All eyes on Ko as she tries to make history at the ANA

By Randall MellMarch 31, 2015, 4:30 pm

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. – Lydia Ko is redefining the word phenom.

She is drawing history as her regular playing partner.

Even LPGA founders, the women who created the tour, are in awe of what Ko’s achieving.

“She’s a blossoming star,” Shirley Spork says.

Hall of Famers are gaping in wonder.

“She’s incredible,” Patty Sheehan says.

“She amazes me,” Annika Sorenstam says.

When Ko tees it up Thursday at the ANA Inspiration, the year’s first major championship, she will be looking to post her 29th consecutive round under par in an LPGA event. That would equal Sorenstam’s mark as best ever on tour.

It’s staggering what Ko is achieving given she doesn’t even have a driver’s license yet.

At 14, she became, at the time, the youngest male or female to win a professional golf tournament, claiming the NSW Open title on the Australian Ladies Professional Golf tour.

At 15, she became the youngest winner of an LPGA event at the Canadian Women’s Open.

At 16, she won the Canadian Women’s Open again and was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people.

At 17, she took home the biggest payday in the history of women’s golf, claiming $1.5 million as the CME Group Tour Championship winner and Race to the CME Globe winner. Still 17, with a staggering eight worldwide professional victories already on her resume, Ko ascended to Rolex world No. 1, becoming the youngest player to top the world rankings in men’s or women’s professional golf.

With some grumbling last month over whether she had yet done enough to earn the world No. 1 ranking, Ko answered eloquently, winning in back-to-back weeks, taking the Women’s Australian Open and New Zealand Women’s Open as her ninth and 10th pro titles.


Photos: Lydia Ko through the years

All of this leads to some big questions this week:

Is Ko ready to win her first major championship?

And does she need to win the ANA Inspiration to definitively separate herself from Inbee Park and Stacy Lewis as the best player in the women’s game?

History will be shadowing Ko once more. If she makes the leap into Poppie’s Pond Sunday, she will do so as the youngest major champion the women’s game has ever known at 17 years, 11 months and 12 days old. She would be almost a full year younger than Morgan Pressel was when she won the Kraft Nabisco in 2007. Young Tom Morris would be the only player to have won a professional major at a younger age than Ko, and he set the mark 147 years ago.

David Leadbetter, Ko’s swing coach, believes her game is in a good place at a major. The changes they made last year, turning her primary ball flight from a fade to a draw, have taken hold.

“She’s playing the game,” Leadbetter said. “She’s not playing swing, as was the case, to a certain extent, last year.”

Ko hasn’t logged a finish worse than T-7 this year. She is working on 10 consecutive top-10 finishes dating back to last year.

“She’s very confident right now,” Leadbetter said. “She’s ready to perform well. There’s no reason why not. She’s got the game.”

Ko is hitting the ball farther than she ever has. She averages 253 yards per drive, ranking 31st on tour in driving distance. That’s up from 66th her rookie year. She ranks better Stacy Lewis (58th) and Inbee Park (70th) this year.

Hall of Famer Judy Rankin believes Ko’s stats don’t fully capture how much more power she’s gaining.

“I think she has another gear when she wants to hit the ball farther,” Rankin said.

Ko is second in scoring on tour (69.0) to Hyo Joo Kim (68.87), and she’s second in greens in regulation (82.4 percent) to Inbee Park (83.1 percent). She’s sixth in putts per GIR.

With the ANA’s approach, Ko is hearing all the talk about the possible history this week.

“I've been watching Golf Channel, and they've been saying the spotlight is kind of on me,” Ko said. “It’s going to be, definitely, a tough week. I know that all the girls are trying to bring their A games together, and that's what I’ve got to do. I'm just going to try and have fun.  Hopefully, I'll hit some really good shots, make some good putts and give myself a good run for it.”

As precociously cool as Ko seems to be under pressure, she’s not immune to it.

This will be her 13th start in a major, but she’s still learning how best to approach them.

“Two years ago, I said, `Oh my God, it's a major.’ This is where everyone tries to perform at their best,’ and all I was thinking was, `Major, major, major. It’s a major,’” Ko said. “I think that kind of threw me off a little bit. At the end of the day, it should be another tournament. The greatest players are there, yes, but that's kind of what it's like every week.”

