Monday, January 5, 2009

The LPGA's Top Rivalries: Prime Time

It's time to continue this look at the LPGA's top rivalries by focusing on players in their prime: those who started their LPGA careers between 2000 and 2005. The name of the younger 3-year-cohort is obvious: with all due respect to Paula Creamer, the Classes of 2003-2005 are most definitely the Ochoa Generation. But I've called the Classes of 2000-2002 Seoul Sisters because their top 3 players are so closely matched. Let's work our way up to the top rivalries in these generations.

Meena Lee-Shi Hyun Ahn-Young Kim: The first cohort of Seoul Sisters to underachieve on the LPGA still has a lot of life left in them, despite being overshadowed by the trailblazers ahead of them and outpaced by the top Young Guns. Lee quietly broke the $500K barrier for the 3rd time in her 4 years on tour, but even though she posted the 2nd-best scoring average of her career she couldn't break into the top 30 on the money list in '08. Ahn was limited by injuries to only 18 LPGA events, even fewer than the 19 she played the previous 2 seasons, but whereas she had been able to be a pretty consistent top 30 player even on a very limited LPGA schedule by Korean standards in her 1st 4 seasons, she dropped all the way to #55 in '08. (I had made the mistake of predicting a #27 finish for her.) Kim, by contrast, played the most LPGA events in '08 of any year in her career (24), but only had 2 really good weeks all season and only squeaked into the top 50 by the thinnest of margins. Still, less than $200K in career winnings separate these 3 players, so perhaps they'll push each other to improve on their 6-7-8 standing in The Ochoa Generation.

Candie Kung-Angela Stanford-Natalie Gulbis: I'd like to say I had a feeling around this time last season that Kung was due for a breakout year, but actually it was more of a vague sense that 2007 was an anomaly for someone who had been a consistent top 30 player her entire career. It wasn't a strong enough feeling for me to put her in my preseason top 30 last January. For that matter, I was nervous putting Angela Stanford as high as #25--I doubted she'd be able to follow up on what had been her best-ever season. No, the player I had the most confidence in back then was Natalie Gulbis. Shows what I know! Now Kung is the most likely to be the 1st among these players to cross the $4M mark in career winnings and Stanford has the best odds among them of making the top 10 on the '09 money list, while Gulbis's future is dependent on the health of her back. Still, she's less than a half-million dollars behind Kung in career winnings and is coming off a long late-season rest, so as long as she stays healthy there's no reason this trio can't keep playing leapfrog for years to come and challenge Suzann Pettersen in the race to chase down Grace Park on the career money list in the process.

Christina Kim-Stacy Prammanasudh: Kim is the iron woman among the Americans on tour; 2008 was her 3rd 30-start season in her 6-year career (her lowest number of events ever was 28). This past year was her best in terms of top 10s and winnings, but that 3rd win still eluded her grasp and she barely made the top 30 on the money list. Still, '09 is a Solheim Cup year and she's motivated to improve on her 4th-place standing on the qualifying list for the U.S. team. Look for her to extend her lead on the career money list on Prammanasudh even further next season. Although Stacy P kept her scoring average below 72 for the 5th time in 6 LPGA seasons, she could barely manage a top 40 on the money list, breaking a streak of 2 straight top 20s. As a result, she was one of my big disappointments in '08 (she was my preseason pick for #12). Hopefully the pressure of fighting for one of those last Solheim Cup spots will help focus her game in '09. I'd love to see her bounce back in a big way.

Jeong Jang-Hee-Won Han-Grace Park: Jang moved to the head of her generation in 2008 on the strength of her 4th straight million-dollar season, but it was a year of mightabeens, as all 8 of her top 10s could easily have become her 3rd career win. She still trails Han and Park in that category by a significant margin, despite the former's pregnancy and new motherhood the last 2 seasons and the latter's back problems since mid-2004; with Jang's bad wrists, she, too, may face similar struggles in years to come. So it's still a toss-up who will define their generation, although the clock may be running out on Park's career, as 2009 is the last season her Kraft Nabisco Championship victory grants her entry into any tournament she wants to play as a Category 3 LPGA member.

Lorena Ochoa-Paula Creamer-Suzann Pettersen: It's not so much their position on the career money list as their ability to win in bunches that sets this trio apart from the rest of their generation. Death in the family limited Ochoa to 22 events and broke her $2M+/20+ top 10s/sub-70 scoring average streak at 2 (she "only" got 17 top 10s in '08), but she successfully defended her #1 status from a healthy Annika Sorenstam and was the most dominant player on the planet from March to May. Creamer and Pettersen are on the short list of players looking to unseat Ochoa in '09--along with veteran Cristie Kerr, Young Gun Ya Ni Tseng, and New Blood Ji-Yai Shin--but, man, even though this lead chase pack made up some ground on Ochoa in the summer and fall of '08, it would be an understatement to call what lies between her and them a gap. More like a chasm. Creamer would need a great season just to end up with half of Ochoa's career wins as of 2008, so imagine how fantastic her 2009 would have to be to get halfway to Ochoa's total at the end of it!

No comments: