Saturday, April 19, 2014

KKT Cup Vantelin Ladies Saturday: 21-Year-Old Mami Fukuda Vaults into Lead

21-year-old Mami Fukuda rode a bogey-free 66 into the lead at the KKT Cup Vantelin Ladies today in Kumamoto, passing yesterday's co-leaders 2014 money-list leader Onnarin Sattaybanphot (3-birdie 71) and 15-year-old amateur Minami Katsu (5-birdie 71) while outdistancing Bo-Mee Lee (4-birdie 70) and 21-year-old Misuza Narita (who was sparked by a 4-hole birdie train on the back to fire a 69).  With Fukuda at -8 and her lead chase pack at -7, the leaderboard is already quite packed, but let's make sure not to count out Erina Hara (5-birdie 68) or Teresa Lu (bogey-free 70) at -6, Yukari Baba (3 birdies in her last 10 holes for a 70 of her own) at -5, last week's winner Esther Lee (3-birdie 70), Kaori Nakamura (3-birdie 71), or Ji-Hee Lee (2-birdie 72) at -4, much less Katsu's more heralded Japan National Team compatriot 17-year-old Haruka Morita, who finished birdie-par-par-eagle to pull within 5 shots of the lead.

If the leaders' scores don't seem that impressive, consider that Momoko Ueda shot a 77 to join Hyun-Ju Shin (75), Soo-Yun Kang (75), and Natsuka Hori (74) on the wrong side of the cut line, along with the likes of So-Hee Kim, Na-Ri Kim, Young Kim, Erika Kikuchi, Yuki Sakurai, Kaori Ohe, Na Zhang, and even heavier hitters like Yuri Fudoh and Shinobu Moromizato.  Sakura Yokomine, who opened with a 69, had to withdraw, as did Bo-Bae Song and Jessica Speechley.  So the fact that Fukuda has a 6-shot lead on such players as Mi-Jeong Jeon, Shiho Oyama, Chie Arimura, Mayu Hattori, Saiki Fujita, and even Yui Mukaiyama (who fired a 66 of her own today), a 7-shot lead on Na-Ri Lee and Ritsuko Ryu, and an 8-shot lead on Mamiko Higa and Maiko Wakabayashi is nothing to sneeze at.

It'll be interesting to see if Fukuda can follow up her low round of 2014 and improve on her best JLPGA finish of 3rd just a few weeks ago at the T-Point Ladies.  But there are plenty of other interesting what ifs to contemplate:

  • whether Sattayabanphot will extend her lead on the JLPGA money list by notching her 2nd win of the season;
  • whether Katsu or Morita will break through for her 1st JLPGA victory at an even younger age than Ai Miyazato did in 2003;
  • whether Bo-Mee Lee or Narita will find her way into the winner's circle again for the 3rd consecutive year in Japan;
  • whether Hara will follow through on her 2008 JLPGA victory or Megumi Kido her 2012 one or Lu on her 2013 one or Ayaka Watanabe on her AXA Ladies one earlier this year or Esther Lee on last week's;
  • whether Mi-Jeong Jeon will get JLPGA victory #23, Ji-Hee Lee her 18th, Oyama or Arimura her 14th, Hattori her 5th, Baba or Junko Omote her 4th, or Nakamura her 1st at age 27.
Perhaps not quite so compelling as a showdown between Angela Stanford, Michelle Wie, Hyo Joo Kim, and Cristie Kerr on the LPGA, but not half bad!

LPGA LOTTE Championship Friday: Angela Stanford Tames Ko Olina Winds, Roars into 4-Shot Lead on Michelle Wie and Hyo Joo KIm

Angela Stanford leads the LPGA LOTTE Championship by 4 shots over Michelle Wie and 2013 KLPGA Rookie of the Year Hyo Joo Kim (thanks to walkoff bogeys by each of them) and 5 shots over Cristie Kerr after firing a 6-birdie 67 on a day when many golfers struggled in the winds at Ko Olina (such as KLPGA money-list leader last year Ha Na Jang, who ballooned to an 81, not to mention Lydia Ko [74], Se Ri Pak [74], Paula Creamer [74], and Morgan Pressel [75]).

Stanford has always been one of the most reliable ball-strikers on tour, but also has been streaky with her putter over the course of her career.  Some time after a disappointing Solheim Cup run last summer, she found something on the greens--and it's carried over into 2014.  She ended 2013 on a 9-event run in which her worst finish was T21 and started 2014 by extending her top-25 streak to 12.  Right after finishing 4th in Singapore, the site her her 5th and most recent LPGA victory, she missed the cut twice in a row in the States, which lowered many people's expectations for her in Hawaii this week.  However, she's reconnected with her putter, with only 80 putts over her 1st 54 holes, and she's handled the winds better than anyone.

That said, nothing is guaranteed today.  Stanford played great enough to dominate the Manulife last summer, but a final-round charge allowed Hee Young Park to make Waterloo Stanford's Waterloo.  And Ko Olina is vulnerable to low scores if the winds die down.  Of course, someone like world #1 Inbee Park would need to find her own galactic-class putting touch to make up 7 shots on Stanford and can't afford any more double bogeys like the one on the par-5 13th that dropped her out of realistic contention.  But if players like Park, So Yeon Ryu (-6), rookie Amy Anderson (-6), or Chella Choi (-4) were to make early runs and if Stanford were to open the door, anything could happen today.  And if someone at -2 like Na Yeon Choi, Shanshan Feng, Azahara Munoz, or Ariya Jutanugarn were to play out of their minds, things would get very interesting, very fast.

Of course the biggest story would be if Michelle Wie were to learn from her struggles in the final round of the Kraft Nabisco Championship and make a big run for her 3rd LPGA victory right in her home state.  And Asian audiences (and her fans around the world) would be thrilled by a Hyo Joo Kim run.  Cristie Kerr's Hall of Fame clock is ticking, so she needs to make the most of her opportunities, as well.  All in all, it's enough to make me try to find a friend with Golf Channel tonight!  If only....

