Thursday, July 24, 2008

JLPGA Players Championship Thursday: Ji-Woo Lee Sets the Pace

Ji-Woo Lee has been flirting with greatness lately in her 2nd season on the JLPGA, notching 5 top 10s in the 6 events before this week's Kagome Philanthropy LPGA Players Championship. After her bogey-free 65 today, she's once again so close she can taste it. It's not just that she has a 2-shot lead on Mayumi Nakajima and a 3-shot lead on Akiko Fukushima and Mi-Jeong Jeon. It's also that her 32 on the back 9 was the best performance on a side that gave most of the leaders fits. Keiko Sasaki was -6 through 13 holes, but bogeyed 3 of her last 4. Fukushima and Jeon both bogeyed the 14th and 15th holes to offset their birdies on the back. Only Nakajima, Yasuko Satoh (70), and Yoko Inoue (70) among the leaders came within 2 shots of Lee on the back (Saiki Fujita [72] came within 1). So don't expect her to fade over the final 54 holes. Someone is going to have to take this one away from Ji-Woo Lee.

Who might it be? Let's take a look at the top 10 at the end of the 1st round:

1st/-7 Lee (65)
2nd/-5 Nakajima (67)
T3/-4 Fukushima, Jeon (68)
T5/-3 Ayako Uehara, Hiromi Mogi, Maiko Wakabayashi, Mikiyo Nishizuka, Yasuko Ohtake, Sasaki (69)

Uehara is coming off a strong runner-up finish to Fukushima last week, while Jeon and Mogi have posted recent wins. Jeon, in fact, has finished no worse than 7th in the 3 events following her win. These are the 3 most likely to contend.

Many of the notables who still can pull themselves into contention this week have been struggling in recent ones:

T11/-2 Yuko Mitsuka, Yun-Jye Wei (70)
T16/-1 Miho Koga, Miki Saiki, Yukari Baba, Michiko Hattori, Midori Yoneyama (71)
T25/E Sakura Yokomine, Shiho Oyama, Hiroko Yamaguchi, Hyun-Ju Shin, Erina Hara (72)
T38/+1 Ji-Hee Lee, Shinobu Moromizato, Mayu Hattori (73)

Wei has missed 4 cuts and has 1 top 20 in her last 11 events. With a final-round 66 last week, Baba squeaked into her 1st top 10 after a 5-week stretch in which she missed 2 cuts and could only manage top 20s, so she has a bit of momentum on her side. That's more than could be said for Saiki and Koga. The latter posted her worst finishes of the season, a last place and a missed cut, in the 2 events leading into this one, while the former has missed 4 of her last 5 cuts, thanks to 7 75s in that stretch. Yokomine and Oyama have had decent seasons, but not by their standards--and not even close to expectations with the departure of last year's money leader Momoko Ueda for the LPGA. Yamaguchi has only 1 top 10 in the 13 events since her early-season win. Shin took a week off after posting her best finish, a T2, in the 9 events since her last win on the JLPGA--only her 2nd top 10 in that stretch. The only players in this group with any kind of momentum heading into this week were Mitsuka and Lee, but the former has 4 missed cuts to go along with her 11 top 20s and the latter is probably too far back to threaten the the leader of the 2008 money list, much less the leader of this tournament.

It's desperation time for other big names on the JLPGA--

T61/+2 Akane Iijima, Eun-A Lim, Esther Lee, Yuki Ichinose, Ritsuko Ryu (74)
T84/+4 Kaori Higo (76)
T94/+5 Chie Arimura (77)

--which is more than can be said for Na Zhang, who withdrew, most likely due to a flare-up of the back injury that forced her to miss much of the early season on the JLPGA.

So there are fewer than a dozen players who pose a serious threat to Ji-Woo Lee over the final 54 holes. We'll have to see how many can keep pace with her after Friday's round.

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