Tuesday, June 24, 2008

U.S. Women's Open Preview/Predictions/Pairings

As Hound Dog has already offered his U.S. Women's Open preview, Mulligan Stu has posted the pairings, Golf Channel staff have annotated some of them, and the USGA has put together a great web site and fact sheet, the only thing left for me to do is offer my predictions in a more systematic way than usual.

For once, I find myself mostly in agreement with Ron Sirak on who is likely to contend this week, although I differ with him a bit on who has the best odds of winning. Wish he'd enter the Pakpicker at Seoul Sisters some time this season....

1. Lee Seon Hwa
2. Ochoa
3. Creamer
4. Jang Jeong
5. Kerr
6. Shin Ji-Yai
7. Sorenstam
8. Pettersen
9. Pak Se Ri
10. Han Hee-Won
11. Kim Mi Hyun
12. Webb

Alts: Miyazato Ai, Pressel, Tseng Ya Ni

But here's why this tournament is a complete toss-up: it's being played at Interlachen for the first time, with a significantly different set-up than in the 2002 Solheim Cup, which despite its length could actually favor precision players (if it doesn't get too wet) but is most vulnerable to a power player with accuracy; the world's best women players have shown a surprising vulnerability over the past month; there are any number of elite players who could challenge them if they can handle Open pressure; and the professional and amateur young guns in the field could just as easily step up or blow up this week.

Here's how I group the top contenders:

Struggling Superstars: Lorena Ochoa, Annika Sorenstam, Paula Creamer, Se Ri Pak, Ji-Yai Shin, Sakura Yokomine, Sun-Ju Ahn.

I'll be discussing my picks individually in a little while, so will skip to Yokomine and Ahn, who haven't played to expectations on the JLPGA and KLPGA thus far in 2008. Yokomine has had a hard time closing the deal when she's been in contention this season, so even though she's #1 on my latest JLPGA ranking and #3 on their money list--plus she's had an extra week to practice and adjust to the time zone after skipping last week's JLPGA event--I just don't see her bringing her 'A' game this week. And that's what it's going to take to contend. Same goes for Ahn, who's 2nd in scoring but only 4th in winnings on the KLPGA this season, but most important, rather than challenging Ji-Yai Shin for the #1 spot in Shin's last year on tour before heading to the LPGA (or JLPGA?), Ahn has been outperformed by Ha-Neul Kim, So Yeon Ryu, and other KLPGA young guns. So these 2 are definite top 30 and maybe even top 20 candidates, but I'd be surprised to see them in the top 10.

Hot Hands: Cristie Kerr, Jeong Jang, Seon Hwa Lee, Morgan Pressel, Ai Miyazato, Eun-Hee Ji, Inbee Park, Amy Yang, Ya Ni Tseng, Na Yeon Choi, Momoko Ueda, Mi-Jeong Jeon, Stacy Lewis, Amanda Blumenherst, Jennifer Song.

This list of players who have won recently (Lee, Tseng, and Ji on the LPGA, Yang on the LET, and Ueda and Jeon on the JLPGA, Lewis and Blumenherst on the NCAA) and/or repeatedly contended would be enhanced with names like Vicky Hurst (2-time Futures Tour winner) and Tiffany Joh (Women's Amateur Public Links champion), but they failed to qualify for the Open this year. The players on it are so impressive, however, that I wouldn't at all be surprised to see many of them in contention--but I would be shocked if more than a few of them ended up outside the top 20.

Incandescent but Inconsistent: Laura Davies, Karrie Webb, Maria Hjorth, Sophie Gustafson, Suzann Pettersen, Christina Kim, Jee Young Lee, Minea Blomqvist, Song-Hee Kim, Jane Park, Hee Young Park, Sandra Gal, Michelle Wie, Gwladys Nocera.

I picked 2 players from this list to make the top 12 this week, but how many and who will actually be there come Sunday? You could make a great argument for anyone on this list winning--or missing the cut--this week.

Lurking: Mi Hyun Kim, Hee-Won Han, Laura Diaz, Angela Stanford, Karen Stupples, Lindsey Wright, Catriona Matthew, Stacy Prammanasudh, Sun Young Yoo, Teresa Lu, Brittany Lang, Ji Young Oh.

They've all had good solid seasons--some exceeding expectations and some falling below them--but none have broken through quite yet.

Question Marks: Kimberly Kim, Mina Harigae, Allison Walshe, Tiffany Lua, Maria Jose Uribe, Alexis Thompson.

Making the cut would be a huge accomplishment for these celebrated amateurs, but it's the 10th anniversary of Se Ri Pak's showdown with Jenny Chuasiriporn, so who knows what they might do?

Slumping Stars: Juli Inkster, Sherri Steinhauer, Pat Hurst, Grace Park, Natalie Gulbis, Sarah Lee, Brittany Lincicome, Julieta Granada, Angela Park, In-Kyung Kim, Ashleigh Simon.

'Nuff said.

So here's the reasoning behind my picks, with historical help from GolfObserver.com and LPGA.com and statistical help from LPGA.com.

1. Seon Hwa Lee (#6 winnings, #14 scoring average, #18 greens in regulation, 3.04 birdies per round): Although she had a hard time finishing off her 2 events in NY the past month, the #1 Junior Mint is still my pick to win this thing--she's got both the game and the mental toughness to do it, plus she's finished strong in the 2 big events in June after enduring a difficult May. Despite her struggles this season with her putter, her scoring average is the best in her career and she's been working hard on her 100 yards and in game, so I see a great second half of the season in store for the Stone Buddha, starting this week (I'm with Ashley Mayo at Golf for Women on this!).

