Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Paging Jason Sobel

Jason Sobel seems to have been paying more attention to the LPGA this season, even before Annika's retirement accouncement, than in previous years. But you know what they say about a little knowledge, right? In his Weekly 18 column this week, Sobel skates out on some very thin ice. He's in some very good company, but that ought to be small solace to him. Let's see if we can set him straight, shall we?

Claim 1: "The PGA Tour is deeper than the LPGA."

Let's see, in the 2nd-weakest field of the season, 7 players finished ahead of Lorena Ochoa, including a rookie who set the tournament record in the final round on her way to the win, another rookie who later added a second runner-up to her resume and has garnered a half million in earnings thus far this season, another rookie who now has 4 top 6s and leads the ROY race, a Super Soph who may have the most potential of the bunch, and a trio of resurgent veterans.

Oh, and this past week, when many top players took a quick rest during the tour's 11-week-straight run-up to the LPGA Championship, you would have thought we'd finally have that Ochoa-Sorenstam Sunday Clash of the Titans we've all been waiting for, right? Oh, wait. Ochoa failed to run away with a win for the first time this season, Sorenstam faded, and there were 12 golfers between them, including several impressive Junior Mints on the comeback trail, that same ROY race leader, another top rookie, two more promising young Americans, and some seasoned international competitors--very few of whom had been having impressive seasons to date.

While we do only have 1 1st-time winner on the LPGA as we approach the 1/3 point of the season, I'd be very surprised if we didn't end up with more than 2006's 5 and 2007's 8 by the time we reach its end. I'm looking at you, Jee Young, Angela, Na Yeon, Ya Ni, Eun-Hee, Momoko, Brittany, Ai, In-Kyung, Inbee, Song-Hee, Jane, Teresa, and Kyeong! And you, Lindsey!

For that matter, I'm looking at you, Jeong, Hee-Won, Suzann, Angela, Christina, and Stacy! And you, Karrie, Juli, Se Ri, Cristie, Mi Hyun, Sophie, Maria, Catriona, Pat, Carin, Laura, and Laura! And you, Seon Hwa and Karen! Are you going to let Mr. Sobel's ignorance stand? Once some of you all start winning, the deepness--and relative parity--of the LPGA will become apparent even to him.

Claim 2: "The LPGA's elite players are more dominant than those of the PGA Tour."

Sure, the new Big 3 have won 11 of 12 tournaments this season--and 6 of them in dominating fashion--but Paula Creamer has barely squeaked out her 2 wins and just about handed another one to Annika Sorenstam down the stretch. We'll have to see how she handles the pressure of being the favorite this week against probably the 3rd-weakest field of the season. Moreover, last season's 5-time winner Suzann Pettersen is still hunting for her next LPGA win--all we know for sure is that it won't come this week, as she's playing in Europe.

So at most the LPGA's #1 and #1A have been the dominating players thus far this season. But who is the clear challenger to Tiger's dominance to have emerged on the PGA Tour during his recovery from knee surgery? Has anyone even closed the gap on him? Isn't a two-player rivalry better than a single-player's dominance? Moreover, if you check Golfweek's men's and women's rankings, or the men's and women's official world rankings, you'll see that the top LPGA players are closer to their #1 than the top PGA players. In the former, there are 8 women closer to Ochoa than #2 Jim Furyk is to Tiger; in the latter, there are 6 women closer to Ochoa than #3 Ernie Els is to Tiger. The stats don't back you up, Mr. Sobel.

Nor do the intangibles. There are just as many players exceeding expectations among the top 30 of the LPGA money list as the PGA money list. Compared to what you would expect from my ranking system, which is designed to take some of last season into account, May has been full of surprises on the LPGA tour, as many highly-ranked players have faded and many lower-ranked players have excelled. The fact is, though, Ochoa and Sorenstam can't possibly keep up their superlative play all year--you can only stay in the zone for so long--and their top competition (Paula Creamer, Seon Hwa Lee, Jee Young Lee, Morgan Pressel, Jeong Jang, Hee-Won Han, Se Ri Pak, Mi Hyun Kim, Angela Park, Stacy Prammanasudh, and Suzann Pettersen) can't possibly stay out of it as consistently as they have thus far this season.

Claim 3: "The PGA Tour is currently a more exciting product than the LPGA."

Yes, the jaded Mr. Sobel can't get excited about a season-long showdown between the world #1 and world #1A. Nor does he find the possibility of a "Senorita Slam"--or even a Grand Slam--for Ochoa at all interesting. Her fastest-to-$1M and fastest-to-6-wins-since-Mickey Wright start to the season? Ho-hum. Well, how about this? With Sorenstam gone from 2009-on and Ochoa unlikely to play past 2014, we don't have all that much time to appreciate the greatness of these 2 living legends of the LPGA. Yes, Jason, I've just quoted Ron Sirak at you--twice. What is he seeing that you're missing?

If the LPGA is so much more predictable than the PGA this season, why am I doing so much worse in a competition I've actually been trying hard at (I'm #15 in the Seoul Pakpicker) than in one in which I'm dabbling (I'm #3 in the Waggle Room Yahoo Sports golf fantasy league--and in the 94th percentile overall--doing zero research)? If you glance outside the winner's circle, the LPGA is just as exciting as the PGA when it comes to the unpredictability of who else besides Lorena, Annika, and Tiger will contend from week to week. There are many interesting, even compelling unknowns on the LPGA tour clearly unknown to Mr. Sobel.

