Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Best of the Young Guns: Senior Standouts, June 2009 Edition

With the rookie class of 2009 rocking the Wegmans and Ji-Yai Shin getting her 2nd LPGA victory as a rookie (and 5th overall) last week, Hound Dog's suggestion that the reign of the rookie class of 2006 as the LPGA's best ever may be a short one is well taken. But even if the '09ers surpass the '06ers over the course of a single season, what about the long run? Let's put it this way: the Senior Standouts have 7 players in the million-dollar club in career winnings (and 3 more could get there by season's end). How many other rookie classes are that deep? We'll check in on their closest competition in the Young Guns generation--the Junior Mints--next month, but now let's take a closer look at the frontrunners.

Simply the Best

1. Seon Hwa Lee: She's suffering through the 1st so-so season of her career. But if she can just start hitting a few more greens per tournament, she could be back in the winner's circle any given week. Her putting's been pretty solid and has been improving of late, so she just needs to give herself more birdie chances to get back to contending. She's hitting an astounding 82.7% of her fairways and has average distance, so clearly it's time to work on her irons. Check out Happy Fan's career overview to see why I've put her at #1 in her class for what feels like forever.
2. Morgan Pressel: Isn't it so typical of golf that just as the swing changes you've been working on for a long time start to groove, your putter heads south? That was the story of Pressel's season until the Wegmans last week, when her putter came back online and she put herself in contention through 63 holes. But even though she's added distance this season (she's now averaging just over 240 yards off the tee), she's not quite accurate enough off the tee (her 74.1% average is down from 77.1% in 2008 and 76.7% in 2006, which is worse than it sounds because so many more players are hitting 70% or more of their fairways this year than in previous years) to compete with the LPGA's elite on a regular basis. Still, even with her disastrous final 9 at the Wegmans, she still hit over 78% of her fairways, so maybe she's on the right track for the rest of the season. It couldn't happen any sooner, as Jee Young Lee is ahead of her in every major statistical category except wins. So I'm going to go against both major ranking systems and keep Pressel at #2 in her class over her career--for now.
3. Jee Young Lee: Her driving stats are remarkably similar to Ya Ni Tseng's, but she's hitting far fewer greens and taking more putts than the best player among the Young Guns. I suspect she, like her namesake at the top of this list, needs to work on her approach shots. Why? So she can either move to #1 on my ranking of the best players on tour without a member win or get off it completely. Check out this profile by Brian Heard and career overview by Happy Fan to understand why Hound Dog and I are so high on her prospects.

The Contenders

4. Ai Miyazato: She's having the best season of any of the Senior Standouts thus far and still has loads of room for improvement. She's only put together 3 rounds in the mid-60s this season, despite being on in every aspect of her game, which helps explain why her ongoing 6-event top-20 streak only has 3 top 10s mixed in the stretch and why she hasn't been able to crack the top 3 just yet. I still think she made a mistake to go home to play in the Suntory Open and celebrate her birthday in Japan, but she should be fully recovered from jet lag and ready to contend from now on.
5. Brittany Lang: She's having the 2nd-best season of the Senior Standouts, is one of the best drivers on tour, and has been hitting a ton of greens, so she could win any week her putter gets hot. It wouldn't hurt to work on her irons, too. She should be making a lot more birdies than she has been this season and it can't all be her putter's fault.
6. Sun Young Yoo: This late bloomer continues to quietly impress this season. She's one of the better drivers on tour, is hitting a bunch of greens, and putting pretty well, so it was great to see her get her 2nd top 10 of the season last week at the Wegmans, breaking a 5-event string in which she struggled just to make cuts. Perhaps this is the start of another top-20 streak like the 5-event one she started the season with? Or something a bit more impressive? In any case, she deserves a promotion--her quantum leap has been made.