Friday, April 18, 2014

KKT Cup Vantelin Ladies Friday: Onnarin Sattayabanphot and 15-Year-Old Minami Katsu Go Low

JLPGA money-list leader Onnarin Sattayabanphot bounced back from last Sunday's disappointment by shooting her low round of the year thus far, a bogey-free 66 at the KKT Cup Vantelin Ladies, but she may not have been the biggest story of the day.  Sharing the lead with her is 15-year-old amateur and history-making winner of this March's NZ Women's Stroke Play Championship Minami Katsu, who birdied 5 holes in a row as she closed out the back (her front) and followed it up with a birdie on the par-5 4th.

Katsu, who's playing on the Japanese National Team with 2013 Japan Women's Amateur champion Haruka Morita and 2013 U.S. Women's Amateur medalist Yumi Matsubara, made a bounceback of her own from a disappointing performance at the Queen Sirikit Cup of Golf last week.  She's already a seasoned international competitor, with experience in the Japan Women's Open and a T12 last year at the Studio Alice Ladies, but it's going to be a tall order for her to keep hanging with Sattayabanphot, who's notched a golf, silver, and bronze in her 1st 6 starts of 2014.  And when you consider that the likes of Bo-Mee Lee (bogey-free 67), Teresa Lu (5-birdie 68), Ji-Hee Lee (ditto), Sakura Yokomine (6-birdie 69), and Mayu Hattori (bogey-free 69) are hot on the co-leaders' trail, well, the teenage amateur has a lot on her plate this weekend.

I'll be curious to see if Chie Arimura, Momoko Ueda, and Shiho Oyama can build on their -1 opening rounds and gain some confidence and momentum for the 1st time in 2014, if Mamiko Higa (E), Rikako Morita (+1), and Ayaka Watanabe (+1) can bounce back from blah starts, and if Na Ri Kim (+5), Bo-Bae Song (+5), Yuri Fudoh (+4), Shinobu Moromizato (+3), and Miki Saiki (+2) can fight back to make the cut tomorrow.

LPGA LOTTE Championship Wednesday and Thursday: Best and Worst of Times in Hawaii

There's a Dickensian feel to the LPGA LOTTE Championship this year.  With the winds up Wednesday and down Thursday, most of the field were able to improve their scores in a big way.  Leader Angela Stanford exemplifies one such extreme.  She struggled her way to a 3-birdie, 3-bogey 72 in the 1st round, then exploded in the 2nd with 5 birdies in a row on the front and 3 on the back to post the low round of the week and move to -8.  But Stanford's 8-shot improvement--which put her 1-up on a resurgent Michelle Wie (70-67) and 2-up on Inbee Park (70-68), So Yeon Ryu (68-70), Cristie Kerr (72-66), and Hyo Joo Kim (68-70)--was not even close to the biggest of the week.

That belonged to Jimin Kang, who bounced back from an opening 80 that was lowlighted by a walkoff double with a 2nd-round 65 that was highlighted by a 5-hole birdie train to begin her day.  Others who made heroic efforts to make the cut, which fell at +4, included Jaye Marie Green (80-68), Amelia Lewis (77-66), Pernilla Lindberg (78-69), Seon Hwa Lee (78-70), and Ryann O'Toole (77-69).

Given the scale of the bouncebacks most in the field engineered yesterday, those who moved backwards have to feel even worse.  Ai Miyazato continued to hit the ball solidly and putt terribly (27 greens in regulation, 67 putts, 3 birdies in 36 holes), missing the cut at a tournament she won 2 years ago and finished in the top 10 in last year.  Anna Nordqvist made 4 birdies late on the front to claw her way back to +1, but then she doubled 10 and bogeyed 14 to put herself right near the cut line.  How did the 2-time winner this season respond?  By finishing birdie-double-quad to end up with a 44 on the back and a +9 total for the week.  Heck, even those who improved a great deal, like Jeong Jang (78-71), Paz Echeverria (78-71), Sei Young Kim (77-72), Belen Mozo (77-72), Jane Rah (77-72), and Perrine Delacour (77-72), came up just short of making it into the weekend.  Others who will be taking their troubles to the beach include such big names as Mika Miyazato, Hee Kyung Seo, Brittany Lincicome, Brittany Lang, Lorie Kane, Pat Hurst, Karen Stupples, and Laura Diaz.

Back towards the top of the leaderboard, the volatility of the 1st 2 rounds means that players like Hall of Famer Se Ri Pak (68-71), global young guns Ha Na Jang (70-69) and Harukyo Nomura (73-67), and even those who made more modest improvements like Morgan Pressel (73-69), Chella Choi (74-68), Caroline Hedwall (75-68), and Gerina Piller (75-68) are by no means out of this one.  I was also pleased to see Tiffany Joh move on up to -3, disappointed that Ayako Uehara backed up her 7-birdie 69 Wednesday with a 1-birdie 74 Thursday, and glad to see my old golfing buddy Moira Dunn hang on to make the cut on the number.

Let's face it:  golf can be a cruel game to try to make your living at.  The key is to give yourself a shot at playing another day.  You never know when you're going to go low.  Can't wait to see who does it on the LPGA's Friday moving day today!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Winds Must Really Be Up in Hawaii Today

I'll have a full report on the 1st round of the LPGA LOTTE Championship ready for you sometime tomorrow, and I still don't have Golf Channel, much less the time to watch live tournament coverage on tv, but it's worth noting right now that nobody's really tearing up the Ko Olina course and there are a lot of really high scores out there, so I'm assuming the winds are playing tricks on most of the field.

We'll soon see if Se Ri Pak can keep her recent run going and whether anyone still out on the course can keep pace with her or match So Yeon Ryu's 68 or Ayako Uehara's 69, the only sub-70 rounds posted thus far today.

For now, though, check out the previews from Tony Jesselli, Ruthless Mike, and Centurion--and the live leaderboard on LPGA.com!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

My Picks for the LPGA LOTTE Championship

It's an early start for the next LPGA event on the 2014 schedule, the LPGA LOTTE Championship, and there are lots of impressive visitors who are among the best in the 21-and-under set in the world of women's golf, so let's get my picks for the PakPicker competition over at Seoul Sisters.com out there!

