Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Best of the LPGA: April 2008 Edition

With the LPGA schedule in full swing and the SemGroup Championship coming up, it's time to return to Mostly Harmless's bimonthly attempt to combine the best systems for ranking the top LPGA golfers. By using the most recent results from the Rolex Rankings, the Golfweek/Sagarin Performance Index, the LPGA Official Money List, and Hound Dog's Top 30, I hope to identify the Best of the LPGA. A lot has changed since February, so hold onto your hats!

Well, one thing hasn't changed--rather, it's been confirmed:

1. Lorena Ochoa: #1 money ($1.44M), #1 RR (19.22), #1 GSPI (67.83), #1 HD. Hall of Fame in 2012? Check. Senorita Slam? All she needs is a hot June. Grand Slam? Not out of the question. Surpassing the LPGA single-season victory record of 13 wins? Why not?

But don't count out her closest competitors just yet. The ranking systems are pretty clear on who they are and how far behind Ochoa they are, but no one can stay in the zone forever while her closest competition struggles to find it.

2. Annika Sorenstam: #2 money ($914.3K), #2 RR (10.49), #3 GSPI (69.41), #4 HD. Would be celebrated for having a Player of the Year-caliber start to her season were it not for Ochoa's sublimity. Having rebounded from her only finish outside the top 10 this season at the Ginn Open with a playoff win over Paula Creamer at the Stanford International, she's established herself as the best and the most consistent of Ochoa's challengers. We'll have to wait to see how close Annika can come to Lorena in head-to-head competition until the Michelob Ultra, though.
3. Paula Creamer: #3 money ($558.2K), #4 RR (7.47), #2 GSPI (69.38), #3 HD. She's been struggling with some swing changes this spring as well as a recent hip injury, but still outplayed Sorenstam until the final holes of the Stanford International. For the best player in her year and second-best in her generation, though, she has an inexplicable lack of confidence. But I expect Karrie Webb would understand how she feels.
4. Suzann Pettersen: #5 money ($390.3K), #3 RR (8.35), #4 GSPI (69.52), #2 HD. After going -11 on the weekend at the Kraft Nabisco Championship, she has raised expectations for a return to her 2007 form, but a lack of consistency still dogs her, as she couldn't keep pace with the lead pack at the Ginn Open or the Stanford International Pro-Am.

Surprisingly, there are only 2 players in the top 10 in 3 of the 4 systems, which helps account for the extent of Ochoa's dominance in 2008:

5. Jeong Jang: #8 money ($241.3K), #9 RR (4.47), #15 GSPI (70.77), #5 HD. Inexplicable late-Friday collapse at the Stanford International lead to her first missed cut since the Women's British Open last August, but even though she hasn't contended since Paula Creamer chased her down in Hawaii, she's still been among the very best and most consistent of the LPGA's elite since last June.
6. Jee Young Lee: #15 money ($220.0K), #8 RR (4.55), #10 GSPI (70.51), #8 HD. Despite a terrible start to her season, got into contention at the Safeway International and since then has played brilliantly quite often but also has struggled with consistency.

The main body of the lead pack can be found in the top 10 in 2 of the 4 systems and/or in the top 20 in all:

7. Karrie Webb: #10 money ($238.0K), #5 RR (6.66), #13 GSPI (70.60), #17 HD. Awesome talent and incredible inconsistency make her very difficult to rank. If she hadn't leapfrogged into third at the Stanford International with a tournament-record 64, she wouldn't be in--or even that close to--my top 10.
8. Cristie Kerr: #30 money ($143.3K), #6 RR (5.48), #8 GSPI (70.15), #12 HD. Ditto, except it was a T6 at the Stanford International.
9. Seon Hwa Lee: #12 money ($234.5K), #18 RR (3.75), #12 GSPI (70.58), #6 HD. An inconsistent early season by her standards (3 top 20s along with a missed cut and a T47) came to an end when she got briefly into contention at the Kraft Nabisco Championship and followed it up with a top 10 at the Stanford International.
10. Mi Hyun Kim: #44 money ($81.2K), #11 RR (4.80), #9 GSPI (70.32), #9 HD. Top 10 at the Kraft raised hopes she was all the way back from her off-season knee surgery, but followed it up with a MC at the Ginn Open and a T24 at the Stanford International. Still, don't count out the defending SemGroup champion just yet--she's got the eye of the tiger in every photograph I've seen of her this year.
11. Angela Stanford: #18 money ($218.5K), #20 RR (3.52), #14 GSPI (70.68), #11 HD. Continues her ascent to the stratosphere of women's professional golf. Will she feel the pull of gravity or achieve escape velocity?
12. Ya Ni Tseng: #4 money ($445.3K), #36 RR (2.83), #5 GSPI (70.04), #22 HD. The second-ranked rookie in the ROY race is first in her class in the POY race. Go figure!

Even with early-season volatility, there are only a few golfers with a top 10 in 1 system and otherwise consistent stats.

