Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Best of the Young Guns: April 2008 Edition

It's inevitable that the majority of Lorena Ochoa's chief challengers will come from the generation of LPGA pros I've been calling the Young Guns. This season, I've gone out on a limb and predicted that we'll start seeing the best of them play a major role in the Player of the Year race. But who really are this generation's best players? It's too soon to start comparing this year's rookies with the Junior Mints and Super Sophs--although at this point in the season Na Yeon Choi and Ya Ni Tseng have been super-impressive, Louise Friberg and Momoko Ueda have shown they can contend (and, in the former's case, win), and Hee Young Park and Amy Yang have shown they can compete at a top level--but we're certainly far enough into the season to offer a provisional answer to the question with respect to the classes of 2006 and 2007.

Simply the Best

1. Seon Hwa Lee: It's not just that, among those in her generation, she has the most wins, winnings, top 3s, and top 20s, is second on the Golfweek/Sagarin Performance Index and in top 10s, and is third in the Rolex Rankings and in made-cut rate, it's also that she's dominated in match play since joining the LPGA, avoided big slumps, and generally been the model of quiet brilliance. It's a crime that she's only #9 in my latest Best of the LPGA ranking, but once she starts playing well by her standards, watch out. There's a reason I picked her as the third-most-likely golfer on tour to win Player of the Year in 2008.
2. Jee Young Lee: The top-ranked Young Gun in both the RR and GSPI (as well as our own Best of the LPGA ranking) always seems to be on the verge of breaking through for her first win as a LPGA member. Her game is certainly comparable to Lorena Ochoa's and Suzann Pettersen's. All she needs is more experience in the hunt.
3. Morgan Pressel: She's been struggling since late last summer, as the big gap between her RR and GSPI indicates (RR includes the last 104 weeks; GSPI only the last 52), but that first major in her generation and her lead in the top 10 race can't be ignored. Still, she's dropped to #15 in our latest Best of the LPGA ranking and could easily fall further--that's how close the #5 and the #35 players are on tour this season.
4. Angela Park: A precision player like Seon Hwa Lee and Pressel, she's been fiddling around with her swing this season, but seems to have started to figure things out. Although she's still been making cuts at a fantastic rate, she took a long hiatus between being in contention in Hawaii in February and getting back in the top 10 mode in Florida last week. As a result, she's dropped to #19 in our latest Best of the LPGA ranking. But she's still on a pace to pass Pressel by September when I do this ranking next.

The Contenders

5. Ai Miyazato: Went through a horrific sophomore jinx after a nagging injury incurred during her runner-up finish to Seon Hwa Lee at the HSBC match play event last summer lead to technical difficulties in her swing and confidence issues, but seems to have played her way through it despite a terrible Hawaii swing. Her average rounds are merely mediocre now and she's shown flashes of good golf again, but she's still in danger of getting passed by a bevy of hot Super Sophs.
6. Eun-Hee Ji: Has shown the ability to contend from the get-go in her LPGA career, from qualifying for the tour as a non-exempt player while spending most of her time on the KLPGA last season to her most recent top 10 at the Stanford International. Whether she can sustain this pace playing full-time on tour remains to be seen, but one thing is clear from her T4 at the Safeway International--she gets up for big events. She's already #24 in our latest MH Best of the LPGA ranking. How high can she go?
7. Brittany Lang: She's played her way through the worst slump of her career a little sooner than Miyazato has (although to be fair to Ai-chan Brittany's sophomore jinx hit her earlier, too) and is back to making top 20s at the 4th-best rate of her generation. Is her T6 at the Safeway International a sign of things to come? It had better be, because the Super Sophs are coming!
8. Inbee Park: She's leapfrogged to 3rd in her class after a hot April (probably spurred on by my putting her 5th in her class last month). Even though inconsistency kept her out of contention at the Stanford International, she's got a great shot to be her generation's 8th player to cross the $1M mark in career earnings.
9. In-Kyung Kim: She's fallen further behind one Park, been passed by another, and is in danger of getting overtaken by a third. In fact, she's going to have to tap into that off-season match-play brilliance or she'll no longer even be the top Kim in her class next month! At least she stopped the MC bleeding at the Stanford International last week. We'll have to wait till the Michelob Ultra to see if that's the start of better things to come for one of my favorite players.
10. Jane Park: Like Miyazato and Lang, I cut her from our latest MH Best of the LPGA when it became clear including them would open the door for it to become a top 50 rather than a top 30-ish ranking. I had a great feast-or-famine metaphor in my blurb for her there, but I can't remember it now. The basic point was that, like those ranked ahead of her in her class, she could easily have been the first to get that first win. And she still could be.
11. Julieta Granada: Still in the midst of an extended sophomore jinx. But at least Judy Rankin thinks she has a more "modern" swing than Morgan Pressel.
12. Kyeong Bae: Beginning to return to her birdie machine ways after a terrible start to the season, but has been passed left and right.
13. Meaghan Francella: Like Miyazato, suffered a mid-season injury in 2007, but her slump is getting worse and worse as her junior year goes on. Fortunately for her, her win over Annika Sorenstam early last season carries with it an exemption through 2010.

