Monday, June 2, 2008

The LPGA's Top Rivalries

Enough has changed since last November when I tracked the career winnings of several generations of current LPGA stars and tallied up victory totals that it's worth updating and reframing that data. With Lorena Ochoa dealing with the loss of her uncle, I hope the golfy media gives her a break and turns their attention to other players while she's grieving. Plus, with Annika Sorenstam's retirement looming at the end of the season, it's never too early to start feeding them some story lines for a post-world-#1/#1A-duel LPGA.

The Clashes of the Titans

Last season, Lorena Ochoa beat Se Ri Pak to the $10M mark in career winnings; this season, she's on pace to pass her in total victories. She's already passed Juli Inkster on the career money list and has an outside chance to catch her in career victories by the end of this year (she zoomed by her last season in Sorenstam Era victories). More immediately in her sights is Karrie Webb's #2 spot on the career money list--and thanks to Webb's missed 3-footer in the playoff Sunday that lost her the playoff to Seon Hwa Lee (on whom more in a sec), she'll be that much easier for Ochoa to catch. Ochoa still won't have a chance to surpass Webb's 7 majors during the Sorenstam Era, but if she somehow keeps her winning streak in them going next week, she can catch Inkster at 4 and even Pak at 5--unless both their strong play from this past week carries over to some more major magic for the Hall of Famers.

Yup, Ochoa has transcended her generation and deserves to be considered in relation to her fellow active Hall of Famers. But perhaps the clash that matters the most to her is the one I already alluded to with Annika for wins, majors, winnings, Player of the Year, and Vare Trophy this season. What a great way to cap off the Sorenstam Era (1994-2008) and mark the transition fully into the Ochoa Era (2003-).

But perhaps the most important message to take from the repeatedly postponed Lorena-Annika showdown is the way life and family overshadow the game and help keep its significance in perspective.

Battles of the Veteran Stars

With Sorenstam out of the picture in 2009, many of her contemporaries who have lived in her shadow will have a chance to enter the limelight and be recognized for the fantastic golfers they are.

None of them are very likely to catch Se Ri Pak or Laura Davies in career victories or majors, but 2 of them have a chance to catch up to them in career winnings. Cristie Kerr beat Mi Hyun Kim to the $8M mark at the Sybase, but Kim passed her at Corning, so of course Kerr had to pull ahead by a few hundred dollars at the Ginn Tribute. Separated by less than $20K on this season's money list, Kerr and Kim might just play that "anything you can do I can do better" game right past Davies on the career money list this season and start seriously thinking about surmounting the bar set by Pak's once unsurmountable but now still-shy-of-$10M career winnings. (Pak might have something to say about that, however, now that she got her 2nd top 10 of the season in convincing fashion.)

Similarly, Lorie Kane's lead in career winnings over Pat Hurst, Rachel Hetherington, and Catriona Matthew seemed safe at the start of the season, but she's stalled well shy of the $7M mark while Matthew makes a charge, Hurst makes a comeback, and Hetherington shows signs of one.

Speaking of Hetherington, she has as many career wins as Kim (8) and they both trail Kerr only by 2. Plus, they trail her only by 1 major (and Sherri Steinhauer by 2).

With Carin Koch on the comeback trail, perhaps she too can rejoin the battle between Matthew and Hurst for best of the Class of '95, although she'll have as much trouble cutting into Matthew's $1M lead on her as Matthew will have in closing a similar gap on Hurst, who became the first in their class to cross the $6M barrier this season.

Much closer is the ongoing duel between Class of '98ers Sophie Gustafson and Maria Hjorth--Gustafson recently beat Hjorth to the $4M mark, but Hjorth still has a chance to beat her to $5M and 5 wins now (thanks to Gustafson's Sunday collapse).

Who Will Be the Karrie Webb of the Ochoa Era?

I think it's safe to say that the Classes of 2000-2005 will be known as the Ochoa Generation. Just as Annika zoomed by established and young stars in her time, Lorena has outdistanced Jeong Jang, Grace Park, Hee-Won Han, Natalie Gulbis, Candie Kung, Gloria Park, and Angela Stanford. Unlike Annika, Lorena has some classmates who look to compete with them for the #2 spot, most notably Suzann Pettersen, Christina Kim, and Stacy Prammanasudh. And where Annika had Karrie Webb, Se Ri Pak, and Mi Hyun Kim come right out and challenge her when they entered the LPGA, Lorena is really being pushed only by Paula Creamer among those in the rookie classes immediately following hers. So that's 11 players vying to be the Lorena's Karrie Webb, so to speak.

In terms of career earnings, Jang ($5.67M) was the first to pass a struggling Grace Park ($5.27M), while Han ($5.08M) and Creamer ($4.88M) are hot on her heels. Meanwhile, Kung, Pettersen, and Stanford are making strong runs at Gulbis ($3.52M), who's gotten off to a terrible start to 2008 but leads the next tier, while Gloria Park still has a chance to get back in this race. Christina Kim ($2.81M) has opened up a larger lead on Prammanasudh at the head of the next tier, and few others in their tier seem to be able to keep pace with them.

In terms of career victories, Grace Park still leads with 1 major among her 6 victories, but Han and Creamer have a great chance to pass her in total wins and match her in majors before the end of this season. And Pettersen may pass them both, if her win two weeks ago on the LET is any indication. If Jang had any luck this season, she, too, would be near the head of the chase pack in wins. But if we're counting mightabeens, everyone ahead of her would also have higher totals in that column.

