Before I lay out the 25 players from the classes of 2006-2008 whom I believe have the potential to get or stay in the top 30 this year and eventually be considered among the game's best, I want to highlight a few other LPGA season previews I've come across while preparing this Mostly Harmless series. Jason Sobel names 5 women out of 18 golfers he thinks are ready to make "the leap," Hound Dog's ride on the LPGA Elevator is smooth, Golfgal's run-down of big names is not half bad, and Jason Wulterkens's prediction that women's golf is poised to go prime time like women's tennis did in its heyday is interesting (if at times sloppy in its details). And while I'm citing my sources, I'd like to acknowledge Mulligan Stu's assessments of the 2007 Q-School and Futures Tour grads, the Seoul Sisters 2007 Q-School discussion forum, and my own most recent ranking of the class of 2006.
Oh, and the stats I list are career winnings (rank); # of LPGA events entered/majors/wins/top 3s/top 10s/top 20s/cuts made (made cut rate); non-member and international wins. When there's a discrepancy between the LPGA bio sheet and performance chart, I go by the latter.
1. Seon Hwa Lee (2006) $2.02M (#79); 57/0/2/7/15/31/55 (.965); 3: Her 12-1-0 record in match play events over the past two seasons should say it all--she is one of the grittiest competitors in the world, bar none. If she putts in 2008 like she did in her rookie season, this former Rookie of the Year could go from being the best Asian golfer to the best in the world.
2. Morgan Pressel (2006) $1.44M (#112); 48/1/1/4/17/29/44 (.917); 0: At least the third-best American already, she was the most-improved player of the class of 2006 last season. And she still has a long way to go to reach her potential.
3. Jee Young Lee (2006) $1.54M (#102); 49/0/0/4/16/28/47 (.959); 2: The top Young Gun in my latest Best of the LPGA ranking, despite suffering a heart-breaking playoff loss to Suzann Pettersen in May and a shoulder injury two-thirds of the way through the season, I agree with Hound Dog that she may well have the most upside of anyone in her cohort. If she can put together a putting performance like in her rookie year (T6 in PPGIR) and an approach shot performance like in her sophomore year (4th in GIR), watch out for an Ochoa/Pettersen-style breakout sometime in the next few years. Going by her strong play at the end of 2007, including dominating performances at the Kyoraku and Lexus Cups, we might not have long to wait for her first win as an LPGA member.
4. Angela Park (2007) $.98M (#159); 28/0/0/4/8/12/27 (.964); 0: The only thing the 2007 Rookie of the Year needs to do is get used to being in contention. Once she learns to play better on the weekend, we can expect multiple multiple-win seasons from her. She has the best chance of anyone in her class to avoid the dreaded sophomore jinx--or at least minimize its effects.
5. Ai Miyazato (2006) $1.32M (#119); 46/0/0/4/14/19/38 (.826); 14: Speaking of sophomore jinxes, one sure hit her hard after a minor injury sustained during her runner-up finish to Seon Hwa Lee at the HSBC decimated her swing and confidence for the rest of the 2007 season. If the 2005 Q-School medalist would have had to compete in the 2007 edition, she would have been back on the JLPGA in 2008. Still, everyone goes through slumps and I have faith in my favorite player to bounce back strong this year. Go Ai-chan!
6. In-Kyung Kim (2007) $.45M (#253); 26/0/0/1/4/7/21 (.808); 0: Not only was she #2 in the Rookie of the Year race and almost beat Lorena Ochoa head-to-head for her first win last season, she rocked the Lexus Cup, as well, outplaying Angela Park and just about everyone else in the competition except the Fighting Super Soph Lees. She should have loads of confidence heading into her sophomore season--and deserves to.
7. Momoko Ueda (2008): Like Jee Young Lee, the #1 player on the JLPGA last year already has a non-member win on the LPGA, which brings her victory total to 5. Moreover, she has 3 top 10s in 5 LPGA starts as a non-member and has never missed a cut. How she adjusts to life in the U.S. is an open question, but with Ai-chan already having blazed the trail, I expect great things from her.
8. Eun-Hee Ji (2007) $.25M (#349); 4/0/0/1/2/3/4 (1.000); 4: Among the top 3 players on the KLPGA in 2007, she played well in three of the four countries in which she competed on the LPGA that same season. Like Momo-chan, will have to decide how many LPGA events to compete in this season and will have to adjust to life in a new country if she decides to jump in with both feet. But both are young enough to be flexible and experienced enough to be a threat to contend in any tournament they enter.
9. Jane Park (2007) $.06M (#478); 11/0/0/0/0/2/9 (.818); 0: Struggled mightily in her rookie season as a non-exempt player, but improved on her .700 made-cut rate from her years as a non-member, and, more important, matched Miyazato's record-low score in her wire-to-wire win at Q-School last month. I'm with Mulligan Stu--she's the real deal and should have a breakout season in 2008.