Quantum Leap Candidates

14. Teresa Lu: Has picked up her game in 2008, perhaps in response to her fellow Taiwanese Young Gun Ya Ni Tseng's fantastic rookie season. Whatever the reason, she's been playing the best golf of her LPGA career.
15. Minea Blomqvist: Another feast-or-famine type player who's been feasting pretty well this season. Somehow has become the top Euro in her class.
16. Na On Min: The Na Yeon Choi of her class, she earned her card last season playing in relatively few events as a non-exempt player, but has promptly begun a sophomore slump this one.
17. Song-Hee Kim: Finally realizing the promise she showed on the Futures Tour. Only rookie Louise Friberg has made more money than her in their generation thus far this season.
18. Sun Young Yoo: I had her pegged as a kind of Nina Reis figure--make a lot of cuts, never get into the top 50--but in recent weeks she's figured out how to go low and has gotten a top 10 and some top 20s as a result.
19. Linda Wessberg: Off to a disappointing start as a full-time player on the LPGA, which is a cautionary tale for Super Sophs Eun-Hee Ji, Jane Park, Na On Min, and Song-Hee Kim, all of whom also have limited experience playing a full LPGA schedule.
20. H.J. Choi: In the midst of a shocking slump. Despite winning on the KLPGA late last season, little has gone right for her since.
21. Ji Young Oh: Got hot early this season but has since cooled off.
22. Karin Sjodin: Like Choi, slumping this season, but at least her stats are fairly solid. Has the power to keep pace with Jee Young Lee, but hasn't shown much ability to harness it in 2008.
23. Charlotte Mayorkas: Hasn't yet hit her stride this season--playing more like Nina Reis than Sun Young Yoo, so to speak.
24. Jin Joo Hong: Ditto, except has made fewer cuts.

For your reference--and mine--here are the stats on which I'm basing the April ranking.

2008 LPGA Money List (rank), stroke average (rank), birdies per round average (rank [in total birdies]), greens in regulation rate (rank): I focus on four key indicators of how well someone is playing this season--how much money they've made, how they've scored, how many birdies they've averaged per round, and how many greens they've hit in regulation on average per round, plus how they rank in each category. (I figure I can figure out how well they're hitting their irons and putting by comparing the last three figures, so I won't include putts per green in regulation here.) Some of the figures Hound Dog thinks are most important I'm looking at in the career stats (below), where I think they belong. These stats are all about the present and future--well, except that for the umpteenth time's stats page is glitch-ridden, so I'm using last week's stats for everyone not ranked in the top 15 in these categories (except winnings, which have been updated for everyone).

