Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Looking Back, Part 2: Women's Golf's Youth Movement

When I profiled the LPGA's Young Guns back in January, I had no idea that the year's big story would be their emergence as regular contenders, multiple winners, and major champions on tour. As I'll be writing about Women's British Open champion Ji-Yai Shin once I start looking ahead later this week, I'll focus on the biggest stories from the classes of 2006-2008. And, yes, most of them are from Asia, but I trust you're as tired as I am of them being talked about en masse, so I'll take the liberty of breaking them down here by individual player rather than nationality and focus on their performances over their ethnicity.

Ya Ni Tseng
She's the 1st rookie to win a major since Se Ri Pak did it in 1998 and the 1st to break the $1M mark in season winnings since Paula Creamer did it in her rookie season back in 2005. In fact, she's on track to score lower and make more this season than Creamer did in hers. The scary thing is, she already could have won much more (often, $$$). Take a look at the list of Rolex First-Time Winners this season--2 others, Louise Friberg and Ji Young Oh, have come from behind to deny her--plus she has 2 other runner-ups, 1 last week and the other in the Ginn Open (where she was the 36-hole leader after shooting a tournament-record 64 in the 2nd round and hung tough against Lorena Ochoa over the weekend until the tournament's last 6 holes). If she had played just a little better on a few Sundays this season, that is, we would be buzzing about how close the Player of the Year race is, not the Rookie of the Year race. When Annika Sorenstam suggests you may be the next #1 in women's golf, you know you're having an extraordinary rookie season. And Tseng has accomplished all this playing hurt pretty much all season.

Still, there's a cautionary tale in the list of 2006 Rolex First-Time Winners--of the 5 players on it, only Seon Hwa Lee has gone on to win again. And the 3 young gun 1st-time winners from last season are still in search of their 2nd win, including major winner Morgan Pressel.

But look again at the company Tseng's keeping in the above paragraphs: Pak, Creamer, Ochoa, Sorenstam, Lee, Pressel. How could I have ranked her only 3rd in her class in my pre-season post? And left her off my predicted 2008 top 30? Silly me, I thought she'd need a couple of years' worth of experience under her belt to learn how to win on tour.

Seon Hwa Lee
She's got 4 career wins and is her generation's 1st $3M woman. Although her year hasn't been as impressive as Tseng's thus far, statistically speaking ($1.04M in winnings to $1.26M, 71.15 scoring average to 70.27, 3.15 birdies per round to 4.00, 56.7% of her rounds under par to 66.7%, 8 fewer rounds in the 60s), Lee is ahead in wins this season (2 to 1) and wins per season (1.33 to 1.00). In addition to showing she knows how to win coming from behind and in the midst of a free-for-all, she's proven her consistency and durability over her nearly 3 seasons on tour and has been at the head of a very talented Junior Mint class almost since I first started ranking the '06ers. She's still criminally under the radar of most golf writers, but not for long. When you look back at her career arc--or consider that both her greens in regulation and putts per green in regulation rates this year are off from the standards she set in her 1st 2 LPGA seasons--you wouldn't be at all surprised if she were to pick up a couple more wins before 2008 is done and jump into the top 40 on the career money list.

Inbee Park
She got off to a terrible start this season, but came on strong since getting a top 10 at the Safeway International and capped off a career year with a flawless win at the U.S. Women's Open. She's succeeded at every level in the U.S., from the AJGA (where she was Junior Player of the Year in 2002 and a 5-time Junior All-American) to the USGA (where she was the U.S. Girls champion in 2002 and runner-up in 2003 and 2005, as well as a semi-finalist at the 2003 U.S. Women's Amateur) to the Futures Tour (where she was #3 on the money list in 2006). Even in a disappointing rookie season, she finished T4 at the 2007 U.S. Women's Open and made over $300K. So while I mentioned that she could have a great sophomore year ahead of her back in January, little did I suspect that she'd vault all the way to the head of her class.

And here's the coolest thing. Even though she's improved even more than Morgan Pressel did from her 2nd year to her 1st, she still has lots of room for further development in her game. Even though she's only hit about 62% of her greens in regulation this season (T91 on tour!) and isn't even all that accurate off the tee (only hitting about 67% of her fairways to rank 74th on tour), she's 10th in birdies made and making them at a rate of 3.54 per round, thanks to her tops-on-tour 1.74 putts per green in regulation rate. If her ballstriking ever were to match her short game, watch out! As it is, she still misses too many cuts (including last week at the near-defenseless Sunningdale) to be a threat to Ochoa just yet. But give her time.