1. Miyazato Ai
2. Creamer
3. Park Inbee
4. Ko
5. Wie
6. Jutanugarn, Ariya
7. Munoz
8. Kim Hyo Joo
9. Ryu
10. Nordqvist
11. Pressel
12. Choi Na Yeon

Alts: Choi Chella; Kerr; Lee, Meena

Somehow I won the Kraft Nabisco Championship PakPicker (my 1st in forever), so I fully expect the Mostly Harmless jinx to rear its ugly head this week.  Probably this'll end up being the week Shanshan Feng, Lizette Salas, Angela Stanford, and Hee Kyung Seo turn it up a few notches!

With defending champion Suzann Pettersen still nursing a back injury, Stacy Lewis and Karrie Webb sitting this one out, and plenty of rookies playing this week, I wouldn't be surprised if we see a lot of surprises on the leaderboard the first few rounds.  But come Sunday I'm counting on my picks to rise to the top!

Monday, April 14, 2014

Are the Bombers Taking Over the LPGA?

Luke Kerr-Dineen just made an interesting point about the players who went under par at Augusta last week:  Bubba Watson was the outlier rather than the norm among them when it came to driving distance.  Most of those who played well enough to win the Masters relied more on accuracy off the tee and into the greens; what set Bubba apart from that group may have been his length relative to them--or it may have been his ability to hit good recovery shots and make clutch putts.  Bottom line:  we shouldn't assume just because a bomber won this year's Masters that being a bomber is an advantage in general, at Augusta or anywhere.

This is a point I've been making for about the entire time I've been blogging on women's golf at Mostly Harmless.  And it's a point worth reiterating in the wake of Lexi Thompson's victory over Michelle Wie and the rest of the field at the Kraft Nabisco Championship.  Tony Jesselli is one of many who have been suggesting the last few years that the LPGA is shifting to courses and course set-ups that benefit bombers like Thompson, Wie, and Ya Ni Tseng, who (in their view) are an ever-increasing segment of a tour that used to be dominated by precision players like Ji-Yai Shin, Ai Miyazato, and In-Kyung Kim and straight shooters like Karrie Webb, Cristie Kerr, and Angela Stanford.  If he and others who believe this are right, we should see the pathways to success on the LPGA narrowing for everyone but the bombers.

But look at who's won in the world of women's golf in 2014 and their key performance stats (length and accuracy off the tee, greens in regulation rate, putts per green in regulation, and birdies per round, with ranks for each):

Precision Players (0 wins)
Paula Creamer used to be in this category, but she's actually gotten long enough--and inaccurate enough--off the tee, relative to her career averages, to be considered a straight shooter in 2014.

Straight Shooters (5 wins)

  • Karrie Webb (2):  258 yds. (#30), 76.5% fairways (#38), 72.2% greens (#38), 1.750 ppgir (#3), 4.04 bpr (#11)
  • Anna Nordqvist (2):  256 (#45), 74.4% (#69), 77.3% (#6), 1.769 (#10), 3.88 (#13)
  • Paula Creamer (1):  257 (#43), 76% (#51), 73.8% (#24), 1.753 (#5), 3.96 (#4)

Bombers (2 wins)

  • Jessica Korda (1):  262 yds. (#18), 64% fairways (#123), 69.7% greens (#69), 1.764 ppgir (#8), 3.79 bpr (#15)
  • Lexi Thompson (1):  275 (#1), 64% (#122), 76.9% (#8), 1.781 (#14), 4.15 (#5)

My takeaway from these few examples is that it doesn't matter how you give yourself birdie opportunities on the LPGA; it matters how many you give yourself and how many you convert.

Consider Michelle Wie as another key example here.  Wie is averaging 256 yards off the tee this year and is ranked #46 in driving distance.  She's hitting almost 70% of her fairways, a huge upgrade for her, but still only #93 on a tour known for its accuracy off the tee.  That improvement, however, helps explains why she leads the tour in greens in regulation at almost 81%.  If she can keep improving her putting, which is a respectable but not elite 1.799 putts per green in regulation (#41), she can make even more birdies than her current average per round (3.79, #15).  Basically, Wie has turned herself from a bomber into a straight shooter.  She's sacrificed distance for accuracy and is starting to see results from that change.

Paula Creamer made the opposite decision:  she sacrificed accuracy for distance and is also starting to see results from that change.  I would put Morgan Pressel in that same category, by the way.  Although Pressel hasn't gained enough distance to graduate from being a precision player to being a straight shooter, she has gained a lot (like on the order of 7 to 10 yards).  Yet Pressel, who's usually among the most accurate off the tee on tour, is down at #95 in 2014.  Hitting fewer than 70% of your fairways is usually a kiss of death for someone who averages only 251 yards off the tee.  So what is an even bigger factor for Pressel's success in 2014 than her increase in distance?  She's getting the ball in the hole quickly when she hits greens (1.761, #7) and therefore making plenty of birdies (4.25, #2).

The common thread in all these examples is that putting for dough remains way more important than driving for show on the LPGA.  That's true of everyone, but especially true of precision players.  Since Ai Miyazato is Tony's key example of a struggling precision player, it's worth pointing out that her ball-striking stats are pretty close to her career averages and that she's actually hitting more greens in regulation than in recent years.  But she's making only 2.58 birdies per round and a lot of that is attributable to poor putting:  she's averaging a horrific (by her standards) 1.885 putts per green in regulation, which puts a player who's accustomed to being ranked among the very best on tour in that category at #119 thus far this season.  It's pretty clear that the problem lies not with the longest club in Ai-sama's bag but in the shortest.

I would suggest the same problem with the flat stick is afflicting other top precision players in my career ranking of LPGA rookies since 2005:  it's certainly the case for In-Kyung Kim (1.873 ppgir [#109], 2.92 bpr [#91]).  In fact, I'd be willing to bet that the fact that Inbee Park and Lizette Salas (now both precision players, a bit of a surprise since Park gained length off the tee in the run-up to and during her stretch of dominating the tour) are not putting as amazingly well as they did last year, and that the prototypical straight shooter Cristie Kerr's putting stats are way off from her career averages, helps explain why they haven't quite gotten it together yet in 2014 far far better than any other stat.