So of the 11 candidates for the Karrie Webb position, I think it's fair to say that Creamer, Pettersen, Han, and Jang are the leaders. Fortunately we'll have a long time to see whether any one of them is able to break from Ochoa's chase pack.

Which of the Young Guns Will Step Up?

With Ochoa hinting that her retirement could come as early as 2012-2014, it stands to reason that the next #1 will come from the Young Guns. Bill Jempty has made great use of his forum guestblogging at Newsweek to comment on this generation's rapid success--here's hoping others in the golfy media follow his lead. Jason Sobel is off to a good start this week!

There are already 7 players with less than 3 years of experience on the LPGA who have broken the $1M barrier, all but one of them Junior Mints: Seon Hwa Lee ($2.67M), Julieta Granada, Jee Young Lee, Morgan Pressel, Ai Miyazato, Brittany Lang, and Angela Park ($1.17M). Rookies Ya Ni Tseng ($.54M) and Na Yeon Choi ($.44M) are already on pace to get there as quickly, while it's too soon to tell who among Inbee Park, Sun Young Yoo, Kyeong Bae, In-Kyung Kim, Song-Hee Kim, Teresa Lu, Meaghan Francella, Minea Blomqvist, Eun-Hee Ji, Jane Park, Na On Min, H.J. Choi, Karin Sjodin, Ji Young Oh, Linda Wessberg, Momoko Ueda, Hee Young Park, Louise Friberg, this week's LET champion and money list leader Amy Yang, Sandra Gal, and Ashleigh Simon will keep pace with them over the next 5 years. Given the way golf and life can be, though, pretty much anyone from the Classes of 2006-2008 could step up and challenge their generation's Big 7 over the long haul.

Looking ahead even further, the Class of 2009 could include players of the caliber of Ji-Yai Shin, Sakura Yokomine, Miki Saiki, Miho Koga, Stacy Lewis, Tiffany Joh, Vicky Hurst, Mi Jung Hur, 2-time Futures Tour winner and current money leader Mindy Kim, and Michelle Wie. Plus there are impressive young guns on the KLPGA and JLPGA who just might join Amanda Blumenherst and other top worldwide amateurs in the Class of 2010, such as 2-time KLPGA winner and last year's rookie of the year Ha Neul Kim and this year's top contenders for ROY, So Yeon Ryu and He Yong Choi. You never know how heralded teenagers like Esther Choe, Hannah Yun, Kimberly Kim, and Mina Harigae will develop as young women, but certainly the early success of the under-25 crowd on the LPGA must be encouraging to them.

Ranking the Rivalries

By Rookie Class

1. The Gustafson-Hjorth race for leader of the Class of 1998 is closest in both wins (4-3) and winnings ($4.25M-$3.98M)--and the former's catastrophic finish yesterday ensured that it will remain close.

2. Gulbis and Kung (2002): $3.52M-#3.33M in Gulbis's favor, thanks in part to her near-top 10 this past week, but Kung is playing well this season--27th on the money list to Gulbis's 46th.

3. Choi and Tseng (2008): Looks like we have a real battle for ROY in '08! (And don't count out Momoko Ueda and Hee Young Park just yet. It's too bad Amy Yang wil be spending most of her time in Europe this season, but look for her to join the "Big 5" of her class next year.)

4. Seon Hwa Lee, Jee Young Lee, and Pressel (2006). Lee made a major statement this week in knocking off a Hall of Famer in what had been her worst season as a pro up till then. But Pressel ($1.67M) was 1st to win a major and Jee Young Lee ($1.90M) is her equal or superior in all the major stats. (And don't count out the resurgent Brittany Lang or the comeback-trailing-it Ai Miyazato just yet--the Junior Mint "Big 5" can still teach this year's rookies a thing or three.)

5. Jang and Park (2000): Jang has a clear and growing lead in winnings, Park in wins, but only the former has been playing at an elite level lately.

By Generation

1. Kim and Kerr for #2 in the Pak Generation (1997-1999): A decade into it, this one's still too close to call!

2. Creamer and Pettersen for #2 in the Ochoa Generation (2003-2005): Will this one turn into a race to supplant Ochoa as #1?

3. Jang, Park, and Han for the 2000-2002 generation lead: Grace Park was among the best in the world earlier this decade; Jang has been the past few years; and Han may have the most potential of the 3!

4. Seon Hwa Lee, Granada, Jee Young Lee, Pressel, Miyazato, Lang, Park, Tseng, Choi and many more for the 2006-2008 generation lead: With 2 of the 5 best rookie year rivalries, this one may turn out to be the most interesting, but it's also the most chaotic. Angela Park, Jee Young Lee, Morgan Pressel, Ya Ni Tseng, and Na Yeon Choi were the first among these players to get in contention this season, but Seon Hwa Lee was the first to seal the deal (it'll take more consistency from Louise Friberg to convince me her win wasn't a fluke and that she belongs in this race). Lee's the definite front-runner--for now....


spyder said...

Somewhat relatively off-topic but:
If the global climate change models are reliable predictors of our next decade, then we can expect warmer wetter winters and hotter dryer summers. This would force the various professional golf governing bodies to begin to craft new strategies for selecting tour event sites in climates that will likely have more healthy grasses in the summer months in North America. Well, voila, just this past weekend, former LPGA players and officials have been spied up here, in our inland northwest, playing some of the regional courses and visiting moneyed interests. It only makes sense.

Now perhaps some of these future rivalries and head-to-head match ups will be played where some of us will get a chance to see them.

The Constructivist said...

Too true. I wonder if the schedule shift to Asia late in the season is weather- as well as capital-related!