Friday, April 18, 2008

Ginn Open Thursday: When Former Super Sophs Attack

Hound Dog already has the first-round recap for the Ginn Open covered with his usual aplomb [Update: and Say You SeRi is live-blogging Se Ri Pak's play over at Seoul Sisters], so I'm going to focus on a few stories that are likely to be under the media's radar coming out of Orlando Thursday.

Are the Former Super Sophs Back? I started getting serious about this LPGA blogging gig while focusing on Ai Miyazato and her cohorts in the rookie class of 2006. As I tracked their performance last year and over their brief careers--we're approaching the anniversary of my rudimentary first attempt--I became convinced that they were one of the deepest and most talented classes in LPGA history and would set the tone for their generation. So you can imagine my surprise at how slowly the cream of their class have started this season and how much they have been eclipsed out of the gates by resurgent New Super Soph and competitive rookie classes. Sure, Brittany Lang seemed to have gotten her game back after a horrible slump over the first two-thirds of her sophomore-jinxed 2007, Teresa Lu was playing surprisingly solid and sometimes spectacular golf, and Minea Blomqvist had a couple of great finishes, but where were the rest of them?

Waiting for the Ginn Open, apparently. Lu birdied 3 of her last 7 holes (on the front) to post a 67 and tie Carin Koch for the first-round lead. Futures Tour graduate Allison Fouch did the same on the back to join the big group T3 at 68. Kyeong Bae finally returned to her birdie machine ways, making 7 of them on her way to a 69, good enough for T10 with classmates Lang, Blomqvist, Sun Young Yoo (who dropped more birdie putts than fairways she hit off the tee), Danielle Downey (who also made 7 birdies and got 3 of them in her last 7 holes on the front), and Katie Futcher (who like Downey offset a double bogey with 7 birdies).

True, the big names couldn't quite get it in gear--Ai-chan (T22) was the best of the bunch with a 70 (despite 3 bogeys on the back to cancel out that side's birdies), while Karin Sjodin could only manage a 72 while Seon Hwa Lee did the same playing with Se Ri Pak (76), Morgan Pressel did the same playing with Annika Sorenstam (70), and Jee Young Lee ballooned to a 74 playing with Juli Inkster (69). And the agonies of Meaghan Francella (75, T111) and H.J. Choi (76, T122) continued, the fortunes of Kim Hall (76) fell, the shaky play of Linda Wessberg (78, T136) collapsed, and the good run of Nina Reis (80, T143), who got into the field thanks to a top 10 the week before in Mexico, came to an end.

But the 5 struggling to make the cut and 5 to get it in gear are overshadowed by the 8 juniors among the 21 players who shot sub-70 rounds yesterday. That's compared to 2 sophs (Charlotte Mayorkas, Kristy McPherson) and 1 frosh (Ya Ni Tseng) in the hunt. And Ai-chan is 1 shot ahead of soph Song-Hee Kim and frosh Momoko Ueda to round out the group of 14 Young Guns among the 45 players under par thus far.

How Much Does Power Matter? Picking up on a discussion from yesterday's post, consider that the leaderboard is a mix of power and precision players. Lu was blasting the ball 280 yards off the tee, outdriving co-leader Koch on average by almost 40 yards, but it was Koch who lead in greens in regulation, 15-14. Lorena Ochoa lead the bombers at T3 with a 283.5-yard driving average, followed by Tseng (283), Karrie Webb (274), Fouch (273.5), Suzann Pettersen (273), and Charlotte Mayorkas (267.5), but 230-yard pea shooter Mhairi McKay managed to keep pace with them somehow. The big group at T10 and T22 was almost split between bombers (6) and pea shooters (7), but 9 of them were actually in the mid-250-to-mid-260-yard middle range. At the bottom of the pack, among those who failed to break 75, there were certainly more precision players struggling (13) than mid-length players (10) and bombers (9), but someone like Birdie Kim, who drove the ball an astounding 285.5 yards and hit 13 greens Thursday, is a great example of how much accuracy with the irons and touch around and on the greens matters--she'll be fighting to pass as many of the 110 players ahead of her as she can and maybe make the cut.

To be sure, having more power helps you deal with the gusting winds and hard, fast, and undulating greens that characterize this tournament, but what a set-up like this really puts a premium on is judgment in the choice of club, kind of shot, and target, patience with bad bounces and missed putts due to less-than-smooth afternoon greens, solid ball-striking on approach shots in particular, and excellent scrambling and putting. If you don't believe me, read Suzann Pettersen's interview.

While it's striking that top-notch precision players like Pressel and Lee (E), Natalie Gulbis and Jane Park (+1), and Mi Hyun Kim and Angela Park (+2) had trouble scoring Thursday, even normally precise players with new-found distance like Jeong Jang (280 yards off the tee, but only -1) and Paula Creamer (263, but only E) didn't seem to benefit all that much from it. The bottom line is, it doesn't matter whether you birdie the 303-yard 7th hole with a sandie, as Ochoa did, or a sand wedge to 15 feet, as Koch did, so long as you get the ball in the hole quickly enough not to lose a shot to the rest of the field there.

The Big Mo. Looks like Lindsey Wright (69), Angela Stanford (70), and Karen Stupples (70) are continuing their fine play so far this season and that Koch, McPherson, and Lang are picking up where they left off last week. Laura Diaz (74), however, has some work to do today if she wants to avoid missing her second straight cut, Louise Friberg (77) is seriously struggling, and Maria Hjorth (77) probably should have gone for her third straight top 10 in Mexico--although Inbee Park (73) might disagree. Rookies Tseng and Choi are threatening to turn a formerly tight Rookie of the Year race into a face-off, although Momoko Ueda is lurking at -1 and Hee Young Park isn't out of the tournament at +1. And of course Ochoa (T3) and Sorenstam (T22) are, as always, in contention. Still, as everyone can point to shots they left out on the course, and as everyone is going to have to deal with very conditions tomorrow, it's too soon to tell who really has The Big Mo. It'll be interesting to see if a lead pack forms or if the field will remain bunched heading into the weekend.


Hound Dog said...

"Former Super Sophs" isn't very catchy. How about "Junior Mints"?

I think the biggest reason power helps a player so much is - the irons into the green are shorter. Even if that short iron is played from the second cut of rough, the resulting shot is still more controllable than a 3 or 5-iron or fairway wood. No everybody can hit those woods like Peanut can.

The Constructivist said...

I loved both your comments so much I stole them in my post today. Thanks, HD, and congrats on Grace making the cut!