Hence, while you might be able to make the case that more LPGAers are doing what it takes to become straight shooters, the key to success remains hitting greens and especially making putts.  Given how long it's taken Wie, Creamer, and Pressel to groove swing changes designed to turn them into straight shooters, I still believe that the short hitters on tour are better off working on their short games than trying to gain a few yards off the tee.  And I definitely disagree with the proposition that the bombers are taking over the LPGA.

Now, if Lexi improves her accuracy off the tee, giving herself better looks at pins, I'd expect to see her ppgir go down and her birdie rate go up.  If that happens, I'd also expect to see her in the winner's circle a lot more often.  But if that happens, Lexi would transcend the "bomber" category and become someone you rarely see on the LPGA:  a straight-up bomber in the mold of Annika, Lorena, and, for shorter periods of time thus far in their careers, Ya Ni Tseng and Suzann Pettersen.  This is probably the best modern path to becoming an LPGA legend.  Nevertheless, it's not the only one, as Karrie Webb and Se Ri Pak can testify.

As the LPGA returns to Hawaii, the key for players is what it's always been:  giving yourself a lot of good looks at birdie or better and making more of them than everyone else.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Studio Alice Ladies Sunday: Esther Lee Wins with Walkoff Birdie

Esther Lee has been knocking on the door over and over during her 1st 7 seasons on the JLPGA, but today she finally busted it down with a walkoff birdie that gave her a 1-shot victory over Onnarin Sattayabanphot at the Studio Alice Ladies.  On a day when former KLPGA rivals Ji-Yai Shin and Sun-Ju Ahn leapfrogged from the bottom of the pack into the top 10 with an 8-birdie 66 and a 6-birdie 68, respectively, and when Mayu Hattori (bogey-free 66) and Miki Sakai (bogey-free 67) moved all the way to 4th and 3rd, respectively, the clash between the top 2 player in the field was much more of a battle of attrition.

It's not like Lee and Sattayabanphot got off to bad starts.  With her bogey-free 34 on the front, Lee pulled even with the 1st- and 2nd-round leader, who began her campaign for her 3rd JLPGA title with 9 straight pars.  And when Sattayabanphot birdied the 504-yard par-5 10th to get to -10, she held a 1-shot lead on Lee, a 4-shot lead on Sakai, and a 6-shot lead on Ritsuko Ryu (who would go on to finish T5 at -4).  So essentially the last 8 holes were a duel between Sattayabanphot and Lee.  But the back, which had been the leader's bread and butter over the 1st 36 holes, proved to be her downfall today.  It wasn't the bogey on the 162-yard par-3 12th that did her in, as Lee also bogeyed it.  It wasn't that Lee then tied her with a birdie on the 369-yard par-4 13th.  It wasn't even that Sattayabanphot fell behind Lee for the 1st time since the back 9 on Friday when she bogeyed the 363-yard par-4 14th.  It was really that Sattayabanphot couldn't make another birdie on the back than her 10th of the week on the 10th hole.  That opened the door for Lee, who made up for her bogey on the 379-yard par-4 17th with a birdie on the 402-yard par-4 18th to seal the deal and walk away with her 1st career JLPGA victory.

With her win, Lee jumped from #16 to #6 on the 2014 JLPGA money list, right behind Sattayabanphot, who at least had the consolation of extending her lead over her nearest competitors.

1. Onnarin Sattayabanphot ¥30.12M

2. Sun-Ju Ahn ¥25.90M
3. Rikako Morita ¥23.17M
4. Ayaka Watanabe ¥22.84M
5. Erina Hara ¥18.35M
6. Esther Lee ¥17.75M
7. Yuki Ichinose ¥15.94M
8. Bo-Mee Lee ¥15.09M
9. Miki Sakai ¥13.85M
10. Ritsuko Ryu ¥13.73M
11. Saiki Fujita ¥12.13M
12. Yumiko Yoshida ¥10.37M
13. Asako Fujimoto ¥10.19M
14. Mami Fukuda ¥9.81M
15. Ji-Yai Shin ¥9.44M
16. Yukari Baba ¥8.59M
17. Mi-Jeong Jeon ¥7.02M
18. Bo-Bae Song ¥6.91M
19. Airi Saitoh ¥6.90M
20. Mamiko Higa ¥6.88M

Next up on the JLPGA is the KKT Cup Vantelin Ladies, which Miki Saiki won in dramatic fashion last year.  Among 2013's greats and worldwide stars who have gotten off to slow starts in 2014--Momoko Ueda, Teresa Lu, Sakura Yokomine, Shiho Oyama--Saiki's has been among the slowest.  Let's see if they can get things in gear for this year next week!  And if those already in gear can take it up a notch....

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Cinderella Redux? Shi Hyun Ahn in Position for 1st Professional Win on KLPGA since 2004

Shi Hyun Ahn fired a 69 today to move to -11 and take a 1-shot lead on Min Young Lee and a 2-shot lead on Hyo Joo Kim and Soo Jin Yang into the final round of the Lotte Mart Women's Open.  The golfer formerly nicknamed "Cinderella" has a great chance to win for the 1st time on the KLPGA since 2004.  For more on her back story, see HappyFan's 2014 KLPGA Primer and the Florida Masochist's overview of her 2010 LPGA cheating scandal.  The 2004 LPGA Rookie of the Year has had a pretty tough time of it ever since leaving the States, so let's see if getting her 3rd career KLPGA victory can help her turn things around!

[Update 1 (4/13/14, 8:30 am):  Alas, the Cinderella story Ahn's fans were hoping for did not come true today, as Min Young Lee outplayed her to win by 2.  Still, Ahn finished T2 and is off to a great start since her comeback started late last season.]

Studio Alice Ladies Friday and Saturday: Onnarin Sattayabanphot on Track for 2nd JLPGA Victory of 2014

Onnarin Sattayabanphot has made 9 of her 11 birdies during the 1st 2 rounds of the Studio Alice Ladies on the back 9 of the Hanayashiki Golf Course, but she wasn't the only one to dismantle that side today.  Esther Lee, who matched her 33 on the back, trails her by only 2 shots, while 19-year-old Hikari Fujita, who like Lee fired a bogey-free 33 on the back, is 4 back.

