The 2009 rookie class may be the most anticipated and highly touted in LPGA history, but only time will tell if they're the most talented--each of the 3 Young Gun classes immediately preceding them has set the bar high. Could this 1st class in the New Blood generation be the 1st to produce 3 who join the Million Dollar Club in their rookie year? Now that would be something special! Which of their rivalries-to-be has the most potential to join the LPGA's top ones?
Ji-Yai Shin v. Shiho Oyama: Shin is already one of the best in the world, not to mention already a 3-time winner on the LPGA, while Oyama battled her way back this past season to another top 10 on the JLPGA (but still finished behind Shin, Momoko Ueda, and Ai Miyazato, in my book). With 11 career JLPGA wins in 9 seasons, though, Oyama is anything but an untested rookie. Her most notable accomplishment was breaking Yuri Fudoh's 6-year stranglehold on the top of the money list in 2006--something Ai Miyazato was never able to do in her short career as a full-time JLPGAer--but it was the only time she posted a sub-71 scoring average in her career (although she has been sub-72 for the past 4 seasons). So while she's definitely the underdog, she's got the game and experience to step right up. The only thing that makes Rookie of the Year difficult for both these players is the likelihood that they'll play multiple JLPGA events in '09. But if Shin is contending for Player of the Year, as I expect her to, she may even skip some JLPGA majors.
Stacy Lewis v. Michelle Wie: Both made runs at qualifying for the LPGA via the new "top 80-equivalent" rule, but had to settle for Q-School after Lewis failed to replicate her U.S. Women's Open genius and Wie had to live with her boneheaded failure to sign her card while in contention at the State Farm Classic. Lewis's greater tournament experience showed in the final round there, as she earned medalist honors over the likes of Amy Yang and Oyama, while Wie faded out of contention. Look for them to bring the buzz in '09, but, realistically, making the top 20 on the money list in their 1st full season of competition at the highest levels of the women's game would be a fantastic accomplishment for each of them.
Vicky Hurst v. Mindy Kim v. M.J. Hur v. Chella Choi: These players are used to battling each other on the Futures Tour, so it'll be interesting to see how they handle the LPGA's bigger stage. Hur had problems on Sundays when in contention, while Hurst (the Ochoa of the Futures Tour) and Kim (the Pettersen?) had no such difficulties, accounting for almost half the wins on tour in '08. Choi underwhelmed all year until making a questionable playoff at Q-School and making the most of that opportunity. I expect them all to keep their cards in '10, but to me Hurst is the only legitimate top 20 threat. She's going to be trying to make like Seon Hwa Lee, while the rest will be trying to be the Angela Park of '09.
Meanwhile, '08 FT event winners Haeji Kang, Sunny Oh, Kim Welch, and Samantha Richdale will just be hoping to get into enough LPGA events in '09 to get into the top 40 of the money list at some point in the season (doing so would get them into 7 events in a row, at least, which would give them a legitimate shot at the top 80 by season's end). They may end up with solid or even great LPGA careers, but they aren't likely to be ROY threats this coming season.
Mika Miyazato v. Anna Nordqvist: Japan's and Europe's top amateurs handled Q-School pressure quite differently. Miyazato coolly hovered around the top 10 all tournament, while Nordqvist came back to give herself a shot at the top 20 on Sunday, but failed to come through. As a result, they're in somewhat the same position as, say, Hee Young Park (fully exempt in '08) and Na Yeon Choi (non-exempt in '08) were at the start of last season--which is to say, don't count Nordqvist out of the Rookie of the Year race just yet. Realistically, though, top 40 finishes would be great accomplishments for them. They've both prepared themselves well for the LPGA (as well as the JLPGA and LET), but there's a big difference between getting into professional events as an amateur and being a professional day in and day out.
[Update 1 (2:58 pm): Steve Elling gets the significance of (at least some in) this rookie class. And thanks to Jay Busbee for the link over at Devil Ball Golf!]
[Update 2 (1/8/09, 1:04 am): Just noticed that Anna Nordqvist (a Category 16 player on the LPGA this coming season) is one of the early leaders in the LET's Q-School. Looks like she's taking Amy Yang as her model and considering a split schedule in '09. Makes sense when you look at the gaps in the LPGA's schedule and compare them to the LET's. Another lucky break for the American rookies!]
[Update 3 (2:12 am): Jay Coffin buries his lede and asks the wrong question over at Golf Channel. The right question is, "Does Michelle Wie have a chance to win the '09 LPGA Rookie of the Year race?" And the answer is a resounding, "no," as he reports that she's likely to play only 12-14 events this coming season. If Lewis doesn't finish ahead of Wie, it's going to be a huge letdown for her.]
[Update 4 (2:22 am): Lisa Mickey's Futures Tour preview is another must-read. When will someone put her in charge of communications at the LPGA?]
[Update 5 (1/13/09, 11:42 am): The LPGA has begin a series of rookie profiles. The first looks at the two Chois, Elosegui, and Hur.]
[Update 6 (1/20/09, 10:06 pm): Here's the new rookie profile page, adding Hurst, Kim, Lee, and Kang.]
[Update 7 (1/27/09, 4:16 pm): The ever-growing list now includes Angela Oh, Nordqvist, Miyazato, and Lewis.]
[Update 8 (2/2/09, 9:24 pm): New additions to the rookie list include Richdale, Phatlum, Sunny Oh, and Oyama. I think they made a few mistakes in Oyama's bio, but I don't have time to check it right now.]
[Update 9 (2/10/09, 11:30 am: Here are the last additions to the rookie profiles: Wie, Welch, Srisawang, Shin, Shepley.]