Ko’s best performance in a major was her second-place finish at Evian two years ago, when she pushed Suzann Pettersen hard to the end. Ko has three top-10s in her 12 starts in majors. She was third at last year’s LPGA Championship and tied for eighth at last year’s Evian. She tied for 29th at the Kraft Nabisco last year and tied for 25th there two years ago, her only starts at that championship.

“I don't know, just something about majors, it really makes me nervous,” Ko said. “I know the first major I played was the U.S. Open. I couldn't even line up my ball on the first green, because I was so nervous.”

Ko says her goal is just to give herself a chance to win majors. She’ll have five chances this year to beat Pressel’s record as the youngest winner of a women’s major.

“Everyone says, `Oh, you're going to be the youngest winner in a major and all that,’” Ko said. “But to me, it's more important that I have fun playing the majors, and I play more consistently in them. That's been my goal because, you know, if I play consistently and get used to playing these great tournaments, I think that it will give me a better chance of hopefully being around the lead, rather than my goal being: `I want to win this major.’”

Given her impressive consistency, it will be an upset if Ko doesn’t give herself a chance to make more history this week.

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Punch shot: Predictions for the 147th Open

By Golf Channel DigitalJuly 18, 2018, 4:00 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – In advance of the 147th Open Championship, writers sound off on burning questions as players ready for a fast and firm test at Carnoustie. Here’s what our writers think about myriad topics:

The Monday morning headline will be …

REX HOGGARD: “Survival.” This one is easy. It always is at Carnoustie, which is widely considered The Open’s most demanding major championship test. Monday’s headline will be that the champion - pick a champion, any one will do - “survived” another dramatic Open. You don’t dominate Carnoustie; you endure.

RYAN LAVNER: “DJ Bashes Way to Victory at Carnoustie.” If somehow a two-win season could be disappointing, it has been for DJ. He’s first in scoring average, birdie average, par-4 scoring, par-5 scoring, strokes gained: tee to green and proximity from the rough. Those last two stats are the most important, especially here at Carnoustie, with these dry conditions. The game’s preeminent long-and-straight driver, there’s a better-than-decent chance he rolls.

MERCER BAGGS: “Rahm Tough: Spaniard charges to Open victory.” Jon Rahm will claim him maiden major title this week by powering his way through the winds and fescue at Carnoustie.

JAY COFFIN: “Thomas wins second major, ascends to world No. 1 again.” Shortly after The Open last year, Thomas rolled through the end of the PGA Tour season. This is the time of year he likes best. Despite a poor Open record the last two years, he’s not remotely concerned. He’s a tad miffed he didn’t win in France two weeks ago and comes to Carnoustie refreshed, with a gameplan, and ready to pounce.

Who or what will be the biggest surprise?

HOGGARD: Style of play. Given Carnoustie’s reputation as a brute, the surprise will be how the champion arrives at his lofty perch. Unlike previous editions at Carnoustie, this week’s dry conditions will promote more aggressive play off the tee and the winner will defy the norm and power his way to victory.

LAVNER: Tiger Woods. This is Woods’ best chance to win a major this year, and here’s believing he contends. His greatest strengths are his iron game and scrambling, and both aspects will be tested to the extreme at Carnoustie, helping separate him from some of the pretenders. With even a little cooperation from his putter, he should be in the mix.

BAGGS: Padraig Harrington. He had a good opening round last week at the Scottish Open and has some good vibes being the 2007 Open champion at Carnoustie. He won’t contend for four rounds, but a few days in the mix would be a nice surprise.

COFFIN: Alex Noren. Perhaps someone ranked 11th in the world shouldn’t be a surprise, but with so much focus on some of the bigger, household names, don’t be surprised when Noren is in contention on Sunday. He hasn’t finished worse than 25th since early May and won two weeks ago in France. He also tied for sixth place last year at Royal Birkdale.

Who or what will be the biggest disappointment?

HOGGARD: Jordan Spieth. Although he was brilliant on his way to victory last year at Royal Birkdale, Spieth is not the same player for this week’s championship, the byproduct of a balky putter that has eroded his confidence. Spieth said giving back the claret jug this week was hard, but his finish will be even tougher.