In fact, a bunch of golfers turned it on on the back--including Maiko Wakabayashi (34 to get to -3), Eriko Tanikawa (32 for a 68 that brought her all the way to -2 after a bad start), Nozomi Inoue (who birdied 4 holes in a row late on that side to fire a 32 of her own that more than offset a triple bogey on the front), and 20-year-old Misaki Hama (whose 33 enabled her to join the big group at -2 that also includes Mi-Jeong Jeon and Ritsuko Ryu)--to keep Sattayabanphot in their sights today.  But it may be too little, too late for them to make a real run tomorrow at the 4th member of Team Thailand in the LPGA's International Crown.  Just like for Hiroko Fukushima, who dropped from 2nd to T10 with her 75 today and is now 8 shots back, tied with Momoko Ueda, who went +3 over her final 8 holes of birdieless golf today.  And for Ayaka Watanabe, the 20-year-old champion of the AXA Ladies, who fell 9 off the pace after shooting a 75 of her own--and added insult to injury by going +5 over her final 12 holes.

Still, these players were among the luckier of those who blew up today (or yesterday, for that matter).  At least they still have a ghost of a chance to contend on Sunday.  Ji-Yai Shin (72-76) and Sun-Ju Ahn (70-76) were fortunate to make the cut, while Rikako Morita (78-71), Yumiko Yoshida (73-77), and Kumiko Kaneda (79-72), among others, won't even be playing in the final round.  With Bo-Mee Lee and Ji-Hee Lee stuck at +1 after matching 72-73 starts, the stage is set for Sattayabanphot to attempt her 2nd victory of 2014 and 3rd of her JLPGA career.  Let's see if she can do it!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Recommended Reading: HappyFan's KLPGA Primer

Swamped at work, so today I'll just pass along the link to HappyFan's 2014 KLPGA Primer.  It's essential reading for anyone who cares about the state of golf around the world!

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The World Doesn't Stop for the Masters

I'll be watching as much of the Masters as I can this week, but it's worth pointing out that the world doesn't stop for it.  Particularly the world of women's golf.  Yes, the LPGA and LET have gone dark this week, but the KLPGA's Lotte Mart Women's Open kicks off Thursday and the JLPGA's Studio Alice Ladies on Friday.  This time last year was a good week for the Kims, as Sei Young Kim (who I recently ranked #7 among female professional golfers 21 and under) won on the KLPGA and ex-LPGAer Na-Ri Kim on the JLPGA (no, they're not related, as far as I know!).

So drop by here when you can this week!

Monday, April 7, 2014

Congratulations to Lexi Thompson, Inbee Park, Sun-Ju Ahn

Lexi Thompson's outgunning Michelle Wie to take the Kraft Nabisco Championship was definitely the biggest story in the world of women's golf yesterday--and maybe all of golf.  But as important as Lexi's 4th LPGA victory and 1st major title was, other players passed milestones of their own.

Inbee Park is now an $8M woman, despite playing badly by her standards at the KNC.

After winning the Yamaha Ladies, Sun-Ju Ahn now has 14 career JLPGA victories.

Congratulations to them all!

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Kraft Nabisco Championship Sunday: Lexi Thompson's Bogey-Free 32 Heading Out Allows Her to Cruise Home for Her 1st Major

Lexi Thompson had a 36-hole bogey-streak end on the 18th hole yesterday of the Kraft Nabisco Championship, but she didn't let that bother her today.  She just started a new one, and it proved too much for 3rd-round co-leader Michelle Wie and everyone chasing them today.

After 4 birdies in her 1st 9 holes, Thompson led Wie and Se Ri Pak by 5, while nobody else was even within shouting distance.  Charley Hull's bogey-free run had ended at 40 holes in a big way, with a double bogey and a bogey to finish the front.  Meanwhile, Thompson kept making par after par on the back, and although Cristie Kerr briefly got within 7 shots of her, and Stacy Lewis made a late birdie to finish at -7, Lexi's only real competition was Wie, who cut her lead to 3 with birdies on 11 and 14.  But that was as close as Michelle would get today, and when Pak doubled the 18th to hand the bronze to Lewis, Thompson had won her 4th title and 1st major on the LPGA by 3 shots over Wie, 7 over Lewis, and 8 over Pak and Kerr.

If the back 9 may have seemed a bit anticlimactic, Thompson's consistent excellence would be seriously underestimated.  On a day when some of the best golfers in the world ran into worlds of trouble, Lexi stayed strong.  Even as Hull fell to -4 and Catriona Matthew stumbled back to -2 thanks to trouble down the home stretch, Ji-Yai Shin couldn't buy a birdie all day and dropped to -1, ending up tied with Chella Choi, who matched Hull's and Matthew's 76s.  Mirim Lee had a great chance to make up some ground on Lydia Ko in the Rookie of the Year race this week, but she, too, finished with a 76 and allowed Ko to pull within 1 shot of her.  World #1 Inbee Park opened with a double and ended up shooting a 75 that dropped her back to +4 and solo 38th.  A trio of Thailand's finest fell back to +5, as Thidapa Suwannapura (76), Pornanong Phatlum (77), and P.K. Kongkraphan (77) wasted opportunities to make a statement.  But at least they beat So Yeon Ryu (77, +6), Ha Na Jang (79, +8), Sun Young Yoo (79, +8), Sei Young Kim (77, +10), Caroline Hedwall (78, +11), and Ai Miyazato (76, +12), among many others.

Given all those Sunday train wrecks, Thompson's bogey-free 68 secured a very impressive win for a player who still is, after all, a teenager.  For Lexi to beat low amateur Minjee Lee by 14 shots, despite the fact that Lee finished -3 and bogey-free over her last 10 holes, says a lot about how overwhelming Lexi was this week and particularly over the final 54 holes.  Karrie Webb and Anna Nordqvist have won twice each on the LPGA already this season, but Lexi beat them by 12 and 13 shots, respectively.  Lewis would have had to get twice as many under par as she did this week just to have tied Lexi.  And Shanshan Feng was the only other player besides Pak and Kerr to avoid getting beat by 10 shots or more this week by Thompson.

