Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Looking Ahead, Part 5: Where, Oh Where, Are the American Golfers?

Dave Andrews is the latest to ask this time-honored question of the LPGA. It's true that less than a third of the limited field in Lorena's invitational are Americans (and that's counting naturalized Americans Candie Kung and Angela Park!). It's also true that only 2 Americans are in the top 10 on the money list, 6 in the top 20, 9 in the top 30, 14 in the top 40, and 16 in the top 50--and that with the exception of Paula Creamer, American young guns are falling behind their international peers:

#2 Paula Creamer
#9 Cristie Kerr
#14 Angela Stanford
#16 Candie Kung
#17 Angela Park
#19 Laura Diaz
#23 Morgan Pressel
#25 Christina Kim
#29 Jane Park
#31 Brittany Lang
#32 Nicole Castrale
#36 Stacy Prammanasudh
#38 Juli Inkster
#39 Leta Lindley
#47 Kristy McPherson
#50 Allison Fouch

But I don't see any cause for alarm, and not just because Michelle Wie and Stacy Lewis are headlining Q-School. Here's why.

The College Kids Are All Right: Despite what I just wrote about Hannah Yun, there's nothing wrong with staying in school and finishing college. You give yourself more chances to make the Curtis Cup team, to play in the U.S. Women's Amateur and Public Links, and to enjoy golf as an amateur before it becomes your sunrise-to-sundown job. Look for Amanda Blumenherst, Tiffany Joh, and other top seniors to follow in Stacy Lewis's and Alison Walshe's footsteps, either by turning pro after graduation (the Lewis route) or going straight to Q-School (the Walshe route). Curtis Cupper Jennie Lee has already joined Walshe in securing Futures Tour status for 2009.

Plus, there's always the chance other top-ranked Americans on the NCAA will play a few Futures Tour events and join '09 regulars-to-be Jane Chin (#2 NCAA, T25 FT Q-School), Cindy LaCrosse (#12 NCAA, T15 FT), Mallory Hetzel (#26 NCAA, T25 FT), Natalie Sheary (#40 NCAA, T9 FT), Jessica Yadloczky (#50 NCAA, T12 FT), Ryann O'Toole (#57 NCAA, T32 FT), Lauren Doughtie (#58 NCAA, T7 FT), Taylore Karle (#75 NCAA, T32 FT), Nara Shin (#101 NCAA, T45 FT), and Lucy Nunn (#117 NCAA, T32 FT) there. It's true that very few NCAA stars are able to make the quantum leap to the top of the Futures Tour, much less excel on the LPGA, but the pipeline is wide open and the quality of play is improving every year. And with a battlefield promotion rule finally in effect for those who win 3 times in a season on the FT, you never know who will make the quantum leap sooner than expected.

And the High Schoolers?: Some top-ranked junior golfers may be joining Hannah Yun in trying to turn pro early: #14-ranked Victoria Kiser (3rd), #16-ranked Christine Song (T15), and #22-ranked Stephanie Kim (T32) all played well last week in the Futures Tour Q-School. Down the road we have #2 Alexis Thompson, #3 Kimberly Kim, #30 Kyung Kim, #46 Annie Park and a host of others with all kinds of potential and international experience.

International Players Are Going to Play More International Schedules: Yes, it's true that you don't see all that many under-22 Americans winning professional tournaments like you do in Korea and Japan, but it's precisely because of their success in their home countries that the LPGA will remain a mostly-American tour. Even if JLPGA winners Erina Hara, Chie Arimura, Mayu Hattori, and Maiko Wakabayashi try to follow amateur Mika Miyazato to the States in coming years--and none of them have been talking like they feel they're ready to do so anytime soon--and even if young KLPGA stars like Ha-Neul Kim, Hee Kyung Seo, So Yeon Ryu, Hye Yong Choi, and this week's rookie winner Hye Yoon Kim make like Na Yeon Choi, Eun-Hee Ji, and Hee Young Park, the better they do on the LPGA, the more pressure they will face to put together a transnational schedule. And that can take a toll on your game, as Inbee Park can attest. Unless you're an Annika Sorenstam-level talent, playing a mixed schedule is hard. To the extent that international players scale back their LPGA schedules to take advantage of international opportunities, that opens up more chances for American players on the LPGA.

To be fair to Andrews, he's asking for greatness from American young guns, not just keeping your head above water. How many of the Americans I just named can expect to be top 50 players any time soon, when even top JLPGA stars like Ai Miyazato and Momoko Ueda struggled to attain that status this season? But that's the great thing about golf: you never know. Sure, it looks like Ji-Yai Shin and Ya Ni Tseng are bound for greatness, and Amy Yang will be looking to join Vicky Hurst, Michelle Wie, Stacy Lewis, and a whole bunch of established young guns chasing them, but in golf everything depends on your next shot. Don't count out any of the American young guns who aren't household names just yet.

[Update 1 (11/13/08, 2:07 am): Daniel Wexler notes that Shin's rise up the world rankings has been done through a very international schedule. While I expect her to play many more LPGA events next year than the 10 she'll play this year, I don't see any reason for her to avoid the KLPGA and JLPGA, either. As she herself pointed out after her win in Japan, she can't make any decisions on her '09 schedule until the tours release their schedules. If I were Carolyn Bivens (now there's a scary thought!), I'd be consulting very closely with my JLPGA, KLPGA, and LET counterparts.]

[Update 2 (11/24/08, 6:48 pm): Ryan Herrington gives us some more names to look for, among them Jane Chin (a CA native and 5th-year senior).]

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