LAVNER: Weather. This might sound a little sadistic, but one of the unique joys of covering this tournament is to watch the best in the world battle conditions they face only once a year – the bone-chilling cold, the sideways rain, the howling wind. It doesn’t appear as though that’ll happen this year. With only a few hours of light rain expected, and no crazy winds in the forecast, the biggest challenge for these stars will be judging the bounces on the hard, baked-out turf.

BAGGS: Jordan Spieth. The defending champion is still trying to find his winning form and Carnoustie doesn’t seem the place to do that. As much as he says he loves playing in strong winds, there should be enough danger around here to frustrate Spieth into a missed cut.

COFFIN: Rory McIlroy. I hope I’m wrong on this, because the game is better when Rory is in contention at majors. Putting always has been his issue and seemingly always will be. While there isn’t as much of a premium placed on putting this week because of slower greens, he may still have to hit it close. Super close.

What will be the winning score?

HOGGARD: 10 under. The last two Opens played at Carnoustie were won with 7-under and 6-over totals, but this week’s conditions will favor more aggressive play and lower scores. Expect to see plenty of birdies, but the great equalizer will come on Sunday when wind gusts are forecast to reach 25 mph.

LAVNER: 15 under. An Open at Carnoustie has never produced a winner lower than 9 under (Tom Watson in 1975), but never have the conditions been this susceptible to low scores. Sure, the fairway bunkers are still a one-shot penalty, but today’s big hitters can fly them. The thin, wispy rough isn’t much of a deterrent. And the wind isn’t expected to really whip until the final day.

BAGGS: 12 under. We aren’t going to see the same kind of weather we have previously witnessed at Carnoustie, and that’s a shame. Any players who catch relatively benign conditions should be able to go low, as long as they can properly navigate the fairway rollout.

COFFIN: 14 under. Walked into a local golf shop in the town of Carnoustie wearing a Golf Channel logo and the man behind the counter said, “It’ll take 14 under to win this week.” Well, he’s been here for years and seen Carnoustie host The Open twice before. He knows more about it than I do, so I’ll stick with his number.

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Watch: Na plays backwards flop and practices lefty

By Grill Room TeamJuly 18, 2018, 3:16 pm

Fresh off his victory at The Greenbrier, Kevin Na is taking a quite-literally-backwards approach to his Open prep.

Caddie Kenny Harms has been sharing videos of Na's early work at Carnoustie.

This one shows Na standing in a bunker and playing a flop shot over his own head (as opposed to someone else's):

While it's unlikely he'll have a need for that exact shot this week, it's far more likely a player may have to think about turning his club over and playing from the wrong side of the ball, like so:

Na has made 4 of 6 cuts at The Open and will look to improve on his best career finish, currently a T-22 in 2016 at Royal Troon.

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McIlroy growing 'comfortable' on Open courses

By Ryan LavnerJuly 18, 2018, 1:45 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – For a player who once complained about the vagaries of links golf, Rory McIlroy enters this Open with a dazzling record in the sport’s oldest championship.

Though he missed the 2015 event because of an ankle injury, McIlroy has now posted three consecutive top-5 finishes in the year’s third major.

“It’s surprising a little bit that my best form in major championships has been this tournament,” he said Wednesday, “but at the same time I’ve grown up these courses, and I’m comfortable on them. I think going to courses on The Open rota that I’ve played quite a lot. I think that helps. You have a comfort level with the golf course, and you’ve built up enough experience to know where to hit and where not to hit it.”

Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

McIlroy still regrets what happened in 2015, when he “did something slightly silly” and injured his ankle while playing soccer a few weeks before the event. That came a year after he triumphed at Royal Liverpool.

“Since 2010, I couldn’t wait to play The Open at St. Andrews,” he said. “I thought that was one of my best chances to win a major.”

He tied for 42nd at Carnoustie in 2007, earning low-amateur honors.  

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Height of irony: Phil putts in front of 'rules' sign

By Grill Room TeamJuly 18, 2018, 1:36 pm

A picture is worth 1,000 words and potentially two strokes for playing a moving ball under Rule 14-5 but not Rule 1-2.

Phil Mickelson has been having some fun during his Open prep at Carnoustie hitting flop shots over human beings, but the irony of this photo below is too obvious to go over anyone's head.

Mickelson also tried tapping down fescue two weeks ago at The Greenbrier, incurring another two-shot penalty.

And so we're left to wonder about what Phil asked himself back at Shinnecock Hills: "The real question is, ‘What am I going to do next?’”