In short, this is the kind of 1st win at a major that makes you wonder how many Lexi will collect over the course of her career!

[Update 1 (11:02 pm):  Brent Kelley agrees!]

[Update 2 (11:28 pm):  Lexi's victory moves her from #37 in my last ranking of the best on the LPGA in majors since 2000 to #16 now.]

Yamaha Ladies Sunday: Sun-Ju Ahn Holds On for 14th JLPGA Victory

The revolving door at the top of the leaderboard at the Yamaha Ladies kept turning today, and the player who ended up inside the winner's circle was 26-year-old Sun-Ju Ahn.  The former KLPGA star caught Yumiko Yoshida at -6 with a birdie on the par-3 7th and held the lead alone when Yoshida bogeyed the par-4 9th, but only for 6 holes, until she bogeyed the long par-4 16th.  Ahn and Yoshida came to the final hole tied at -5, but only Ahn parred the 527-yard par 5.  When Yoshida bogeyed it, Ahn had held on for her 14th career JLPGA victory.

It was a tough day for Ahn's fellow Seoul Sisters on the JLPGA, as Hyo-Joo Kim bogeyed 6 of her 1st 14 holes and barely hung on for a 10th-place finish, while Bo-Mee Lee was +5 through her 1st 12 holes and ended up in a tie for 8th with Rikako Morita at +1.  Still, Esther Lee rode a bogey-free 32 to solo 6th at -1, so I'd say the South Korean contingent on tour had a pretty good week.  It was also a good week to be 26, Erina Hara and Ritsuko Ryu tied for 3rd with 31-year-old Yukari Baba at -2.  But the Japanese youth movement wasn't completely shut out, as Kaori Ohe birdied 3 of her last 7 holes the day after her 24th birthday and Asako Fujimoto caught 28-year-old Saiki Fujita in 11th.

With her win, Ahn leaped from #15 to #2 on the 2014 JLPGA money list:

1. Onnarin Sattayabanphot ¥24.84M

2. Sun-Ju Ahn ¥24.49M
3. Rikako Morita ¥23.17M
4. Ayaka Watanabe ¥21.83M
5. Erina Hara ¥18.35M
6. Yuki Ichinose ¥15.66M
7. Bo-Mee Lee ¥14.64M
8. Saiki Fujita ¥12.13M
9. Ritsuko Ryu ¥11.03M
10. Yumiko Yoshida ¥10.37M
11. Asako Fujimoto ¥10.19M
12. Miki Sakai ¥9.65M
13. Mami Fukuda ¥9.53M
14. Yukari Baba ¥8.59M
15. Ji-Yai Shin ¥8.04M
16. Esther Lee ¥6.95M
17. Bo-Bae Song ¥6.91M
18. Airi Saitoh ¥6.90M
19. Mamiko Higa ¥6.88M
20. Rui Kitada ¥6.69M

Next up is the Studio Alice Ladies, which former LPGAer Na-Ri Kim won last year.  Ji-Yai Shin is scheduled to return to the JLPGA after playing well through 54 holes at the Kraft Nabisco Championship (even though Sakura Yokomine and Bo-Bae Song decided to take a week off after travelling across the Pacific for the LPGA's 1st major), while Momoko Ueda gets another chance to reset her career after missing the cut this week.  Most important, the top 4 players on tour in 2014 get another chance to face off.  Let's see how they do and who can challenge them!

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Kraft Nabisco Championship Saturday: Michelle Wie and Lexi Thompson Lead Se Ri Pak and Charley Hull by 2

It was a magical moving day at the Kraft Nabisco Championship as Michelle Wie fired a bogey-free 68 to become the 1st player to get to the 54th hole double digits under par and Lexi Thompson suffered her only bogey of the day just minutes later to join her atop the leaderboard at -10.  A bogey-free 33 had gotten Se Ri Pak there, too, after 9 holes, but she made 3 bogeys on the back before birdieing the par-4 16th to finish her day at -8, tied with Charley Hull, whose bogey-free 66 was the low round of the day.  In fact, Hull may be the hottest golfer on the course, as she's gone 33 holes and counting without a bogey and has made 10 birdies in that stretch to pull herself into contention.

Meanwhile, Catriona Matthew ended a 39-hole bogey-free run (dating back to Thursday) with her 3rd double bogey of the tournament, this one on the par-4 10th, but fought back to -6.  She's tied with Cristie Kerr, who eagled the 11th but sprinkled 3 bogeys throughout a round in which she struggled with her ball-striking.  Still, the accomplished veterans are closer to the co-leaders than Chella Choi (bogey-free 69) and Shanshan Feng (72) at -5, Stacy Lewis (bogey-free 69 and now has a run of 33 holes and counting without a bogey), Ji-Yai Shin (bogey-free 70), Gerina Piller (ditto, but her run of 37 bogey-free holes and counting is now the longest active streak in the field), Azahara Munoz (roller-coaster 70 that included an eagle on 11), and Amy Yang (who bogeyed her last 3 holes in a row and 4 of her last 6 to settle for a 71) at -4, and Jee Young Lee (awesome 67 that included an eagle on 11), Karrie Webb (3-birdie 70), and Mirim Lee (bogey-free 70) at -3.

To put the leaders' scores in perspectives, consider the many golfers who went backwards in a big way on moving day:

  • 74:  Anna Nordqvist (-2), Mo Martin (-1), Paula Creamer (+4)
  • 75:  Morgan Pressel (-1), So Yeon Ryu (+1)
  • 76:  Jennifer Rosales (+3), Candie Kung (+4), Caroline Hedwall (+5), Sei Young Kim (+5), Ai Miyazato (+8), Brittany Lincicome (+9)
  • 77:  Sandra Gal (+3), Sakura Yokomine (+6), Mina Harigae (+9)
  • 79:  Carlota Ciganda (+5)
Even though Lydia Ko (73, E), Minjee Lee (73, E), and Inbee Park (73, +1) didn't score quite as badly, they didn't shoot what they needed to in order to move within striking distance of the leaders heading into Sunday's final round.  And In-Kyung Kim fought back to E for the 1st time since the 2nd hole of the tournament as she birdied 8, 9, and 10, but fell back to +3 with bogeys on 13, 14, and 17, so she'll need to wait at least another year to get her revenge on Mission Hills.

