Monday, August 18, 2008

Looking Ahead, Part 2: The Class of 2009

There are only a few ways to get into the LPGA's class of 2009. Let's review.

Win an LPGA Event
This is how such fine players as Jee Young Lee, Shi Hyun Ahn, and Momoko Ueda joined the LPGA--by winning the event in Korea (as is most often the case) or Japan during the LPGA's Asian Swing. This year, Ji-Yai Shin broke all kinds of records by winning the Women's British Open. Stacy Lewis came just shy of doing the same at the U.S. Women's Open, but she'll have a few more chances to get a win through her remaining sponsors' exemptions into LPGA events. More on Stacy in a second--let's look ahead and predict who from the JLPGA and KLPGA has the best chance to win in Japan and Korea this year.

I've been following the JLPGA pretty closely this season. My latest ranking is a little out of date, what with recent wins by Shinobu Moromizato and Erina Hara, but using it as a benchmark, here are the dozen players I feel have the best chance to win the Mizuno Classic: Mi-Jeong Jeon, Ji-Hee Lee, Akiko Fukushima, Miho Koga, Sakura Yokomine, Shiho Oyama, Yuri Fudoh, Hyun-Ju Shin, Ayako Uehara, Bo-Bae Song, Erina Hara, Shinobu Moromizato. Keep in mind, though, that Moromizato tried the LPGA and met with little success on it, Fukushima had more but gave it up, and Oyama and Fudoh have shown no interest in making the attempt. Jeon and Lee seem pretty comfortable on the JLPGA. That leaves the younger players on my list as the most likely to leave if they win. Yokomine was my pre-season pick to lead the JLPGA this season, but is only just beginning to get her game back after a strong but disappointing start when she let 2 wins slip through her fingers. Koga, Shin, and Song seem to be getting theirs back, as well, after mid-season mini-slumps. Uehara has been up-and-down all season, but has some international experience, while Hara is the hottest player on tour right now. Where they'll be in early November, along with a seriously slumping Miki Saiki, is anyone's guess. As is the question of which of Japan's young guns will try LPGA Q-School. The application deadline for sectional qualifiers is September 9th, so we'll know soon.

From the KLPGA, rookies So-Yeon Ryu, Hye-Yong Choi, and Hye-Young Kim have put themselves in contention quite often, as has last year's rookie of the year Ha-Neul Kim, so if the KLPGA's big 2 of Ji-Yai Shin and Sun-Ju Ahn don't win the Hana Bank/KOLON Championship in October, they might have the best shot for the steal. The KLPGA season resumes at the end of this month and continues through November, so a lot could change in that time. However, if the KLPGA really has a rule that a player isn't allowed to leave the tour for the LPGA until playing a certain number of years on it, the only win that might matter for LPGA fans is one by Ahn.

Finish within the Top 80 on the LPGA Money List
Michelle Wie came short this year because she forgot to sign a scorecard when she was in contention and didn't play at all well before then or well enough afterward. Stacy Lewis has a long way to go because her U.S. Women's Open winnings don't count toward her total. Because she's not going to get her full allotment of 6 sponsors' exemptions (for reasons I'm struggling to understand), she'll need to contend in the few she does get to have a chance this way.

Finish in the Top 5 10 on the Futures Tour Money List [see update below]
4-time winner Vicky Hurst and 3-time winner Mindy Kim could sit out the rest of the FT season and still get their cards--with 3 events to go, there's not enough money on the table for 5 players to leapfrog them on the money list. But the race for the last 3 spots is wide open. #3 M.J. Hur has been having trouble on Sundays all season, so less than $15K separates her from #12 Mo Martin. As #5 Leah Wigger is a member of the Class of 2008 and #8 Sarah Jane Kenyon of the Class of '06, they might have the best shot at getting 2 of the last 3 spots. Jin Young Pak and Song-Yi Choi have scoring averages under 72, which is a pretty decent indicator for some LPGA success, so they may have an advantage over Hur (particularly when you take sub-par round rate [.457 and .391 to .378] into account), but Hur is hitting a lot more greens than they are, so if she can get her putter going and play the par 5s better, she can maintain her lead.

With 2 of the last 3 the last 2 official events coming before the deadline to submit entries for the sectional qualifiers of LPGA Q-School, we'll know which players are confident they'll finish in the top 15 have finished in the top 20 on the FT money list. #6 through #15 #11 through #20 get an exemption into the 90-hole final qualifying tournament. The rest will have to apply for one or both sectional qualifiers. [see update below]

So Michelle Wie and Stacy Lewis are most likely to headline LPGA Q-School--if, that is, Wie decides to go for it and Lewis doesn't qualify by other means 1st. From the LET, presumptive Rookie of the Year Melissa Reid has expressed interest in playing on the LPGA, as has Yuki Sakurai, who's #4 in the ROY race there this season. There are good odds that Nikki Garrett and Kiran Matharu will try again, along with others closer to the top of the Order of Merit (Garrett is #29 while Matharu is #52). From Japan, amateur star Mika Miyazato will most likely give it a try, as well. It'll be interesting to see which of this spring's top graduating seniors will stack up well against their more experienced Futures Tour competition in Q-School.

Too Soon to Tell
So it's most definitely too soon to tell who besides Ji-Yai Shin, Vicky Hurst, and Mindy Kim will be in the Class of 2009, but it's sure fun to speculate who besides Stacy Lewis and Michelle Wie are most likely to join them. Given that Shin has her pick of schedule in 2009--she's a member of the KLPGA and JLPGA already and will have LPGA and LET membership next season (technically, she could have applied for a non-exempt LPGA membership right after her WBO win, but I don't know if she has)--the Rookie of the Year race in 2009 should be fairly wide open. More on that after Q-School!

[Update 1 (8:34 pm): Just saw on that the LET's Becky Brewerton plans to attend Q-School.]

[Update 2 (8/20/08, 8:33 pm): The LPGA has clarified its membership criteria and announced that the top 10 from the Futures Tour money list as of the Albany event's end get LPGA cards. So everyone from #11 Sophia Sheridan to #18 Caroline Larsson within $10K of #10 Haeji Kang gets new life. This new race deserves a post of its own after the close of this week's Gettysburg event. More later!]

[Update 3 (9/7/08, 7:14 pm): Congratulations to Sarah-Jane Kenyon, M.J. Hur, and Jin Young Pak for joining Vicky Hurst and Mindy Kim as the top 5 Futures Tour graduates. All except Junior Mint Kenyon will be '09ers. Song Yi Choi, Jessica Shepley, Leah Wigger, Sophia Sheridan, and Kim Welch will have lower-priority status for 2009, with a chance to improve their status at Q-School. The next 10 on the money list (6 of whom won once each on the FT this season), from Haeji Kang to Jenny Suh, get a free pass to the LPGA's Final Qualifying School.]

[Update 4 (9/8/08, 3:10 am): Whoops, 2 mistakes to correct. Jin Young Pak is already a member of the LPGA Class of '07 (another Super Soph!) and the FT claims that only #6 through #15 on their money list go straight to Q-School's 90-hole finale. The official interpretation of the 10 cards/10 Q-School spots seems a bit cheap to me.]

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