Monday, September 22, 2008

On the Relative Strength of Professional Tours in Women's Golf

With Yuri Fudoh and Ha-Neul Kim's 3rd victories on the JLPGA and KLPGA, respectively, and Gwladys Nocera's 4th on the LET, overshadowed, to say the least, by a sudden and unexpected onset of Ryder Cup Madness in the golf world, I want to revisit an issue Hound Dog raised earlier this summer: who can boast the second-strongest tour in women's golf? When HD ranked the KLPGA and JLPGA earlier this year, he was struck by the significantly lower world rankings of the top players in the former tour than the latter. While part of this was simply due to the preeminence of rookies and young guns on the KLPGA at the time, it's worth revisiting this question from a variety of angles (not least because I'll be updating my own Best of the JLPGA ranking next week, in the run-up to their 3rd major of the season).

First, consider who has the most worldwide wins this calendar year and their positions in the Rolex Rankings and Golfweek/Sagarin Performance Index:

Lorena Ochoa 6 [1, 1]
Ji-Yai Shin 6 [7, 4]
Gwladys Nocera 4 [96, 60]
Annika Sorenstam 3 [2, 5]
Paula Creamer 3 [5, 2]
Yuri Fudoh 3 [17, 47]
Ha-Neul Kim 3 [92, n.r.]
Hee Kyung Seo 3 [122, n.r.]
Lotta Wahlin 3 [167, 138]
Suzann Pettersen 2 [3, 3]
Seon Hwa Lee 2 [10, 13]
Mi-Jeong Jeon 2 [32, 49]
Akiko Fukushima 2 [39, 40]
Miho Koga 2 [42, 45]
Hyun-Ju Shin 2 [46, 48]
Amy Yang 2 [93, 64]
Martina Eberl 2 [131, 74]
Ran Hong 2 [148, n.r.]
Rebecca Hudson 2 [162, 155]

Before we jump in, let's acknowledge that the GSPI is skewed by the fact that their system doesn't take into account KLPGA events. In fact, the GSPI doesn't even take wins or final finishes into account, as far as I can tell, instead ranking players by their respective finishes in each round they play. The RR is skewed in its own way by taking into account the last 2 years' worth of results around the world, twice as many weeks as the 52 the GSPI looks at.

Clearly, good play and multiple wins matter most on the LPGA--even Pettersen, whose 2 wins have come in Europe this season, is ranked so high because of her incandescent play on the LPGA in 2007. Even Amy Yang, who's barely played in LPGA events as a non-exempt rookie this season--and played much worse there than she has on the LET--is virtually the top-ranked LET regular, even though Nocera has twice as many wins as she does. The next-best tour seems to be the JLPGA, where the players with more than 1 win this season seem guaranteed top 50 rankings. It's worth noting that Shiho Oyama and Miki Saiki are also top 50 players in at least 1 system, even though they are only #14 and #21 on the current JLPGA money list, yet both got top 5 finishes in sectional qualifying at Mission Hills last week, so they seem close to being in Ai Miyazato's and Momoko Ueda's league.

But hold on a second. Look again at who's won on the KLPGA multiple times. Sun-Ju Ahn, the Mission Hills medalist, isn't even on this list, even though for a long time in 2007 she was Ji-Yai Shin's top rival. When international players come to the KLPGA--including LPGA Rookie of the Year #2 Na Yeon Choi, U.S. Women's Open winner Inbee Park, last year's #2 KLPGA star Eun-Hee Ji, and multiple Hall of Famer Se Ri Pak--they haven't dominated like their LPGA status might have led you to expect. Shin, the Women's British Open winner and winner on the JLPGA, just got outduelled by Kim, last season's KLPGA Rookie of the Year, for her 3rd straight runner-up finish after she had been stopped on the JLPGA by Hyun-Ju Shin and Saiki Fujita the previous 2 weeks. So the KLPGA actually seems quite similar to the JLPGA, where Momoko Ueda has only won once in multiple tries and Ai Miyazato struggled for a top 10 in the year's second major (she'll try again in 2 weeks).

That leaves the LET getting the short end of the stick. I know it rubs their top regulars the wrong way, but when an amateur (Anna Nordqvist) outdoes a multiple winner (Eberl) at Mission Hills and one of their top players (Becky Brewerton) fails to advance, it makes sense that even someone who went as low as Nocera (-29 last weekend, breaking an LET record!) can't crack the top 50 in either ranking system. Just look at how many "outsiders" have won on the LET this season--Shin, Pettersen, Karrie Webb, Helen Alfreddson, Laura Davies, and Minea Blomqvist--and you can see why multiple wins over weaker fields just don't cut it.

I don't have time to back this up, but my guess is the JLPGA's top 20 and the KLPGA's top 10 could thrive on the LPGA. But when last year's LET Rookie of the Year Louise Stahle has "journeywoman" status at best on the LPGA, when 5 of their top 30 have played in 7 or fewer events (as opposed to 2 who have done so on the JLPGA list), and when even multiple LPGA winners from Europe in recent years like Sorenstam and Pettersen have been struggling to add to their totals, I have to wonder how many LET players could thrive on the LPGA.

What do you all think? Is Vicky Hurst better than Nocera? Is Mindy Kim as good as Wahlin? They have the same number of wins, after all. How much deeper than the Futures Tour's is the talent pool of regulars on the LET?

[Update 1 (10/3/08, 2:19 am): The conversation continues over at Waggle Room.]

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