But all eyes are going to be on tomorrow's final pairing.  How will Wie and Thompson handle the spotlight?  Will they keep the pedal to the metal and make it a 2-player race to the finish, or will they falter under the pressure and open the door to a Hall of Famer, a teen phenom, or a pair of wily veterans (who are now both moms, to boot!)?

Yamaha Ladies Saturday: Yumiko Yoshida Takes Lead on Moving Backwards Day

Katsuragi Golf Club showed its teeth today in the 3rd round of the Yamaha Ladies, as only 13 golfers were able to shoot par or better and Yukari Baba's 3-birdie 70 was the low round of the day.  Yumiko Yoshida was 1 of only 3 other players to shoot a 71 on moving day and it was good enough to get her into the lead.  Her walkoff birdie lifted her to -6 for the week, putting her 1 shot ahead of Sun-Ju Ahn (72 with a birdie-birdie finish), 2 shots ahead of 2nd-round leader Ritsuko Ryu (who needed a birdie-birdie finish of her own to salvage a 74), 3 shots ahead of KLPGA stars Hyo-Joo Kim (who birdied 2 of her last 4 holes to save a 72) and Bo-Mee Lee (73 with a walkoff birdie), and 4 shots ahead of 1st-round leader Rikako Morita (73 with a walkoff birdie) and 19-year-old Hikari Fujita (71 with bogey-free 33 on back).

Yoshida, who turns 27 at the end of the month, is looking to build on her 3-win 2013 campaign by earning her 5th career JLPGA victory tomorrow.  Ahn, meanwhile, is looking for her 14th JLPGA victory since joining the tour in 2010.  What they've managed to accomplish over 54 holes may not sound like much, but when you consider how many other golfers who were in contention plunged down the leaderboard, their steadiness is quite impressive.  Na-Ri Kim and Jessica Speechley shot 80s, Young Kim and Mihoko Iseri 78s, Mi-Jeong Jeon and 2014 winner Yuki Ichinose 77s, Soo-Yun Kang, Rui Kitada, Hyun-Ju Shin, and Misuzu Narita 76s, and Erina Hara, Megumi Kido, and Ji-Hee Lee 75s on a day they started with chances to move to the top of the leaderboard.

Still, there are 9 players within 5 shots of the lead and another 10 within 8 shots of it.  So if the leaders falter on Sunday, plenty of golfers are in a position to leapfrog them.  Should be a wide-open final round!


Kraft Nabisco Championship Friday: Lexi Thompson Fires Bogey-Free 64 to Catch Se Ri Pak at Halfway Point

Lexi Thompson birdied 8 of her last 13 holes today at the Kraft Nabisco Championship to post the low round of the week--a bogey-free 64--and catch Se Ri Pak, who put together a bogey-free 70 of her own, at -7.  The American phenom and the Hall of Famer are both looking for their 1st KNC victory, but they're going to get plenty of competition this weekend from the likes of Michelle Wie (71, -6), Cristie Kerr (70, -5), and 1st-round leader Shanshan Feng (73, -5), not to mention Catriona Matthew (who opened the week with 2 double bogeys in her 1st 6 holes and has been -8 and bogey-free ever since), Anna Nordqvist (who is looking for her 2nd career major victory), and Morgan Pressel (who's looking for her 2nd victory at Mission Hills), who have all fought their way back to -4.

In fact, there are plenty of golfers playing well enough this week to win:

  • -3:  Mo Martin (73-68), Amy Yang (68-73)
  • -2:  Gerina Piller (77-65), Charley Hull (73-69), Carlota Ciganda (73-69), Azahara Munoz (72-70), Sandra Gal (72-70), So Yeon Ryu (70-72), Chella Choi (70-72), Ji-Yai Shin (69-73)
  • -1:  Minjee Lee (75-68), Angela Stanford (74-69), Christina Kim (74-69), Karrie Webb (73-70), Stacy Lewis (73-70), Lydia Ko (73-70), Na Yeon Choi (72-71), Mi Rim Lee (71-72), Jennifer Rosales (69-74)
  • E:  Inbee Park (74-70), Candie Kung (74-70), Hee Young Park (72-72), Mi Hyang Lee (72-72), Mariajo Uribe (72-72), Pornanong Phatlum (71-73), Nicole Castrale (71-73), Haeji Kang (70-74)
And let's not count out the following players who roared back from bad starts:
  • +1:  Brooke Henderson (77-68), Jimin Kang (76-69), Sakura Yokomine (75-70), Sei Young Kim (75-70)
  • +2:  Juli Inkster (76-70), Jodi Ewart Shadoff (76-70)
  • +3:  Ilhee Lee (78-69)
  • +4:  Ai Miyazato (77-71)
Of course, the further back they are, the better they need to play and the more help they need from the leaders over the weekend.  But Thompson, Piller, and Feng have shown how to get into the mid-60s at Mission Hill this year, so why not one of them?  Or Caroline Hedwall (71-74), Ha Na Jang (73-73), Jessica Korda (73-73), Paula Creamer (72-74), or In-Kyung Kim (74-73)?  After all, it's even harder to put 4 good rounds together on a major-quality set-up than it is during a normal week.  Nobody who made the cut should consider themselves out of this just yet.

Let's see who takes advantage of moving day!  Here are some pairings to watch:
  • 8:16 am:  Danielle Kang, Alison Lee
  • 9:55 am:  Ha Na Jang, Jessica Korda
  • 10:21 am:  Juli Inkster, Tiffany Joh
  • 12:08 pm:  Karrie Webb, Stacy Lewis
  • 12:35 pm:  Ji-Yai Shin, Chella Choi
  • 12:44 pm:  So Yeon Ryu, Azahara Munoz
  • 12:53 pm:  Sandra Gal, Carlota Ciganda
  • 1:02 pm:  Gerina Piller, Charley Hull
  • 1:19 pm:  Amy Yang, Mo Martin
  • 1:28 pm:  Anna Nordqvist, Morgan Pressel
  • 1:37 pm:  Shanshan Feng, Catriona Matthew
  • 1:46 pm:  Cristie Kerr, Michelle Wie
  • 1:55 pm:  Se Ri Pak, Lexi Thompson
Should be awesome!