Eun-Hee Ji
Right on Park's heels, however, is Ji, who made a cool quarter of a million dollars playing in only 4 events on the LPGA in her rookie season (and finished 2nd on the KLPGA money list to Ji-Yai Shin). After an uneven 1st half to this season, Ji has taken off since her surprise win at the Wegmans to become one of the hottest golfers on the planet. She had a great chance to chase down Paula Creamer at the Farr just as she did Suzann Pettersen for her 1st win, but couldn't quite do it again. Still, she's crossed the $1M mark in career winnings in only 22 LPGA events and knows how to go low on the weekend.

And, like Park, she has lots of room for improvement in her ballstriking, hitting only about 64% of her greens in regulation (63rd on tour) yet making the most of her opportunities with 1.76 putts per green in regulation (T3) and 3.31 birdies per round. She's already an pretty accurate driver of the ball, so the culprit must be her iron play. If she can find more consistency in that area of her game, she could well become the 5th repeat winner on the LPGA this season and break the $1M mark in season winnings.

Na Yeon Choi
Although she started the season as a non-exempt player on tour, she quickly established herself as one of the top players in her rookie class with her T6 finish at the Kraft Nabisco Championship sandwiched by T5 finishes at the MasterCard Classic and Corona Championship. If Tseng weren't having such an incandescent season--and if Choi could have sealed the deal at the Sybase, State Farm Classic, or Evian Masters, or avoided faltering at the Ginn Tribute--she would have already broken the $1M mark in season earnings and be talked about as if she were a lock for the Rookie of the Year. As it is, she only needs to make about $35K to make the Class of 2008 the 1st in LPGA history with 2 $1M winners in their 1st season on tour and could still win the ROY race.

Just think what she could do the rest of this season if she starts finding the fairway off the tee a little bit more often. She's already 5th on tour in greens in regulation (hitting 68% of them) and has putted well enough to be 1st in total birdies (she's making them at a rate of 3.91 per round). So it's no surprise that she's under par about 66% of the time and under 70 about 44%--both in the top 5--or that she's also in the top 5 both in scoring average and top 10 percentage. She was #4 on the KLPGA money list last season--how high can she finish on the LPGA? Consider this: her worst finish all season was in her 1st tournament of the season, a T32 in Hawaii, and her T21 at the WBO broke an 8-event top 20 streak.

Angela Park
Back in January, I thought Park would be the biggest story of the Super Sophs and the 1st to break through for a win. The runaway Rookie of the Year last season was involved in the 1st controversy of this season, bitterly protesting the slow play penalty she incurred while in contention at the SBS Open. She was MIA for a few months after that while she reportedly tinkered with her swing, looking for more length off the tee, but ever since her T3 at the U.S. Women's Open, she's been on fire, with other great chances to win in Arkansas and Evian. So it's safe to say she's back. Look for her to contend often before the year is out.

If she can improve on her greens in regulation rate (under 64%, 66th on tour), she should start making even more birdies than she has been already (3.39 per round) and finally get that 1st win. If she does, she'll break the $1M barrier in season winnings and cross the $2M mark in career winnings, joining Seon Hwa Lee and Julieta Granada as the only players in their generation to achieve the feat.

Morgan Pressel, Jee Young Lee, Ai Miyazato
Unexpectedly struggling by their high standards for most of this season, these top Junior Mints should be giving Seon Hwa Lee more of a fight at its close. They're threats to win any tournament they enter. I'd be shocked if Morgan and Ai-chan didn't join Jee Young in the $2M club in career winnings before the season is out.

In-Kyung Kim, Song-Hee Kim, Jane Park, Ji Young Oh
Who would have thought at the start of the season that Oh would have gotten her 1st win before this stellar group of her classmates? Of them, In-Kyung still has the best chance to break the $1M mark in career winnings this year, in part because of her excellent rookie season and in part because she's got a lot of momentum from the European swing. Because of all their fine play this season, the top 7 Super Sophs are outperforming the top 7 Junior Mints. With Sun Young Yoo, Teresa Lu, Minea Blomqvist, Kyeong Bae, and H.J. Choi threatening to pass the slumping Julieta Granada, however, it's fair to say that the Junior Mints are deeper than the Super Sophs.

Momoko Ueda, Hee Young Park
These celebrated LPGA rookies from the JLPGA and KLPGA have been overshadowed by the season-long Tseng-Choi showdown in the ROY race, but have been playing very well of late and could well qualify for the ADT Championship. Don't be surprised if they make up ground on them as the season ends and have fantastic sophomore seasons. And given how so many players in the previous 2 classes, both heralded and unheralded, have stepped up their games in their 2nd and 3rd seasons, there's no reason that the Class of 2008 won't match up well against them for years to come. Look for Louise Friberg, Amy Yang, Shanshan Feng, Carolina Llano, Ashleigh Simon, and others to step up.

So that's 15+ players to watch the rest of this season and in years to come. Get to know their names. They won't be going away.

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