So right now I think he's definitely wrong on all 3 of his claims. And by the time the LPGA gets to its 22nd event--the last major of the season, the Women's British Open--we'll have found out how many winners the LPGA has had compared to the PGA's 20...and how close their margins of victory have been. If Lorena keeps winning in dominating fashion between now and then, I'm prepared to admit that all 3 of Mr. Sobel's claims have been verified--although the latter 2 may be even more true of the PGA if Tiger comes back as powerfully as I expect him to. But by then he may have changed his tune and gotten excited about her run to break Wright's 13-win single-season record--or about Annika's last stands to protect her own 11-win season mark.

Assuming that Sobel won't admit he's wrong now, I'm wondering if witnessing some changes in the winner's circle between now and the end of the LPGA's European swing will prompt him to revisit his claims?

[Update 1 (5/22/08, 12:27 am): Not having a working tv, I can't comment on every part of Daniel Wexler's explanation of why he's been finding the PGA dull without Tiger, but one thing I take from his list is that the question of the men's tour's excitement/dullness is independent of its relation to the women's tour. If Sobel just wanted to be a contrarian on this issue, he needn't have dragged the LPGA into the discussion at all. For the record, I've found the PGA more interesting this season, both during Tiger's dominance and his absence, than in other recent seasons.]

[Update 2 (12:56 am): I guess ESPN's fact/fiction thing doesn't allow for questioning the question's assumptions, as I tried to do. Maybe I should list myself as "senior editor" of Mostly Harmless so they'll invite me to join them?]


Hound Dog said...

Another great dissection by TC! "Head-banging" is a perfect label for that part of Sobel's article.

No matter how the events play out through August, he will probably mis-read the data again anyway.

The Constructivist said...

Thanks, HD! And enjoy the Ginn next week! I'm going to see if I can talk the Full Metal Archivist into taking the girls to Rochester next month. We almost went to a JLPGA event last year, but decided it was too long a trip for such little girls w/o a car. Now the girls are older, we have a car, and the weather should be less intense....

courtgolf said...

Well done, HD...for the most part. Can't agree with you 100% because it seems like terms need to be defined a little better.

Yes - the talent of the men's game is deeper - MUCH deeper - you will almost never see a woman ranked in the 100's or below win a tournament. However - the men's game has been developing for a lot longer than the women's game. It's natural that the longer time, the deeper the talent pool.

Quoting results of any given week kind of falls into the catagory of lies - damn lies - and statistics. You can make a statistic look pretty much however you want.

You are dead on with the 1 and 1a on the LPGA vs the 1 and "where is everybody else" on the PGA Tour, but Tiger doesn't win every week, so he is beatable, he just doesn't have a consistant rival. (god forbid that Mickelnuts actually step up, find a pair, and remember just how talented he is - not where his next big endorsement check is coming from)

About the "excitement" - again, we have to define terms. Are we looking for amazing shot making ? That's for the ESPN and Golf Channel highlights crowd - OR - are we talking about a head to head battle on the weekend ? I know you love the head to head battle as do I, but it's nice to see something other than dink and dunk up the fairway and onto the green and maybe make a putt. People do like to see shots that they can't make themselves. Consistency is amazing, but much more subtle - and Sports Center isn't big on subtlety.

I think you pretty well nailed Mr Sobel right off the bat - a little knowledge CAN be a dangerous thing.

Hound Dog said...

Friberg was ranked #164 the week she won. Cavalleri was ranked #118 the week she won. Francella was ranked #330 the week she won.

Sorry, Court - I can't help myself sometimes. The rest of your points are spot on.

courtgolf said...

Yep - you got me - 2 in 2007 sort of takes it out of the "unheard of" catagory.

The Constructivist said...

I agree with you totally on terminology slippage, CG. I was trying to use his own language as much as possible, so the excitement factor comes down to the quality of competition.

While I totally agree that the guys hit some amazing shots (most in the memory bank still are Tiger's, though), I think the dink-dink-putt thing is a bit unfair, or at least overly broad. Sure, the bombers on the LPGA are dinkers compared to the bombers on the PGA, but the way Pressel birdied 18 is very different from the way Ochoa parred it. (FYI, in case you missed the highlight reel, Lorena threaded a shot through a window in the trees, taking the much more dangerous route, to put herself in the position for her wedge in that she wanted.) Players in the hunt last week like Christina Kim and Sophie Gustafson don't fit your Sorenstam-based stereotype (or is it Yu Ping Ling-based?) at all.

courtgolf said...

Con - you said "his" but didn't say which "his" language you were trying to use - Dog or Sobel ?

No - I wasn't comparing LPGA and PGA for the "dink and dunk" comment. The women's game is MOSTLY based on accuracy - keep it in play - and REALLY keep it in the short grass. (especially in the monstrously wide fairways most LPGA tournaments are played on) Most shots out of the rough are a crap shoot, and most shots from trees or awkward lies are limited to getting back in play.

A lot of this does have to do with strength. The men can hoik the ball higher than the women, and are able to put more sidespin on the modern balls to play the "heroic" shot onto or right around the greens, while the women are forced to play run-out shots that hopefully find a good yardage for a pitch or wedge not in the rough.

Sure - once in a while - someone like Ochoa or Sorenstam might pull off a miracle from the trees or a fairway bunker, but for the most part, the women's game is played from the short grass, or bogey comes into play.