, she was supposed to play well. If she played badly, well, then it’s `You guys screwed up.’

“I went through that with Nick Faldo. It was `Who the hell are you to mess up our golden boy?’ It’s always a bit of a risk, but you have to take a little bit of risk in life sometimes.”

For such a tender age, Ko handles these burdens of expectation with remarkable grace. She seems to get that unreasonable expectations are just that. They’re unreasonable. They aren’t worth fretting over.

While expectations can create resentment, Ko shows no signs of feeling that way. She deflects them with the skill of an Aikido master.

“To see some of the headlines, you kind of don’t know what to think about it,” Ko said when her game was slightly off early last year. “I try not to think about it, because at the end of the day, we’re all trying to play our best out here. That’s all we can do.”

The “referendum” nature of evaluating top players today may seem unfair, but it’s actually part of the game’s appeal. The more intense the scrutiny of a player’s game, the more intense the interest is in a player. That’s a good thing for the game, better for the game when a popular player learns to cope.

Ko’s coping skills seem as highly advanced as her golf skills.

That’s good for her, and it’s good for the game.

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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.