10. Julieta Granada (2006) $2.05M (#78); 57/0/1/5/10/19/43 (.754); 0: Should be well over her sophomore jinx--which struck almost immediately after her runner-up finish in the first event of 2007 and pretty much stuck around all year, except for a couple of bright spots at the Corona and the U.S. Open--this year. I hope. She's still the leading money winner in her cohort...nobody can take that 2006 ADT win away from her!
11. Inbee Park (2007) $.38M (#266); 26/0/0/1/2/5/18 (.692): Great play at the U.S. Women's Open and Safeway Classic salvaged what would otherwise have been a bitterly disappointing rookie year for one of the dominant players on the Futures Tour in the previous season, although she did stabilize her game as the year went on and almost made the top 30 on the money list. If she has even a decent year in 2008, she'll be a top 20 player. And if she can pull a Pressel....
12. Hee Young Park (2008): The 2005 KLPGA Rookie of the Year has 4 victories to her name, made 3 of 5 LPGA cuts as a non-member, and had three runner-up finishes on the KLPGA in 2007. She's been aiming to play on the LPGA for some time and earned it with a great Q-School performance, which made her the only exempt rookie Seoul Sister in her class.
13. Ya Ni Tseng (2008): Joining Candie Kung and Amy Hung as top Taiwanese golfers on the LPGA, she's coming off a strong season on the Asian Tour, a fantastic performance at the Canadian Open last year, and a solid stroll through the pressure-packed Q-School.
14. Na-Yeon Choi (2008): Another top player from the KLPGA, with 4 career victories there, she will have to play her way into exempt status for the 2009 season, but since she only finished 2 shots out of gaining an exemption in Q-School last month, she shouldn't have any trouble doing this.
Pretty Darn Good Bets
15. Brittany Lang (2006) $.89M (#179); 54/0/0/2/9/21/36 (.667); 0: Until Ai-chan's horrific post-HSBC run, was enduring the worst season of any of the class of 2006, but she hung in there and was still a top 40 player, due in part to her ability to eke out top 20s even when she wasn't playing all that well by her standards. Look for her to bounce back in 2008.
16. Meaghan Francella (2006) $.51M (#238); 29/0/1/1/4/8/19 (.655); 0: After beating Annika Sorenstam in a playoff and continuing to shine in the first half of the season, she suffered a dog bite and a rib injury and her game suffered in the second half of 2007. Rested and healthy, she has a decent shot at qualifying for the ADT Championship for the second year in a row.
17. Kyeong Bae (2006) $.60M (#226); 52/0/0/2/6/10/37 (.712); 3: This top 45ish player over her first two seasons is poised to make a quantum leap in 2008.
18. Hye Jung Choi (2006) $.30M (#298); 27/0/0/0/3/7/18 (.667); 1: This co-medalist at the 2006 Q-School with In-Kyung Kim was essentially a rookie in 2007, so there's a chance her performance could fall off in 2008, but having gotten her first win on the KLPGA last year, that's pretty unlikely.
19. Na On Min (2007) $.31M (#296); 20/0/0/1/2/4/13 (.650); 0: Starting 2007 as a non-exempt player, she placed third in the Rookie of the Year race and by finishing in the top 40 on the money list earned an exemption for the next two seasons. With her fine record at the two majors she's competed in, she could be poised for bigger and better things.
20. Linda Wessberg (2006) $.17M (#376); 14/0/0/0/3/4/9 (.643); 6: After splitting her time between the LET and LPGA in 2007, this Solheim Cupper should play a fuller LPGA schedule in 2008 and should do quite well.
21. Sandra Gal (2008): She ended her impressive amateur career with a great performance at Q-School last month, finishing 69-69 to squeak in as an exempt player for 2008, so she'll be able to learn on the job.
Not Bad Bets at All
22. Ashleigh Simon (2008): In the same boat as Na-Yeon Choi is this year and Na On Min was last year, but with only 1 victory to her name from her abbreviated season on the LET last year, her adjustment to the level of competition on the LPGA, like Gal's, will likely be a bit rockier.
23. Sun Young Yoo (2006) $.36M (#273); 50/0/0/0/2/8/35 (.700); 0: Can she bounce back from a disappointing sophomore season in 2008?
24. Karin Sjodin (2006) $.32M (#287); 44/0/0/0/3/9/28 (.636); 1: Having made steady improvement from season to season, she will have a lot more young LETers to keep her company on the LPGA in 2008, so look for her to have a good junior year.
25. Shanshan Feng (2008): The first fully-exempt player from China on the LPGA will have her work cut out for her in her rookie season, but she's used to being in the winner's circle from her outstanding amateur career, so stands at least as good a chance as the better-known young American grads from Q-School and the Futures Tour.