Ko, 17, unfazed by weight of world No. 1 ranking

By Randall MellFebruary 22, 2015, 3:26 pm

Even Lydia Ko wasn’t sure how the weight of the Rolex world No. 1 ranking would affect her when she claimed it almost a month ago.

Just two years ago, Yani Tseng proclaimed relief upon losing the top ranking and all the onerous baggage that went with it.

“It drove me crazy,” Tseng said back then. “Everybody wants to be No. 1, but nobody understands how hard it is.”

Ko’s mother, Tina, grabbed her own hair and tugged on it after first learning at the end of the Coates Golf Championship that at 17 Lydia would become the youngest No. 1 in the history of professional golf.

“Headache,” Tina said with a nervous smile back then. “She’s too young.”

And yet there was Ko Sunday in Australia, walking up the 18th fairway at Royal Melbourne, giggling with fellow teen Ariya Jutanugarn after nearly holing her final approach shot to clinch the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open title. Ko navigated a grueling setup on one of golf’s toughest courses to become the youngest winner of this championship. Though she won’t be 18 until April, Ko claimed her ninth professional victory worldwide, her sixth LPGA title.

Scores: Women's Australian Open

Most notably, she won in just her second start carrying the Rolex No. 1 title.

“I didn’t really know how I would play, how I would react to becoming world No. 1, and I always wondered about that,” Ko said Sunday in her post tournament news conference.

Ko knows now.

“It’s good to know, that just for my confidence, I can still play good and not really think about the world rankings,” Ko said.

It’s not such a good thing to know for all the players chasing Ko. This uncanny teen, with her precocious game, and a temperament that belies her youth, seems as well suited to the No. 1 ranking as her coach thought she would be.

“Lydia just takes it in stride,” Leadbetter said when Ko first took the top ranking. “She walks on this cloud. She doesn’t get overly excited. She doesn’t get overly down.”

Ko will go home to New Zealand as a conquering hero this week. She will play the New Zealand Women’s Open, which she won as a 15-year-old amateur. While Rolex No. 2 Inbee Park and No. 3 Stacy Lewis will try to cut into Ko’s world-rankings lead next week at the Honda LPGA Thailand, Ko will be delighting her fellow Kiwis trying to win there.

With a 2-under-par 71 Sunday at Royal Melbourne, Ko won by two shots over runner-up Amy Yang. Ko was the only player to post a score in red numbers every round.

Back at the Pure Silk Bahamas two weeks ago, where Ko teed it up for the first time as world No. 1, there was some debate over whether she really deserved the top ranking. It wasn’t mean spirited grumbling, or even a question of whether Ko was good enough to be No. 1. It was scrutiny of the Rolex rankings formula, and whether Ko had achieved enough yet to be No. 1.

Those doubts obviously didn’t penetrate the fortress Ko plays within, though she admits she gets anxious under pressure like everyone else, even if she doesn’t show it. In fact, she said she was feeling nerves on the front nine Sunday, when she made spectators wonder  if she was going to give away the title.

Ko three putted the first two holes to lose her lead to Yang. At the third hole, however, Ko answered with a lightning bolt before threatening clouds even moved over the course and halted play. She holed a pitch from 65 yards for eagle to re-take the lead.

Back at the LPGA season opener at Golden Ocala, Ko was uncharacteristically shaky coming down the stretch, blowing a chance to win the Coates Golf Championship on the back nine. When she left a delicate flop shot short at Royal Melbourne’s eighth hole, watching it roll back toward her off a steep bank of the green, her  bogey there allowed Yang to move into the lead again.

“Amy was right in front, and I could see that she was making a lot of birdies,” Ko said. “It kind of made me a little bit anxious because I wasn’t making a lot of birdies, but I tried to keep my mind together, and it ended up being great.”

After a timely 80-minute weather delay with storm clouds approaching, Ko closed solidly, playing mistake free on the back nine with two birdies and no bogeys. She finished formidably, like a player relishing the No. 1 ranking .

Getty Images

Berger more than ready to rebound at Travelers

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:54 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Daniel Berger hopes that this year he gets to be on the other end of a viral moment at the Travelers Championship.

Berger was a hard-luck runner-up last year at TPC River Highlands, a spectator as Jordan Spieth holed a bunker shot to defeat him in a playoff. It was the second straight year that the 25-year-old came up just short outside Hartford, as he carried a three-shot lead into the 2016 event before fading to a tie for fifth.

While he wasn’t lacking any motivation after last year’s close call, Berger got another dose last week at the U.S. Open when he joined Tony Finau as a surprise participant in the final group Sunday, only to shoot a 73 and drift to a T-6 finish.

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

“It was one of the best experiences of my professional golf career so far. I feel like I’m going to be in such a better place next time I’m in that position, having felt those emotions and kind of gone through it,” Berger said. “There was a lot of reflection after that because I felt like I played good enough to get it done Sunday. I didn’t make as many putts as I wanted to, but I hit a lot of really good putts. And that’s really all you can do.”

Berger missed the cut earlier this month to end his quest for three straight titles in Memphis, but his otherwise consistent season has now included six top-20 finishes since January. After working his way into contention last week and still with a score to settle at TPC River Highlands, he’s eager to get back to work against another star-studded field.

“I think all these experiences you just learn from,” Berger said. “I think last week, having learned from that, I think that’s even going to make me a little better this week. So I’m excited to get going.”