13. Momoko Ueda: #25 money ($157.2K), #10 RR (4.39), #11 GSPI (70.51), #20 HD. Playing in the final Sunday pairing with Annika Sorenstam for the second time this season helped her claw her way back into contention in the Rookie of the Year race. Although she benefits from the GSPI not including KLPGA events in its system, I still think she's the real deal.
14. Hee-Won Han: #17 money ($219.0K), #29 RR (3.13), #7 GSPI (70.08), #15 HD. Coming off maternity leave and shooting up the rankings, but will need to get more top 10s to keep movin' on up.
15. Morgan Pressel: #39 money ($96.3K), #13 RR (4.10), #27 GSPI (71.19), #7 HD. Like Creamer, working on some swing changes, but unlike her she missed the cut rather than a win by a single stroke at the Stanford International.
16. Stacy Prammanasudh: #24 money ($161.1K), #15 RR (3.88), #31 GSPI (71.39), #10 HD. 2 top 10s in a sea of mediocrity thus far is not what I expected from one of the best Americans on tour.
17. Lindsey Wright: #6 money ($244.4K), #40 RR (2.48), #38 GSPI (71.67), #29 HD. The highest-ranked player of those with hot hands in the early season (including Louise Friberg, Song-Hee Kim, Teresa Lu, Minea Blomqvist, and Karen Stupples), she has kicked her game up two notches this season and seems likely to continue her big move up the rankings. She's shown she can go low and come back from bad rounds--the only question remaining is whether she can attain the kind of consistency needed to pass those ahead of her.

There are only a couple of golfers with top 20s in 2 of the 4 systems who are playing at all well this season.

18. Maria Hjorth: #22 money ($191.5K), #16 RR (3.87), #25 GSPI (71.13), #13 HD. The only thing holding her back is inconsistency--not from finish to finish or even round to round, but hole to hole!
19. Angela Park: #28 money ($157.3K), #22 RR (3.38), #17 GSPI (70.83), #14 HD. The Stanford International marked her first top 10 of the season since a slow-play penalty knocked her out of contention in Hawaii. Maybe she's started focusing on her overall ballstriking rather than the quest for more distance that is the White Whale (and sometimes Albatross) of so many of the precision players this season.
20. Natalie Gulbis: #41 money ($87.9K), #21 RR (3.45), #20 GSPI (70.95), #19 HD. Moved up only because those immediately ahead of her have played so badly thus far this season.
21. Juli Inkster: #47 money ($69.8K), #14 RR (4.07), #18 GSPI (70.86), #26 HD. Showed some signs of life at the Safeway and Stanford, but on the verge of getting passed by a bevy of Young Guns this season.
22. Se Ri Pak: #80 money ($40.0K), #12 RR (4.17), #35 GSPI (71.49), #13 HD. Is it time for this Hall of Famer's loyal fans to push the panic button? Is her terrible play so far this season (except for a top 10 at the Kraft) due to a nagging shoulder injury? Or is she just off?

Which means that the large group with one top 20 and otherwise strong stats are poised to pass them:

23. Laura Diaz: #13 money ($227.9K), #35 RR (2.94), #36 GSPI (71.56), #23 HD. Missed two cuts recently after a fantastic start to the season, but seems to have gotten back on track with a solid finish at the Stanford International.
24. Eun-Hee Ji: #29 money ($145.9K), #26 RR (3.23), #19 GSPI (70.87), n.r. HD. It's hard to tell if she benefits or not from the GSPI excluding KLPGA results (my guess is no), but in any case, she's movin' on up!
25. Christina Kim: #32 money ($128.7K), #47 RR (2.37), #22 GSPI (71.05), #16 HD. Same as Diaz, except for only missing 1 cut and not playing well at the Stanford International (thanks to that rassin'-frassin' 18th hole!).
26. Na Yeon Choi: #19 money ($203.3K), #44 RR (2.41), #26 GSPI (71.14), n.r. HD. The leader in the Rookie of the Year race despite being non-exempt in 2008. But why didn't she get an early-season promotion into the Michelob Ultra?
27. Young Kim: #20 money ($195.3K), #51 RR (2.00), #34 GSPI (71.48), n.r. HD. Movin' on up!
28. Inbee Park: #16 money ($219.4K), #50 RR (2.09), #52 GSPI (72.18), n.r. HD. Movin' on up (coincidentally, ever since I proclaimed that she had been passed by a couple of classmates who have much fewer events under their belts!).

Since it's still early in the season, I'll include players who are consistently in the top 20s and 30s in the ranking systems (allowing for 1 blip only--sorry, Ai-chan!).

29. Karen Stupples: #23 money ($183.7K), #52 RR (2.00), #21 GSPI (70.96), #25 HD. This returning mom is one of the hottest players on tour; until her recent stumble at the Stanford International, she had finished no worse than 16th.
30. Nicole Castrale: #49 money ($69.5K), #32 RR (2.99), #28 GSPI (71.28), #24 HD. Struggling just a little bit less than other highly-touted young Americans and veteran international players.
31. Candie Kung: #26 money ($153.0K), #69 RR (1.45), #32 GSPI (71.45), n.r. HD. An early candidate for Comeback Player of the Year (or at least potential runner-up to Sorenstam), she's broken into the rankings before Carin Koch or Grace Park, other resurgent veterans.
32. Sophie Gustafson: #62 money ($55.1K), #34 RR (2.97), #24 GSPI (71.13), n.r. HD. Showed signs of life at the Safeway International and Corona Championship, but also has missed 2 cuts already this season.
33. Catriona Matthew: #75 money ($43.9K), #24 RR (3.31), #33 GSPI (71.46), n.r. HD. Last ranking, I asked "Can this new mom pick up where she left off last season?" So far the answer is "no." Don't know if it's injuries or the demands of a toddler as opposed to a baby, but her game has fallen off sharply from last season's triumphant return to the tour.

This list was threatening to turn into a top 50--that's how close the next 20 or so players are to the rising Stupples and Kung and falling Castrale, Gustafson, and Matthew--so it'll be interesting to see in June who among them has moved up and who in this list has fallen out. And even more interesting to see how much the lead pack can close the gap on Ochoa! No one can stay in the zone forever....