1. Song-Hee Kim, $240.2K (#9), 71.22 (#12), 3.72 (#33), 69.2% (#35)
2. Teresa Lu, $235.5K (#11), 72.28 (#43), 2.76 (#27), 66.0% (#66)
3. Seon Hwa Lee, $234.5K (#12), 71.26 (#13), 2.96 (#30), 70.5% (#22)
4. Minea Blomqvist, $223.3K (#14), 71.92 (#31), 3.50 (#13), 65.7% (#68)
5. Jee Young Lee, $220.0K (#15), 72.00 (#35), 3.24 (#10), 66.7% (#58)
6. Inbee Park, $219.4K (#16), 71.50 (#16), 3.50 (#6), 62.5% (#97)
7. Jane Park, $191.6K (#21), 71.69 (#21), 3.12 (#76), 73.5% (#5)
8. Angela Park, $157.3K (#28), 72.59 (#55), 3.23 (#23), 66.4% (#63)
9. Eun-Hee Ji, $145.9K (#29), 72.05 (#38), 3.00 (#37), 68.7% (#37)
10. Brittany Lang, $138.7K (#31), 71.88 (#30), 2.84 (#23), 71.3% (#19)
11. Sun Young Yoo, $112.7K (#34), 71.75 (#23), 3.95 (#17), 62.8% (#96)
12. Ji Young Oh, $105.5K (#36), 72.24 (#21), 3.08 (#18), 64.2% (#85)
13. Morgan Pressel, $96.3K (#39), 71.80 (#26), 3.40 (#30), 67.0% (#56)
14. In-Kyung Kim, $83.8K (#40), 72.94 (#70), 3.06 (#81), 61.1% (#107)
15. Ai Miyazato, $67.5K (#51), 72.90 (#67), 2.50 (#76), 64.2% (#84)
16. Charlotte Mayorkas, $47.2K (#69), 72.77 (#59), 2.73 (#43), 61.9% (#104)
17. Na On Min, $40.6K (#78), 73.35 (#97), 2.75 (#60), 64.5% (#82)
18. Karin Sjodin, $40.4K (#7), 72.59 (#54), 3.47 (#48), 65.0% (#79)
19. Jin Joo Hong, $37.0K (#83), 73.35 (#98), 2.35 (#98), 59.0% (#122)
20. Julieta Granada, $28.9K (#101), 74.19 (#125), 1.81 (#100), 61.1% (#107)
21. Linda Wessberg, $27.9K (#103), 72.72 (#58), 3.11 (#57), 69.8% (#26)
22. Kyeong Bae, $27.2K (#107), 73.84 (#114), 2.84 (#63), 61.9% (#104)
23. H.J. Choi, $23.3K (#113), 74.14 (#121), 2.14 (#90), 61.1% (#107)
24. Meaghan Francella, $19.2K (#122), 74.81 (#136), 2.06 (#116), 63.3% (#90)

Career LPGA Money List (rank), # of LPGA events entered/majors/wins/top 3s/top 10s/top 20s/cuts made (made cut rate): About the only thing these stats are useful for is comparing people who entered the LPGA in the same year (although if you count generations by 3 years, it can be interesting). Between inflation, changing purses, and length/timing of careers, it's very hard to compare and contrast winnings across generations of LPGA greats. Fortunately the Junior Mints and Super Sophs haven't been at this all too long, so the career money list is a decent stat for comparing them, even if it's a bit unfair to people who have not been exempt every year. What would really be great is if we had a world money list in inflation-adjusted dollars, with inflation- and exchange-adjusted other cash denominations added in (or just totalled up separately to avoid comparing dollars and yen), which included all each golfer earned as a professional on any tour. But even the guys don't have that, so that'll have to remain a dream for now. I include these other ways of seeing how the Young Guns finished relative to their competition in the tournaments they entered because they reveal a lot about how well someone is able to compete at every level, from just making cuts to grinding out top 20s and top 10s to contending for wins. So here's how they stand:

