Sunday, January 4, 2009

The LPGA's Top Rivalries: Battles of the Veteran Stars

Things have changed a lot since I last checked in on the LPGA's Battles of the Veteran Stars. Injuries and pregnancy have helped open up some significant gaps in the longest-standing rivalries on tour.

Cristie Kerr-Mi Hyun Kim: Kim's recovery from off-season knee surgery took much longer than expected, limiting her to the fewest starts in her 10-year career on the LPGA in '08 (21 events, when her previous low had been 27) and causing her to withdraw from 3 events. As a result, she failed to break the $500K barrier for the 1st time in her career, missing the top 10 on the money list for only the 3rd time and the top 25 for the 1st. Meanwhile, Kerr rode a late-season charge, capped off by her 11th career victory, to her 5th straight million-dollar season, 5th straight appearance on the top 10 of the money list, and 4th double-digit top 10 total in the past 5 seasons. Is it any surprise, then, that Kerr's lead on the career money list ballooned from less than $50K at mid-season to around $650K right now? The real question is whether Kim's recent wedding means that 2009 will be her last childless season or that her husband's reported plans to try for the '12 Olympics (he got a gold in judo in Athens in '04) mean they both plan to focus on sports for the next 4 years. Kerr is almost certainly going to break the $9M barrier in career winnings before Kim, but what about the $10M mark?

Sophie Gustafson-Maria Hjorth: Gustafson made the top 30 on the money list for the 4th straight time and the 7th time in the last 9 years, but despite being the 2nd-most lucrative of her career this past season was bittersweet, at best. She came into the Ginn Tribute one of the hottest players on tour and got to -20 through 57 holes, but completely imploded over her last 11 (Seon Hwa Lee, who beat Karrie Webb in a playoff thanks to a missed tap-in by the Hall of Famer, beat Gustafson by 12 strokes that Sunday). It would be unfair to say she never recovered from that late spring meltdown, as she got 2 top 3s in her last 7 events, but as she had no other top 10s the rest of the season, it would be unrealistic to say she just shrugged it off. Still, she's opened up one of her biggest leads in career winnings on Hjorth in recent memory (just over $200K), thanks in part to the fact that her rival was playing while pregnant for a good part of the '08 season, but mostly to the fact that she, too, got beat out by a Young Gun on a Sunday (Ya Ni Tseng in the LPGA Championship). If Gustafson maintains her top-30 pace in '09, she'll be the 1st to break the $5M barrier in career winnings....

Lorie Kane-Pat Hurst: Kane must have used up her Category 2 exemption, as her name still appears on's list of players, but unless she makes a run at breaking the $7M mark in career winnings, 2009 will be her last season on tour (I can't see her going to Q-School, can you?). Hurst, meanwhile, had the highest scoring average of her career since her rookie season, but still broke the $250K barrier for the 8th time in her last 9 seasons. She may not have any more top 10 seasons left in her, but she's practically a lock for the top 40 in '09, so expect her to keep chipping away at Kane's lead in career winnings. She's got the game to be playing for several more years.

Catriona Matthew-Rachel Hetherington-Laura Diaz: Hetherington is the clear leader with 8 career wins, but the race to the $6M mark in career winnings is on, as Matthew has already caught her and Diaz is closing fast. The way Hetherington's career has been going, she may have trouble making the top 80 in '09, while Matthew and Diaz remain legitimate top 30 threats.

Next in our series: a look at players in their prime years, productivity-wise.

[Update 1 (1/7/09, 2:02 pm): Hound Dog has found the official priority list for the upcoming season, and as I predicted, Lorie Kane exercised her only Category 2 exemption, so 2009 2010 will be her last stand (as well as Kelly Robbins, Beth Daniel, Betsy King, and Liselotte Neumann). Good luck to them!]

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