2. Lorena Ochoa (#1 $$, #1 SA, #1 GIR, 4.67 BPR): It's hard not to pick Ochoa for the win, given her statistical dominance this season, but she hasn't been cruising around the course in the zone since the passing of her uncle and grandfather like she was when she was winning in dominating fashion. Even without her 'A' game, she's still been racking up top 10s, but the chase pack has been getting closer to her this past month than it's ever been in 2008 (which just supports Gene Wojciechowski's secondary point, even though it undermines his main one).

3. Paula Creamer (#3 $$, #5 SA, #4 GIR, 3.54 BPR): Although she's struggled by her standards since getting her 2nd win of the season in the SemGroup Championship early last month, she's still been collecting top 10s and top 20s at her impressive career rate, so I see her rising to the occasion and getting into contention in a serious way this week, despite her inability to crack the top 10 in 5 tries thus far.

4. Jeong Jang (#5 $$, #6 SA, #17 GIR, 3.35 BPR): She's been knocking on the door all season and could easily have 2 wins already in 2008 were it not for hot final rounds by Paula Creamer and Leta Lindley. I think she'll be in the mix on the final 9 holes of a tournament yet again.

5. Cristie Kerr (#25 $$, #12 SA, #16 GIR, 3.63 BPR): The defending champion has been playing very well of late, loves Donald Ross courses, and gets up for U.S. Opens. What's not to like? Inconsistency.

6. Ji-Yai Shin (#1 KLPGA $$; #1 KLPGA SA, 3.50 BPR): With 3 wins on the KLPGA and a win and a runner-up in her 2 JLPGA events, why do I suggest that Shin is struggling this season? Well, her scoring average is up, but the main reason is that she hasn't kept up her dominant ways from last season, not only the on the KLPGA but also in international play. Not only did she let Fukushima off the hook in her playoff loss and get outplayed by Karrie Webb at crunch time in the Australian Women's Open, but she also got left in the dust at the HSBC Women's Champions and underwhelmed at the Kraft Nabisco Championship. Still, I'm picking her ahead of Annika Sorenstam, so she must be doing something right this season!

7. Annika Sorenstam (#2 $$, #2 SA, #2 GIR, 3.93 BPR): Even though she's struggled (by her legendary standards) since her runaway win at the Michelob Ultra, particularly with her putter, I would not at all be surprised for her 4th U.S. Open title to come this week at Interlachen. But my expectations for her are a little lower than usual after she almost missed the cut at Rochester.

8. Suzann Pettersen (#7 $$, #4 SA, #5 GIR, 3.93 BPR): Were it not for her struggles over the final 6 holes at the Wegmans on Sunday, she would be my favorite this week, as Interlachen's length and 5 par 5s favor her and the other bombers on tour, but she was the only one of them to successfully navigate her way around Locust Hill's Open-style high rough, tight fairways, and small greens. As it is, though, my usual question marks about her inconsistency have cropped up again.

9. Se Ri Pak (#69 $$, #56 SA, #35 GIR, 2.76 BPR): Her top 10s have come in big events this season and she's been playing much better since switching clubs, but the real reason I'm putting her in my top 10 has to do with a certain career anniversary. Here's hoping 2008's Open is as dramatic as 1998's!

10. Hee-Won Han (#16 $$, #10 SA, #11 GIR, 3.40 BPR): Her only 2 good finishes of late have come on the shorter and tighter New York courses, but a visit to Korea to see her 1-year-old son (who's being raised by his grandparents for now) seems to have done wonders for her game and she has the length to handle Interlachen.

11. Mi Hyun Kim (#34 $$, #32 SA, #100 GIR, 2.92 BPR): Slowly but surely coming back from her off-season knee injury, she'll need better weather to contend.

12. Karrie Webb (#9 $$, #9 SA, #19 GIR, 3.21 BPR): She's burned me just about every time I pick her, but I couldn't justify leaving her off my list for a major she's won twice.

Alt 1: Ai Miyazato (#45 SS, #52 SA, #56 GIR, 2.46 BPR): I think Ai-chan is back, but I couldn't justify putting her in the top 12 this week. But I do think she will be the low Japanese golfer in the field.

Alt 2: Morgan Pressel (#27 $$, #21 SA, #33 GIR, 3.22 BPR): If she had played better on the weekend in Rochester, I would have put her in the top 5, but as it is Interlachen's added length may be even more of a mental than a physical barrier for one of the LPGA's shortest hitters.

Alt 3: Ya Ni Tseng (#4 $$, #3 SA, #9 GIR, 3.80 BPR): She's got the game and the guts, but I just don't see her winning back-to-back majors, although I do see her racking up another top 20 and getting low rookie honors.

As usual, Golf for Women and Golf Channel are pulling out all the stops in their on-line coverage, so be sure to check them out!

[Update 1 (6/25/08, 4:44 am): Daniel Wexler lays out his odds.]

[Update 2 (5:05 am): Ryan Ballengee comments on the course set-up and marquee pairings.]

[Update 3 (5:20 am): Leave it to the local media to figure out that Christina Kim is not only a great interview, but a potential winner this week!]

[Update 4 (5:31 am): Jason Sobel suggests the Open will be the toughest major for Ochoa to win, makes his case in a discussion with Ron Sirak, Bob Harig, and John Antonini (they all agree), and picks Ji-Yai Shin while 2 of his cohorts who agreed with him go on to pick Ochoa anyway.]

[Update 5 (10:15 am): Hound Dog's latest total driving ranking is worth factoring into your equations!]

[Update 6 (12:54 pm): The Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune is going all-out with their Open coverage.]

[Update 7 (1:10 pm): Beth Ann Baldry goes behind the scenes with Team Pettersen.]

[Update 8 (6/27/08, 1:15 pm): Gotta give Sal Johnson belated credit for a good stats-based preview.]

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