Friday, March 6, 2009

HSBC Women's Champions Friday: Growing Pains, Learning Curves, and the Expectations Game

I don't care who you are or how many wins you've racked up in your amateur career or on other women's professional tours, there is a huge learning curve to be climbed when you play full-time on the LPGA for the 1st time, not to mention when you start qualifying for big-time events like the HSBC Women's Champions. The course is a real test of your game, your nerves, your course management, and your resilience. Add high expectations--your own and others'--and it's a pretty volatile mix. A quick look at some highly touted rookies' and young guns' performances over the event's 1st 2 days shows just how good the leaders have been playing thus far--and just how difficult it is to join them.

Take Vicky Hurst, for instance, who's currently sitting in last place. She started on the back yesterday with a great birdie, but the 11th tee was the last time she's been under par in the tournament, thanks to a quad on that par 3, a double on the par-4 17th, and a bogey-par-bogey-double finish to close out the front and her day. And it doesn't look like she'll see the right side of par all week after her start today: a pair of doubles sandwiched between a pair of bogeys over her 1st 6 holes and a bogey on the 18th hole to close out her 1st 9 (that's a 43, for those counting at home). Despite her top 15 finish in Hawaii, she's going through here what Amy Yang went through there. Remember how Amy decided to skip the Australian swing to better prepare for the SBS Open? And how she responded to that self-imposed pressure with a 75-80 meltdown? Well, you can bet she does. That's why this week matters so much to her. Those 4 birdies in a row on Thursday were a welcome breakthrough, but she followed them up with a birdie-less 39 on the front. Still, she's playing bogey-free golf today and has strung together 3 birdies in her last 4 holes to move to -2 with 2 holes left to play on the front.

Rookie Hurst and Super Soph Yang are coming to the LPGA full-time after a handful of wins on the Futures Tour and LET, but what about the player with fistfuls of KLPGA wins and 3 non-member LPGA titles to her name, including a major and the season-ending ADT Championship? Well, while Michelle Wie was contending in Hawaii, Ji-Yai Shin was missing the cut--badly--raising doubts that her brief hospitalization while competing in Australia was a more serious sign than it first appeared. She bounced back with a nice top 15 in Thailand, putting together 3 under-par rounds in a row to close out the tournament. But Shin has been riding the roller-coaster thus far in Singapore (a much less pleasant ride, you can bet, than the one on the rickshaw Suzann Pettersen gave her before the tournament began). She was -1 and bogey-free through the 6th hole yesterday, but then made 2 bogeys over her next 6 holes, 2 birdies over her next 3, and a walk-off bogey to finish at 72. Today, her swings have been even worse, in more ways than 1. She bounced back from an opening triple on the 10th with 3 birdies in her next 6 holes, but gave them right back with a bogey-double finish to close out the back. So what does she do but follow it up with a bogey-free 34 on the front? Just what will Ji-Yai do next?

How about that other rookie with a double-digit win total in Asia? Shiho Oyama continues to find it a difficult adjustment to life on the LPGA. After barely making the cut in Hawaii and never going under par in Thailand, she got off to a solid start in Singapore, with 12 holes of bogey-free, -2 golf. But since then she's made 6 bogeys and 2 doubles, offsetting her 4 birdies and dropping her back to +5 for the tournament. Looks like she's suffering the disease Hee Young Park suffered through last season of shooting about 1 big number per event. (Speaking of Park, she's been the epitome of steadiness this week, making a grand total of 2 birdies and 2 pars in her 1st 36 holes--not quite the fireworks of last week, eh?)

If even players with this much experience in the winner's circle and with the glare of media attention are finding the golf to be quite a challenge this season, what about those who unexpectedly thrust themselves into the limelight, like, say, Inbee Park, who got hot last summer at the U.S. Women's Open and hasn't even been warm ever since? Well, she, too, continues to struggle this week. When she got off to a bad start last season, you could count on 1 hand the number of people who noted or cared about it (not counting myself and the Seoul cognoscenti). Now? At least 2 hands!

