Fellow young guns aiming for Ko's No. 1 ranking

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2016, 1:00 pm

With so many young challengers coming at her this year, Lydia Ko did more than hold on to the Rolex World No. 1 ranking from year’s start to finish.

She kept a stranglehold on it.

While Ko, 19, is looking forward to some rest after a long season – she plans to take the rest of the year off – there will be some work to do in January to hold off all the young talent aiming to take the No. 1 ranking from her.

Ko’s reign atop the Rolex world rankings has reached 76 weeks, the last 57 in a row.

Even with Ariya Jutanugarn’s breakthrough charge this season, with In Gee Chun, Brooke Henderson, Lexi Thompson, Ha Na Jang, Sung Hyun Park and now maybe even Charley Hull coming for her, Ko still holds a commanding lead in the world rankings.

Even with her a swoon over the last two months, Ko ends this LPGA season with a 4.23 average world-ranking point lead on Jutanugarn, which is about the same lead No. 2 Jutanugarn holds over No. 18 Charley Hull.

It’s a testament to how consistently excellent Ko has been over the two-year rolling window used to measure performance in the Rolex rankings. In 50 worldwide starts over that span, Ko has 33 top-10 finishes, 11 of them victories.

Ko’s world rankings lead may remain strong, but her late-season form makes her look vulnerable going into the offseason.

At the start of the Asian swing in October, Ko led the Rolex Player of the Year race, the CME Globe standings, the Vare Trophy and the money-winning list.

But she didn’t walk away with any of those awards leaving CME Group Tour Championship Sunday in Naples, Fla.

“I started with a bang,” Ko said of the 2016 season. “I played really well and got my second major. Just so many highs. The Olympics was the biggest goal of mine coming into this year. I got to compete in that and become a medalist. So many dreams came true.

“It may hurt right now about what happened, but I still feel like it's been an awesome season. I'll give myself an A-plus.”

There were mental challenges after Ko won the silver medal at the Olympics in August, with her coaches seeing fatigue and perhaps a natural letdown after Rio de Janeiro. When Ko arrived for the Evian Championship in September, swing coach David Leadbetter said Ko looked like she had “nothing left in the tank.” She was also inundated that week with obligations as the defending champion and world No. 1.

There was some emotional tumult, too, late in the year, with Ko splitting with caddie Jason Hamilton after the HanaBank Championship on the Asian swing. Hamilton had been on her bag almost two full seasons. Ko plays best when she’s loose and free and comfortable in her playing bubble. She likes to talk and interact when she’s between the ropes.

Leadbetter and Sean Hogan, who also teaches Ko, began to see something else on the Asian swing.

They saw Ko’s takeaway in her swing getting flatter. She was on her own through most of the Asian swing, with her father accompanying. Hogan flew in for the HanaBank South Korean event, and he said fatigue seemed to be seeping into her swing. At the CME Group Tour Championship, it was obvious Ko had been tinkering, moving away from that more upright takeaway. Her backswing had become flatter than it was at the Olympics.

In fact, after the first round in Naples, Leadbetter showed Ko a videotape of her hole-in-one in Rio de Janeiro, specifically to show her the steeper plane on her backswing in Rio.

Leadbetter tried to coax the steeper takeaway back into her swing in Naples, and she put up that 62 in the second round, though her backswing still didn’t look as steep as what she took to the Olympics.

“Essentially, she had been drifting away from some basics,” Leadbetter said. “It happens to players. They aren’t playing as well as they like, and they start trying different things. Her plane had gotten a little flat.”

It’s something Leadbetter, Hogan and Ko are sure to be addressing in the offseason, because Ko’s iron play wasn’t sharp ending the year.

“That’s the thing that’s been lacking,” Leadbetter said. “Her iron play is her bread and butter.”

Ko hit 50 greens in regulation for the week in Naples. So Yeon Ryu, whom Ko played with in Saturday’s round, hit 60 greens on the week. In Gee Chun, who beat out Ko for the Vare Trophy in a head-to-head duel on Sunday, hit 57 greens.

Ko dropped to 31st in hitting greens in regulation this year. She was second last year, seventh as a rookie.

For now, though, Ko is looking forward to re-charging her batteries with some R&R. She’ll need it with so many young stars looking to see if they can end her long run at No. 1.

“I am planning not to touch my clubs, or look at them for the next month,” Ko said leaving Naples on Sunday. “I've looked at them for the last 11 months. I think they're sick of me, too. I say this, but I don't know what I would do without golf. That's how much I like it. But I think a little bit of time off is going to be fun.”

That huge lead she has built in the Rolex rankings should give her comfort as she rests and regroups through the offseason.

Getty Images

What's in the bag: CareerBuilder winner Rahm

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 22, 2018, 10:37 pm

Jon Rahm defeated Andrew Landry in a playoff to earn his second PGA Tour title at the CareerBuilder Challenge. Here's what's in his bag:

Driver: TaylorMade M4 (9.5 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft

Fairway wood: TaylorMade M3 (19 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft

Irons: TaylorMade P790 (3), P750 (4-PW), with Project X 6.5 shafts

Wedges: TaylorMade Milled Grind (52, 56 degrees), Milled Grind Hi-Toe (60 degrees), with Project X 6.5 shafts

Putter: TaylorMade Spider Tour Red

Ball: TaylorMade TP5x

Getty Images

Strange irked by Rahm-Landry friendly playoff

By Jason CrookJanuary 22, 2018, 9:45 pm

Curtis Strange knows a thing or two about winning golf tournaments, and based on his reaction to the CareerBuilder Challenge playoff on Sunday, it’s safe to say he did things a little differently while picking up 17 PGA Tour victories in his Hall-of-Fame career.