Getty Images

Rory tired of the near-misses, determined to close

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:46 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Rory McIlroy has returned to the Travelers Championship with an eye on bumping up his winning percentage.

McIlroy stormed from the back of the pack to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March, but that remains his lone worldwide win since the 2016 Tour Championship. It speaks to McIlroy’s considerable ability and lofty expectations that, even with a number of other high finishes this season, he is left unsatisfied.

“I feel like I’ve had five realistic chances to win this year, and I’ve been able to close out one of them. That’s a bit disappointing, I guess,” McIlroy said. “But at least I’ve given myself five chances to win golf tournaments, which is much more than I did last year.”

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

The most memorable of McIlroy’s near-misses is likely the Masters, when he played alongside Patrick Reed in Sunday’s final group but struggled en route to a T-5 finish. But more frustrating in the Ulsterman’s eyes were his runner-up at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, when he led by two shots with eight holes to go, and a second-place showing behind Francesco Molinari at the BMW PGA Championship in May.

“There’s been some good golf in there,” he said. “I feel like I let Dubai and Wentworth get away a little bit.”

He’ll have a chance to rectify that trend this week at TPC River Highlands, where he finished T-17 last year in his tournament debut and liked the course and the tournament enough to keep it on his schedule. It comes on the heels of a missed cut at the U.S. Open, when he was 10 over through 11 holes and never got on track. McIlroy views that result as more of an aberration during a season in which he has had plenty of chances to contend on the weekend.

“I didn’t necessarily play that badly last week. I feel like if I play similarly this week, I might have a good chance to win,” McIlroy said. “I think when you play in conditions like that, it magnifies parts of your game that maybe don’t stack up quite as good as the rest of your game, and it magnified a couple of things for me that I worked on over the weekend.”

Getty Images

Sunday run at Shinnecock gave Reed even more confidence

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:08 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – While many big names are just coming around to the notion that the Travelers Championship is worth adding to the schedule, Patrick Reed has been making TPC River Highlands one of his favorite haunts for years.

Reed will make his seventh straight appearance outside Hartford, where he tied for fifth last year and was T-11 the year before that. He is eager to get back to the grind after a stressful week at the U.S. Open, both because of his past success here and because it will offer him a chance to build on a near-miss at Shinnecock Hills.

Reed started the final round three shots off the lead, but he quickly stormed toward the top of the leaderboard and became one of Brooks Koepka’s chief threats after birdies on five of his first seven holes. Reed couldn’t maintain the momentum in the middle of the round, carding three subsequent bogeys, and ultimately tied for fourth.

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

It was a bittersweet result, but Reed is focusing on the positives after taking a couple days to reflect.

“If you would have told me that I had a chance to win coming down Sunday, I would have been pleased,” Reed said. “I felt like I just made too many careless mistakes towards the end, and because of that, you’re not going to win at any major making careless mistakes, especially on Sunday.”

Reed broke through for his first major title at the Masters, and he has now finished fourth or better in three straight majors dating back to a runner-up at the PGA last summer. With another chance to add to that record next month in Scotland, he hopes to carry the energy from last week’s close call into this week’s event on a course where he feels right at home.

“It just gives me confidence, more than anything,” Reed said. “Of course I would have loved to have closed it out and win, but it was a great week all in all, and there’s a lot of stuff I can take from it moving forward. That’s how I’m looking at it.”

Getty Images

Koepka back to work, looking to add to trophy collection

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 8:53 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Days after ensuring the U.S. Open trophy remained in his possession for another year, Brooks Koepka went back to work.

Koepka flew home to Florida after successfully defending his title at Shinnecock Hills, celebrating the victory Monday night with Dustin Johnson, Paulina Gretzky, swing coach Claude Harmon III and a handful of close friends. But he didn’t fully unwind because of a decision to honor his commitment to the Travelers Championship, becoming the first player to tee it up the week after a U.S. Open win since Justin Rose in 2013.

Koepka withdrew from the Travelers pro-am, but he flew north to Connecticut on Wednesday and arrived to TPC River Highlands around 3 p.m., quickly heading to the driving range to get in a light practice session.

“It still hasn’t sunk in, to be honest with you,” Koepka said. “I’m still focused on this week. It was just like, ‘All right, if I can get through this week, then I’m going to be hanging with my buddies next week.’ I know then maybe it’ll sink in, and I’ll get to reflect on it a little bit more.”

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

Koepka’s plans next week with friends in Boston meant this week’s event outside Hartford made logistical sense. But he was also motivated to play this week because, plainly, he hasn’t had that many playing opportunities this year after missing nearly four months with a wrist injury.

“I’ve had so many months at home being on the couch. I don’t need to spend any more time on the couch,” Koepka said. “As far as skipping, it never crossed my mind.”

Koepka’s legacy was undoubtedly bolstered by his win at Shinnecock, as he became the first player in nearly 30 years to successfully defend a U.S. Open title. But he has only one other PGA Tour win to his credit, that being the 2015 Waste Management Phoenix Open, and his goal for the rest of the season is to make 2018 his first year with multiple trophies on the mantle.

“If you’re out here for more than probably 15 events, it gives you a little better chance to win a couple times. Being on the sidelines isn’t fun,” Koepka said. “Keep doing what we’re doing and just try to win multiple times every year. I feel like I have the talent. I just never did it for whatever reason. Always felt like we ran into a buzzsaw. So just keep plugging away.”