As the volatility of careers among the LPGA veterans I profiled last post shows, it takes a very special golfer to extend their time on tour beyond ten years. Who among the players whose careers began between 2000 and 2005 have what it takes to become leading veterans themselves? Of course, only one person stands out right now. Lorena Ochoa is putting in a strong bid to have the post-Sorenstam era in the LPGA named after her, but Suzann Pettersen, Paula Creamer, Hee-Won Han, Jeong Jang, Stacy Prammanasudh, and Natalie Gulbis are jockeying to pass Grace Park as the top challenger in her cohort. And there are a dozen other players who could break out the way Ochoa and Pettersen have in recent years.
1. Lorena Ochoa (2003) $10.43M (#4); 17 wins/1 major: Hound Dog was the first to point out that she could qualify for the Hall of Fame in 2008. Now the only question is how quickly will she do it? Can HOFers Inkster, Sorenstam, Webb, and Pak elevate their games and deny her some victories? How many of her contemporaries can draft her and position themselves to pass her? Will any of the newbies throw their hats in the ring? Right now she's the only player in the world for whom a disappointing result is failing to be in contention on the back on Sunday. Will she be alone there by the end of 2008? I think she'll still be the world #1 at the end of the season, but she's going to face the toughest competition of her career this year.
2. Grace Park (2000) $5.23M (#23); 6/1: Once one of the best players in the world, now a cautionary tale for Ochoa and the others in their cohort--see her Seoul Sisters bio for the gory details. Despite dealing with the aftereffects of serious back injuries from her previous two seasons and playing a limited schedule in 2007, she did earn her card for 2008, so she's on equal footing with the two closest competitors in her cohort, Jeong Jang and Hee-Won Han. But unless she improves fast, they'll leave her in the dust by the end of the season. Barring Sorenstam, all the recent Hall of Famers faced real trials and tribulations over the course of their careers yet always found ways to come back from the depths. Don't count Grace out yet!
3. Jeong Jang (2000) $5.03M (#25); 2/1: Took advantage of Han's maternity leave for most of 2007 to pass her on the career money list, but she still had a disappointing season by her high standards set by her previous two seasons. At the start of her 9th season, has to be aiming to be one of the best golfers in the world. Can she do it?
4. Hee-Won Han (2001) $4.82M (#27); 6/0: Could easily have a double-digit win total if she had been able to close the deal earlier in her career a bit more often, she's looking to return to the game's elite in 2008. This new mom's season should be more impressive than Catriona Matthew's return from maternity leave in 2007.
5. Paula Creamer (2005) $3.99M (#32); 4/0: Should be recognized as the best American in women's golf by the end of 2008. Has improved her scoring average every year on tour and is the only player besides Ochoa in her cohort to have averaged more than one win per season. She never has earned less than a million dollars in her career and 2008 should be no different. Poised for multiple multi-win seasons over the next five years.
6. Natalie Gulbis (2002) $3.38M (#42); 1/0: Mid-season injuries held her back in 2007, but she finished very strong and should get off to as fast a start in 2008 as she did last season. A definite top 20 player, but will have to really work to get back into the top 10.
7. Gloria Park (2000) $3.11M (#49); 2/0: A streaky player, this newlywed is looking to bounce back from her worst season since her rookie year and regain her top 30 form. Can she maintain or improve her position in a very strong class of 2000, whose members have been characterized by great ups and downs already in their careers? Hopefully the win at the Women's World Cup by Dorothy Delasin and Jennifer Rosales will inspire and motivate her.
8. Candie Kung (2002) $3.07M (#50); 3/0: Due to her playing a limited schedule in 2007, she was passed by Gulbis on the career money list, and it's an open question whether she can return to being one of the best golfers in the world, as she was from 2003-2005. A good performance at the Lexus Cup may give her some momentum heading into 2008.
9. Suzann Pettersen (2003) $2.76M (#55); 5/1: Came out of nowhere--due mainly to her having to deal with serious injuries during her first three seasons--in 2007 to become the #2 player in the world. Can she continue to challenge Ochoa for the #1 spot or will she have to settle for trying to retain the #2 spot in her class by staying ahead of Christina Kim?
10. Angela Stanford (2001) $2.69M (#59); 1/0: Coming off the best season of her career, she ought to be a top 25 player again in 2008, as she has been in 3 of the last 5 seasons.
Best of the Rest
11. Dorothy Delasin (2000) $2.53M (#62); 4/0: This former Rookie of the Year has struggled her past 4 seasons, but she is ready to improve on the best in that bunch. In 2005, she and Rosales came in second at the Women's World Cup, so perhaps their win in 2008 will help her vault back into the top 40.
12. Christina Kim (2003) $2.46M (#66); 2/0: Like Gloria Park, another talented but streaky player. Unlike Park, 2007 was one of her best seasons, but she had to deal with the disappointment of not playing in any of the three international team competitions she was eligible for. Hopefully she'll use that as motivation for 2008 and 2009 and become the top 20 player she ought to be.
13. Stacy Prammanasudh (2003) $2.27M (#73); 2/0: Has improved every season and is now probably the 4th-best American, behind Kerr, Creamer, and Pressel. Don't be surprised if 2008 is a breakout year for her.
14. Jennifer Rosales (2000) $2.20M (#74); 2/0: Once one of the best players in her cohort, she has disappeared in the last two seasons. Hopefully her win with Delasin in the 2008 Women's World Cup will get her off the John Daly track of WDs, DQs, and MCs. If it doesn't, she'll lose her card for 2009.
15. Shi Hyun Ahn (2004) $1.94M (#84); 1/0: Another player who has had to deal with injuries early in her career, this Rookie of the Year has stayed well ahead of her two closest competitors in her class, Aree Song and Reilley Rankin, despite playing a fairly limited schedule the past 3 seasons. In 2008, looking to build on her best season since her rookie year.
16. Brittany Lincicome (2005) $1.85M (#89); 2/0: Although she faded a bit in the second half of 2007, she passed Meena Lee on the career money list to become Creamer's top challenger in their class. The big question for her is whether she can become a top 10 player in 2008.
17. Meena Lee (2005) $1.81M (#91); 2/0: Looking to bounce back from the worst season of her short career; should be able to get back into the top 30 again.
18. Young Kim (2003) $1.79M (#92); 1/0: After hovering around the top 40 mark her first two seasons and the top 30 mark the last three, this talented player is looking to catch up to her peers in the very strong class of 2003 in 2008.
19. Sarah Lee (2002) $1.76M (#94); 0/0: Looking to build on the best season of her career last year. Despite suffering through some mid-season injuries, she showed she has the talent to be a top 20 player. But most likely will struggle to stay in the top 30 in 2008.
20. Becky Morgan (2001) $1.65M (#97); 0/0: Looking to regain her 2003-2004 form in 2008, but unlikely to make up serious ground on Han and Stanford, the only classmates ahead of her on the career money list.