Thursday, March 30, 2017

Ko makes changes; Jutanugarn challenge remains

Rolex world No. 1 Lydia Ko watched Ariya Jutanugarn turn up the heat on her in a world rankings push last year.

Jutanugarn rocketed from No. 63 at the start of last year to No. 2.

Ko and Jutanugarn will face off for the first time this year in the same event beginning Thursday at the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open. That’s Wednesday night in the United States (Golf Channel telecast Wednesday begins at 9 p.m. ET).

Ko says she isn’t focused on the push that Jutanugarn and other young challengers made last year. In Gee Chun also made a charge up to No. 3.

“I try and not think of it as ‘Hey, everyone’s trying to chase me,’” Ko said. “When we’re out there, we’re not thinking about what rank a player is to us, or what I am. I think it’s important to not get carried away about the awards, the rankings, because at the end of the day, we’re all golfers trying to make as many birdies as we can and hopefully hold the trophy at the end of that week. That’s the mindset I’ve been trying to take.”

Jutanugarn beat out Ko for the Rolex LPGA Player of the Year Award late last season and Chun edged out Ko for the Vare Trophy for low scoring average in the year’s final event.

Even with a victory this week, Jutanugarn can’t move past Ko in the world rankings, with Ko still holding a commanding lead in points. Jutanugarn won five LPGA titles last year, Ko won four.

“There’s going to be a lot of expectations from other people, so I want to play with my own expectations,” Jutanugarn said. “I don’t worry about the rankings at all.”

Ko is starting the new year with a lot of curiosity over how she will respond to all the changes she made in the off season. Ko fired her coach (David Leadbetter) and caddie (Jason Hamilton) late last year and ended her affiliation with Callaway Golf. She doesn’t only have a new coach (Gary Gilchrist) and new caddie (Gary Matthews) as she makes her 2017 debut this week. She has new equipment (PXG golf clubs).

How is she feeling about that?

“Even though there have been a lot of changes, I don’t think I’ve ever been this excited to come back off a break in December and about getting back into training and back into preparing for the season,” she said.

And what’s Jutanugarn think of sharing her swing coach with Ko now?

“We are friends,” Jutanugarn said. “Sometimes we have time to practice together, and that’s nice.”

Ko and Jutanugarn played a practice round together on Tuesday in Australia.

Over the first two rounds, Ko and Jutanugarn aren’t paired together at Royal Adelaide Golf Club, but they’ll create a lot of excitement if they are able to turn Sunday into a head-to-head showdown.

Ko, who grew up in neighboring New Zealand, has a strong history in the Women’s Australian Open. She won it at Royal Melbourne two years ago and hasn’t finished worse than third in her last four starts in the event.


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