[Update 1 (3:36 am):  I always love how Bill Rand focuses on the mental/emotional side of golf, but particularly this time through his run-down of interviews with the co-leaders!]

Friday, April 4, 2014

Yamaha Ladies Friday: Ritsuko Ryu Eagles 10th, Takes Lead

Ritsuko Ryu is only 26 years old, has already won twice on the JLPGA, and has finished in the top 15 on the tour's season-ending money list for each of the last 3 years, but she's been overshadowed a bit by players like Rikako Morita, Mamiko Higa, and others who've been in the vanguard of a Japanese youth movement on tour.  Well, when Morita, yesterday's leader at the Yamaha Ladies, made 5 bogeys and a triple bogey today and needed 3 birdies in her last 4 holes to salvage a 75, when visiting KLPGA young gun Hyo Joo Kim made 2 double bogeys in a row on the back to ruin an otherwise perfect day, and when nobody else close to the lead could match Ryu's birdie-eagle burst as she made the turn, the spotlight shifted Ryu's way, as she ended up with a 69 that brought her to -6 and the sole possession of the lead.

Hot on Ryu's tail are a trio of golfers who are pretty used to the spotlight themselves, Sun-Ju Ahn, Yumiko Yoshida, and Young Kim.  Yoshida got to -5 via a solid 71, but Ahn and Kim tied Ryu and Hyun-Ju Shin for the low rounds of the day (and the only under 70) to join her 1 shot off the lead.  If Bo-Mee Lee hadn't made a double early in her round, she may have outshone everyone today, but as it is she had to settle for a 70 that left her at -4, 1 shot ahead of Morita, the KLPGA's Kim, Erina Hara, and Mihoko Iseri.  With 24 players at E or better--including Shiho Oyama (70, -2) and Mi-Jeong Jeon (72, E)--the winner of the JLPGA's 1st 72-hole event of 2014 could still be almost anyone who made the cut (although Teresa Lu at +5 and Yuki Ichinose at +4 will have to play flawlessly over the next 36 holes to have a chance of getting into the Sunday mix).

Defending champion Mamiko Higa will not be one of them, however.  Her 78 today included only 1 birdie and left her barely on the wrong side of the cut line.  Other notables in her boat include Momoko Ueda, Na Zhang, Na-Ri Lee, Kumiko Kaneda, Mami Fukuda, and Nontaya Srisawang.  So with Ji-Yai Shin, Sakura Yokomine, and Bo-Bae Song playing at the Kraft Nabisco Championship, the stage is cleared for Ryu to make her mark over the weekend.  Let's see if she can do it--or whether the young guns will strike back on moving day!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Yamaha Ladies Thursday: Rikako Morita Keeps Right on Rolling Along

About the only Japanese golfer to qualify for the International Crown in late July to be playing really well to start the 2014 season is Rikako Morita.  Not only did she win the T-Point Ladies a couple of weeks ago, she's jumped out to the 1st-round lead at the Yamaha Ladies.  Her 7-birdie 66 today gave the 7-time winner on the JLPGA a 1-shot lead on Saiki Fujita and 22-year-old Risa Ogusu, a 2-shot lead on Yumiko Yoshida and last week's 1st-time winner Ayaka Watanabe, and a 3-shot lead on the likes of Bo-Mee Lee, Hyo Joo Kim, Ritsuko Ryu, Soo-Yun Kang, and Megumi Kido.

With Ji-Yai Shin, Sakura Yokomine, and Bo-Bae Song competing in the LPGA's 1st major of 2014, the Kraft Nabisco Championship, the stage is set for a showdown between some of the top young Japanese players on the JLPGA, the tour's South Korean contingent (including Sun-Ju Ahn, Mi Jeong Jeon, and Young Kim, who each opened with 70s), and such established stars as Fujita, Yoshida, and Shiho Oyama (E).

With Friday's round already well underway, I'll stop here and fill you in early tomorrow morning on the action!

Kraft Nabisco Championship Thursday: Shanshan Feng Takes 1-Shot Lead with 7-Birdie 66 over Se Ri Pak and Michelle Wie

Shanshan Feng has never finished inside the top 20 at the Kraft Nabisco Championship, but she put together a 7-birdie 66 to take a 1-shot lead on a living legend who lacks only the KNC (and the Evian) for a career Grand Slam and a former phenom who's still searching for her 1st major.  In addition to Se Ri Pak and Michelle Wie, Feng has to worry about Amy Yang (-4), Angel Yin (-4), Ji-Yai Shin (-3), Cristie Kerr (69), and Jennifer Rosales (69), as well as So Yeon Ryu, Morgan Pressel, Chella Choi, Haeji Kang, and Tiffany Joh at -2.

Feng's built a pretty comfortable cushion on other projected pre-tournament contenders:

  • -1:  Anna Nordqvist, Caroline Hedwall, Pornanong Phatlum
  • E:  Paula Creamer, Na Yeon Choi, Azahara Munoz, Hee Young Park, Sandra Gal, Catriona Matthew
  • +1:  Karrie Webb, Stacy Lewis, Lydia Ko, Lizette Salas, Lexi Thompson, Jessica Korda, Ha Na Jang, Charley Hull
  • +2:  Inbee Park, In-Kyung Kim, Sun Young Yoo, Angela Stanford, Eun-Hee Ji, Jenny Shin, Su-Hyun Oh
  • +3:  Ya Ni Tseng, Sakura Yokomine, Sei Young Kim, Minjee Lee, Alison Lee
  • +4:  Hee Kyung Seo, Annie Park
  • +5:  Ai Miyazato, Brittany Lincicome
But we'll just have to wait and see how the next 54 holes play out.  Given how hard many players found it to make birdies today, it looks like it'll be difficult for those in the lead to sustain their pace.  And if Mission Hills does start to play easier, then there are plenty of golfers used to going low within shouting distance of Feng, Pak, and Wie.