While Jon Rahm and Andrew Landry were “battling” through four extra holes, Strange, 62, tweeted his issues with the duo’s constant chit-chat and friendly banter down the stretch at La Quinta Country Club, where Rahm eventually came out on top.

The two-time U.S. Open champ then engaged with some followers to explain his point a little more in depth.

So, yeah ... don't think he's changing his perspective on this topic anytime soon ever.

Getty Images

Randall's Rant: The Euros won't just roll over

By Randall MellJanuary 22, 2018, 9:36 pm

The Ryder Cup may not be the King Kong of golf events yet, but you can hear the biennial international team event thumping its chest a full eight months out.

As anticipation for this year’s big events goes, there is more buzz about Europe’s bid to hold off a rejuvenated American effort in Paris in September than there is about the Masters coming up in April.

Thank Europe’s phenomenal success last weekend for that.

And Rory McIlroy’s impassioned remarks in Abu Dhabi.

And the provocative bulletin board material a certain Sports Illustrated writer provided the Europeans a couple months ago, with a stinging assault on the Euro chances that read like an obituary.

McIlroy was asked in a news conference before his 2018 debut last week what he was most excited about this year.

The Ryder Cup topped his list.

Though McIlroy will be trying to complete the career Grand Slam at Augusta National come April, he talked more about the Ryder Cup than he did any of the game’s major championships.

When asked a follow-up about the American team’s resurgence after a task-force overhaul and the injection of young, new star power, McIlroy nearly started breaking down the matchup. He talked about the young Americans and how good they are.

“Yeah, the Americans have been, obviously, very buoyant about their chances and whatever, but it’s never as easy as that. ... The Ryder Cup’s always close,” McIlroy said. “I think we’ll have a great team, and it definitely won’t be as easy as they think it’s going to be.”

McIlroy may have been talking about Alan Shipnuck’s bold prediction after the American Presidents Cup rout last fall.

Or similar assertions from TV analysts.

“The Ryder Cup is dead – you just don’t know it yet,” Shipnuck wrote. “One of the greatest events in sport is on the verge of irrelevancy. The young, talented, hungry golfers from the United States, benefitting from the cohesive leadership of the Task Force era, are going to roll to victory in 2018 in Paris.”

European Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn won’t find words that will motivate the Euros more than that as he watches his prospective players jockey to make the team.

And, boy, did they jockey last weekend.

The Euros dominated across the planet, not that they did it with the Ryder Cup as some rallying cry, because they didn’t. But it was a heck of an encouraging start to the year for Bjorn to witness.

Spain’s Jon Rahm won the CareerBuilder Challenge on the PGA Tour, England’s Tommy Fleetwood started the week at Abu Dhabi paired with American and world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and won the European Tour event, and Spain’s Sergio Garcia won the Singapore Open in a rout on the Asian Tour.

And McIlroy looked close to being in midseason form, tying for third in his first start in three months.

Yes, it’s only January, and the Ryder Cup is still a long way off, with so much still to unfold, but you got an early sense from McIlroy how much defending European turf will mean to him and the Euros in Paris in September.

The Masters is great theater, the U.S. Open a rigorous test, The Open and the PGA Championship historically important, too, but the Ryder Cup touches a nerve none of those do.

The Ryder Cup stokes more fervor, provokes more passion and incites more vitriol than any other event in golf.

More bulletin board material, too.

Yeah, it’s a long way off, but you can already hear the Ryder Cup’s King Kong like footsteps in its distant approach. Watching how the American and European teams come together will be an ongoing drama through spring and summer.

Getty Images

Quail Hollow officials promise players easier conditions

By Rex HoggardJanuary 22, 2018, 9:14 pm

Quail Hollow Club - a staple on the PGA Tour since 2003 - debuted as a longer, tougher version of itself at last year’s PGA Championship, receiving mixed reviews from players.

The course played to a lengthened 7,600 yards at last year’s PGA and a 73.46 stroke average, the toughest course in relation to par on Tour in 2017. As a result, it left some players less than excited to return to the Charlotte, N.C.-area layout later this spring for the Wells Fargo Championship.

It’s that lack of enthusiasm that led officials at Quail Hollow to send a video to players saying, essentially, that the course players have lauded for years will be back in May.

The video, which includes Quail Hollow president Johnny Harris and runs nearly five minutes, begins with an explanation of how the first hole, which played as a 524-yard par 4 at the PGA, will play much shorter at the Wells Fargo Championship.

“I had a number of my friends who were playing in the tournament tell me that tee was better suited as a lemonade stand,” Harris joked of the new tee box on the fourth hole. “I doubt we’ll ever see that tee used again in competition.”

Harris also explained that the greens, which became too fast for some, will be “softer” for this year’s Wells Fargo Championship.