Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Kraft Nabisco Championship Preview/Predictions

The LPGA's first major is right around the corner and the stage is set for some amazing golf. With 2 runaway wins by 11 and 7 over her nearest competitors in her first 3 events, Lorena Ochoa enters the Kraft Nabisco Championship the prohibitive favorite. Annika Sorenstam, the only other golfer who has consistently played at a top level during the LPGA's "pre-season," has nevertheless never come within 10 shots of Ochoa. So you'd think 2008 might be one of those strange years in the history of the tournament where a single player separates herself from the field, as happened for Juli Inkster in 1989, Amy Alcott in 1991, Dottie Pepper in 1999, Karrie Webb in 2000, and Sorenstam herself in 2005.

But when you look more closely at that history and the course layout, you'll see that Mission Hills is difficult to master year in and year out. It puts pressure on your judgment and patience, as wind and changing weather conditions have been factors almost every year. It puts a lot of pressure on your ball-striking, with a premium on accurate driving and controlled approach shots. It puts pressure on your short game, with its well-bunkered, hard, undulating, and often tiered greens. And it puts pressure on your nerves and guts, with water in play on the 2nd, 5th, 6th, 14th, and 18th holes and trees lining every fairway. Even the players with the best recent history--Catriona Matthew, Webb, Sorenstam, and Ochoa--have shot all kinds of numbers over the years at Mission Hills.

As we saw at Singapore, however, when Ochoa is on, the difficulty of the course works in her favor. And the recent shaky performances of players like Webb, Paula Creamer, Stacy Prammanasudh, Morgan Pressel, Seon Hwa Lee, and Angela Park--all of whom had been playing fairly steadily coming into the Safeway International--raise question marks about the state of their games.

All of which makes predicting this week's results extremely difficult. (Maybe it's just me, though!) But the show must go on!

1. Ochoa
2. Sorenstam
3. Han Hee-Won
4. Shin Ji-Yai
5. Ji Eun-Hee
6. Park Jane
7. Creamer
8. Tseng Ya Ni
9. Gulbis
10. Stanford
11. Stupples
12. Wright

Alts: Pressel, Matthew, Pettersen

I actually went and looked at driving accuracy, greens in regulation, and birdies on the LPGA's stats page this time, rather than relying on my pre-season predictions and early-season rankings in conjunction with the tournament history. As you can see, I don't believe in the Old Super Sophs at Mission Hills, although I'm hoping they prove me wrong. This is the last year Moira Dunn's win gets her into the KNC, so she's either going to have to win this year (a tall order) or finish top 70 on the money list. I know she has the ball-striking ability; for her, it's a matter of getting her putter going. Here's hoping her relatively good experience at Superstition Mountain was good practice for Mission Hills.

[Update 1: Hound Dog has outdone himself in his tournament preview! And Mulligan Stu is excited about the KNC!]

[Update 2 (4/3/08): Daniel Wexler lays down the odds. Ryan Ballengee asks if you'd bet against Ochoa. And the Golf for Women editors and staff make their picks. Patricia Hannigan saves hers for her blog. They all should put their reps on the line at the Pakpickers! As should Ron Sirak!]

[Update 3 (4/5/08): And the Golfweek editors!]

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