1. Seon Hwa Lee, $2.25M (#74), 65/0/2/7/17/36/62 (.954)
2. Julieta Granada, $2.07M (#79), 65/0/1/5/10/19/48 (.738)
3. Jee Young Lee, $1.76M (#95), 57/0/0/5/17/30/55 (.965)
4. Morgan Pressel, $1.53M (#104), 55/1/1/4/18/31/49 (.891)
5. Ai Miyazato, $1.39M (#116), 53/0/0/4/14/20/43 (.811)
6. Angela Park, $1.13M (#140), 34/0/0/4/10/14/33 (.971)
7. Brittany Lang, $1.03M (#157), 62/0/0/2/10/24/44 (.710)
8. Kyeong Bae, $.62M (#220), 60/0/0/2/6/10/44 (.733)
9. Inbee Park, $.60M (#226), 34/0/0/2/5/9/23 (.676)
10. In-Kyung Kim, $.54M (#236), 32/0/0/1/6/9/25 (.781)
11. Meaghan Francella $.53M (#238), 36/0/1/1/4/8/21 (.583)
12. Teresa Lu, $.49M (#250), 50/0/0/1/4/8/34 (.680)
13. Sun Young Yoo, $.48M (#254), 57/0/0/0/3/11/41 (.719)
14. Eun-Hee Ji, $.40M (#270), 12/0/0/1/4/5/9 (.750)
15. Minea Blomqvist, $.39M (#272), 42/0/0/1/3/5/24 (.571)
16. Karin Sjodin, $.36M (#282), 51/0/0/0/3/9/31 (.608)
17. Na On Min, $.35M (#286), 27/0/0/1/2/5/17 (.630)
18. H.J. Choi, $.33M (#294), 35/0/0/0/3/7/22 (.629)
19. Song-Hee Kim $.32M (#298), 25/0/0/1/2/3/14 (.560)
20. Jane Park, $.26M (#326), 18/0/0/2/2/5/13 (.722)
21. Ji Young Oh, $.25M (#327), 30/0/0/0/2/3/18 (.600)
22. Charlotte Mayorkas, $.20M (#363), 29/0/0/0/0/3/21 (.724)
23. Jin Joo Hong, $.20M (#365), 28/0/0/0/1/5/16 (.571)
24. Linda Wessberg, $.19M (#370), 21/0/0/0/3/4/14 (.667)

Other Career Measures: Rolex Ranking (as of 4/28/08) and rank, Golfweek/Sagarin Performance Index (as of 4/27/08) and rank, International and Non-Member LPGA Wins (as of the end of the 2007 season): This is a way of seeing how those Junior Mints and Super Sophs who sometimes or regularly or often compete on other tours stack up over the course of their careers to date (the RR includes results over the past 104 weeks on the LPGA, LET, JLPGA, KLPGA, and Futures Tour; the GSPI includes results over the past 52 weeks on all these tours except the KLPGA).

1. Jee Young Lee, 4.55 (#8), 70.51 (#10), 2
2. Morgan Pressel, 4.10 (#13), 71.19 (#27), 0
3. Seon Hwa Lee, 3.75 (#18), 70.58 (#12), 3
4. Angela Park, 3.38 (#22), 70.83 (#17); 0
5. Ai Miyazato, 3.32 (#23), 72.73 (#77), 14
6. Eun-Hee Ji, 3.23 (#26), 70.87 (#19); 4
7. In-Kyung Kim, 2.41 (#42), 72.06 (#49); 0
8. Inbee Park, 2.09 (#50), 72.18 (#52); 0
9. Brittany Lang, 1.93 (#53), 72.37 (#64), 0
10. Julieta Granada, 1.89 (#54), 73.67 (#142), 0
11. Meaghan Francella, 1.66 (#60), 73.64 (#139), 0
12. Na On Min, 1.64 (#62), 73.51 (#128); 0
13. Minea Blomqvist, 1.52 (#66), 73.39 (#113), 5
14. Teresa Lu, 1.52 (#67), 72.99 (#86), 0
15. Jane Park, 1.43 (#70), 72.29 (#58); 0
16. Jin Joo Hong, 1.42 (#71), 73.03 (#88); 2
17. Linda Wessberg, 1.27 (#83), 72.49 (#71), 6
18. Ji Young Oh, 1.08 (#97); 72.82 (#80); 0
19. Song-Hee Kim, 1.06 (#100), 72.86 (#95); 0
20. H.J. Choi, 1.02 (#106), 73.65 (#140), 1
21. Kyeong Bae, .96 (#110), 73.07 (#91), 3
22. Karin Sjodin, .89 (#116), 73.39 (#114), 1
23. Sun Young Yoo, .89 (#119), 72.19 (#53), 0
24. Charlotte Mayorkas, .75 (#137), 72.36 (#62); 0

So there you have it. I'll be checking back in on these rankings on the following schedule:

February: Junior Mints
March: Super Sophs
May: Junior Mints
June: Super Sophs
July: Junior Mints (pre-British Open)
August: Super Sophs (post-Safeway)
September: both (post-Navistar)
October: Junior Mints (pre-Korea Championship)
November: Super Sophs (post-ADT)
December: all the Young Guns (post-Q School)