Having looked at my favorite golfer's prospects for the coming season last Saturday, I figured it would be fun to check out Momoko Ueda, the first of what may turn out to be many of her fellow countrywomen to follow her to the LPGA. Ueda's rookie season was nothing to write home about, even if she did finish it 3rd in her class and 13th in her generation.
In fact, Ueda earned more in her 13 JLPGA starts than she did in her 19 LPGA starts in 2008. Like Miyazato in 2006, Ueda won twice on the JLPGA in her rookie season, but the fact is that the rookie Miyazato outdid her in every other measure. Miyazato earned $532.1K in 21 starts (including 7 top 10s) against Ueda's $413.6K in 2 fewer starts (including 3 top 10s) on the LPGA; on the JLPGA, it was ￥58.60M for Miyazato in 7 starts against Ueda's ￥54.62M in 13. Miyazato also scored better than Ueda: 71.22 vs. 71.74 on the LPGA and 70.63 vs. 71.28 on the JLPGA. Ueda wasn't nearly as proficient on the greens as Miyazato was in her rookie season, either; Ueda was consistently near 3.19 birdies per round and 1.825 putts per green in regulation on both tours, while Miyazato was at 3.71 and 1.78 on the LPGA and even better in PPGIR on the JLPGA, at 1.728 (I still haven't been able to locate her JLPGA birdie rate in 2006). Although Ueda was slightly longer than Miyazato (by about 3 yards), Miyazato was much more accurate off the tee and with her approach shots. Where Ueda could only manage to hit 62% of her fairways and 63.6% of her greens in regulation, Miyazato was fantastic, at 75.3% and 69.3%.
Those last stats are the key to Ueda's 2009, in my opinion. I'm not so worried about her putting--she averaged 1.78 PPGIR and 3.47 birdies per round on the JLPGA in 2007, when she won 5 times--so she knows how to get the ball in the hole and perform under pressure. The challenge will be getting better at ballstriking and course management this season. If she can become just a little bit more accurate off the tee, she could end up in Hound Dog's top 20 for total driving rather than #71, as she was in 2008, and thereby increase the odds of hitting more than 2/3 of her greens in regulation and giving herself more--and better--birdie chances. Ballstriking is what really what separated Na Yeon Choi's 2008 from Ueda's (where Ya Ni Tseng outdid both of them was in total putting). There's no reason that Ueda can't be in their league in all these categories this coming season.
Like Miyazato, Ueda will need to get off to a fast start in 2009, given the temptations of relatively easier money on the JLPGA and the gaps in the LPGA schedule for those ineligible to compete in the Solheim Cup. But I'm going to be stubborn and put her, too, back in my top 30 for 2009 next week. I expect her sophomore season to be much better than her rookie one.