U.S. WOMEN'S OPEN
No. 1 Ko Knows Henderson is Coming Up Fast July 5, 2016 | San Martin, Calif. By Tom Mackin

Brooke Henderson is looking up at only Lydia Ko in the Rolex Rankings after producing two recent wins, including a major. (USGA/Steven Gibbons)

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A one-hole playoff does not a rivalry make. But it’s the potential for future battles that turns the pairing of Lydia Ko and Brooke Henderson into one of great promise.

The talented duo, along with Lexi Thompson, will form one of the high-profile groupings in the first two rounds of the 71st U.S. Women’s Open Championship, starting at 2:03 p.m. from the 10th hole on Thursday, and 8:28 a.m. from No. 1 on Friday.

Despite Ko’s standing as the No. 1 player in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings, the spotlight has recently shone brightest on Henderson. A birdie on the first playoff hole outlasted Ko at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship last month and earned the Canadian her first career major.  She then successfully defended her title at the Portland (Ore.) Cambia Classic last week, propelling her to the world No. 2 ranking with plenty of momentum entering this week’s championship. Yet Ko, a New Zealander with two majors among her 13 career wins, remains the standard.

“She's an inspiration to all of us girls out here, and I think everyone in the world, basically,” said Henderson of Ko. “She’s done amazing things in her career and she's only a couple months older than I am. So I think everybody looks up to her and thinks she's an inspiration. She showed us a lot of things that are possible.”

Ko turned 19 on April 24, while Henderson turns 19 on Sept. 10, making her exactly 4½ months younger.

“For her to say something like that about me is very sweet of her, but to me she's a really great player,” said Ko. “We all know what amazing talent she has. But the thing is that she has such a great personality and she's super nice. And our age gap – we're both, at the end of the day, born in 1997, so it's not like I'm miles older than her. I do kind of feel older than her, I don't know why.”

Despite that Women’s PGA playoff victory at Sahalee Country Club on June 12, Henderson acknowledges that she is not yet Ko’s equal. “I think we play a little bit different games. We definitely have different strengths, I would say. But overall she's an all-around player. I'm still a long way from taking that No. 1 spot over, but I'm getting closer every single week.”

World No. 1 Lydia Ko has embraced her budding rivalry with fellow teen Brooke Henderson. (USGA/Steven Gibbons)

Ko has taken note of that improvement. “Brooke has been playing great. She put herself into a lot of top-10 positions earlier in the year. We all kind of knew a win was coming. And for her to win her first major of the year and then win to defend in Portland last week is really cool.”

Both players have steadily improved in their U.S. Women’s Open starts. As a 15-year-old in 2013, Henderson finished tied for 59th. She followed that with a 10th-place finish in 2014 before finishing fifth last year.

In Ko’s four starts, she has finished 39th, 36th, 15th and tied for 12th. “I’ve just been thinking that it’s another event,” she said. “That makes it much less pressure, just on myself. Sometimes self-pressure can be the biggest pressure out there. I’m just trying to focus on the shot in front of me.”

Despite the shared admiration, there was a slightly different atmosphere during the playoff at Sahalee.  “We didn’t talk as much during that,” Henderson recalled with a laugh. “But she is really an inspiration, so to know that I was in playoff with her and had a chance to do something special, I tried to take advantage of that and make the most of it. I was happy with the way it ended.”

Just don’t confuse that inspiration with a lack of desire to defeat Ko.

“Of course I'll always look up to her, I think,” said Henderson. “That's just the way it is. She'll always have a lot of respect from me. But that doesn't mean I don't want to beat her. I hope we do have a lot of playoffs together for major-championship wins, [because] that means I'm playing really well and she's playing really well. That's what I'm hoping for.”

Arizona resident Tom Mackin is a frequent contributor to USGA websites. Email him at temackinjr@gmail.com.

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