But you know what? Everyone goes through rough patches and slumps. Just ask Brittany Lang, who endured a terrible sophomore season, began to come back in '08, and is now fighting to keep a 7-event top-10 streak alive this week. Or Song-Hee Kim, who couldn't translate Futures Tour domination into LPGA success until her own sophomore season. Or Ai Miyazato, whose tailspin began with a minor injury incurred during the 2006 HSBC Women's World Match Play (where she lost to fellow Senior Standout Seon Hwa Lee in the finals) and whose comeback began later in 2008 than Lang's. Hey, if it can happen to a Hall of Famer like Se Ri Pak more than once in her career, losing your game for awhile can happen to anyone. The point is to bounce back. Which is why it's so great to see all these golfers playing well again this week.

And why it's so gratifying to see Mi Hyun Kim finally making birdies in bunches again like before her knee surgery last winter, Juli Inkster and Hee-Won Han making nice moves today, Karrie Webb and Suzann Pettersen bouncing back from early triples on Thursday, and Seon Hwa Lee hanging in there despite cooling off from her bogey-free -6 start over her 1st 14 holes (before a rain delay and a monitor lizard knocked her out of the zone) during her last 14 (although that bogey on the 11th hole to begin her next 14 is a troubling sign). There's a reason, after all, why they're among the Best of the LPGA.

So, yeah, Angela Stanford, Lorena Ochoa, Paula Creamer, Cristie Kerr, Brittany Lang, and Katherine Hull have been the hottest players in the world of women's professional golf lately, but if the 1st 27 to 36 holes of the Showdown in Singapore are any indication, they're going to have a lot of company in the coming months. And don't count out those among the Young Gun and New Blood generations whose 2009 campaigns have not begun as they had imagined or hoped. It may take some time to get used to needing your A-game to play with the big girls week in and week out, but time is on their side.

[Update 1 (12:12 am): Trying furiously to find a live feed that my computer can read from among those recommended on Seoul and commenters at Hound Dog's place and mine, but no luck so far.]

[Update 2 (12:18 am): This one is teasing me right now--and the China-J-golf link available through here isn't working any better. Anyone having any better luck?]

[Update 3 (12:22 am): Ah, I'll let HSBC's live bloggers take it from here!]

[Update 4 (12:32 am): Hey, I don't want to hear anyone blaming me for jinxing Hee-Won Han! I made a point not to mention Jee Young Lee's comeback, and she still fell apart over her last 4 holes.]

[Update 5 (12:34 am): That 1st streaming video link up there in update 2 is now working!]

[Update 6 (1:56 am): Saw Ai-chan suffer through some shaky ballstriking and uninspiring chips and pitches down the stretch, but fight back to a 72 with a gutsy birdie on 18. She fired at the pin, flirting with the water, and canned what looked like a 15-to-18-footer with plenty of speed to spare when it hit the back of the cup. Her -4 total isn't all that bad, as many of the players in the last groups struggled. More on that in a minute.]

[Update 7 (2:15 am): Let's start with Paula Creamer. She missed some good birdie chances and made a pair of sloppy bogeys on the par 3s on the back, but banged home a tough 5-footer on the same hole Jane Park had a kick-in birdie after almost spinning her wedge back for an eagle. Both Creamer and Park could have had much more than a 1-shot lead on Mi Hyun Kim (68) and Katherine Hull (69) if they had been sharper on the back. But given that Se Ri Pak doubled 10 and Angela Stanford doubled 18 to fall back to -3--and Angela Park (76), Seon Hwa Lee (74), Lorena Ochoa (73), Eun-Hee Ji (73), and Natalie Gulbis (73) went over par to fall back even further--they didn't do that badly. Not as good as Sun Young Yoo (69, -4) or Lindsey Wright (69, -3), but being tied for 1st going into moving day is never a bad place to be!]

[Update 8 (8:58 am): Here are Hound Dog's 2nd-round recap and's notes and interviews. Too bad they don't include Ai-chan and her comment from the J-golf broadcast that she's eager to see her niece in Okinawa.]

1 comment:

IceCat said...

I couldn't get J-Golf tonight, so I hunted around for another portal and after downloading the TVAnts application from ( was able to tune in via a sports network in India called Zee Sports - in its original English!
Play was suspended at 2am EST because of lightning in the vicinity, and 40 minutes later or so it started coming down in torrents, but they were hopeful that it would pass and that the handful of players still yet to finish would do so today.