Quantum Leap Candidates

7. Meaghan Francella: She's finally healthy and playing well again. If she could capitalize more on her ability to hit fairways (she's doing so 77% of the time), she'll hit more greens, give herself better birdie chances, and start making more birdie putts. That 1.83 PPGIR rate needs improvement if she's going to contend for win #2 any time soon--or beat Teresa Lu and Kyeong Bae to the $1M mark in career winnings.
8. Teresa Lu: I think she's playing hurt, as she WDed from the Sybase and hasn't broken into the top 50 since. But if she ever gets her irons going, watch out for her. With a 1.87 PPGIR rate, she clearly isn't putting the ball close to the hole that often, but still is averaging 3.19 birdies per round, despite hitting the green in regulation 64.4% of the time. Brian Heard argues she's here to stay, and I agree.
9. Kyeong Bae: Finished 4th at the LPGA Championship, but a final-round 79 at the Wegmans torpedoed what had been a decent comeback from her 1st-round 74. If she could become a better wind and rain player, she'd be a lot more consistent, but when the weather's good, watch out for her. She's averaging 3.25 birdies per round despite hitting the fairway less often (just under 66% of the time) than she hits the green (just over 68% of the time) and averaging 1.85 PPGIR. If she's ranked this high when she's struggling as much as she has this season (and frankly, over much of her LPGA career), I wonder where she'll be when she starts realizing her potential?
10. Hye Jung Choi: Enduring the worst season of her LPGA career thus far, she needs to improve almost every aspect of her game. Minea Blomqvist is hot on her heels and showing signs of life.
11. Minea Blomqvist: She's still not hitting many greens this season, but is making a bunch of birdies, so watch out for her once her ballstriking improves, as it's bound to do soon.
12. Julieta Granada: She's finally got a decent run going, having made her last 3 cuts in a row, but unless she plays great the next 2 weeks, look for her to spend most of the summer in Europe, where she has full status on the LET.

On the Bottom Looking Up

13. Allison Fouch: After a hot 2008, she's enduring a cold 2009. She's only made 2 cuts since the Corona, and finished T68 both times. Just about every aspect of her game needs serious improvement.
14. Linda Wessberg: If Fouch has been cold this season, Wessberg has been frigid. She's played 3 events on the LET, but only sits at #66 on their money list. Still, she's made more money there than on the LPGA, where she's riding a 3-event missed cut streak and hasn't played since the Corning. As she isn't in the final field for the Farr, my guess is she's trying to find her game in Europe in hopes of qualifying for the Evian Masters and Women's British Open--and may stay there even if she doesn't.
15. Karin Sjodin: Having a fine 2009 stats-wise, if not yet results-wise. She's now Blomqvist's top competition for best Euro among the Senior Standouts.
16. Katie Futcher: I used to think of her as the Kristy McPherson of the Senior Standouts, but whereas McPherson has clearly made a quantum leap this season, Futcher has stalled out. A top 10 at the MasterCard Classic is the only bright spot in an otherwise dismal season thus far.
17. Louise Stahle: Has played terribly since her 1st career LPGA top 10 at the Sybase. She's trying to break a 3-event missed cut streak this week at the Farr.
18. Kim Hall: The 2nd half of the last 2 seasons, she nabbed a great finish out of the blue to allow her to keep her card, but I'd be amazed if she can pull the feat off this season.
19. Sarah Jane Smith: Has cracked the top 50 once in 10 starts in her 1st full season on the LPGA. Will need to do much better if she wants to have a 2nd.
20. Danielle Downey: I have to guess she's injured, as she hasn't played since late March, despite sitting pretty at #129 on the current priority status list.
21. Na Ri Kim: With Category 16 status, she has gotten into a few LPGA events already this season, but hasn't done anything special. In that, at least, she's been consistent. Still, she got into the Farr, so at least she gets to keep trying to play her way through her troubles.

On the Outside Looking In

22. Virada Nirapathpongporn: Recovering from shoulder surgery, she'll spend a lot of time on the Futures Tour in 2009. So far she's played 2 events and is languishing near the bottom of the money list. It's all practice for Q-School, unless her recovery proceeds quicker than expected.
23. Nina Reis: Playing the LET full-time in '09 and sits at #51 on their money list through 7 events.
24. Veronica Zorzi: Ditto, except she's at #34 in only 5 events.
25. Ashley Johnston: She's listed as a former member--guess she didn't get that medical exemption that she didn't use last season extended.


For your reference--and mine--here are the stats on which I'm basing the June ranking.

2009 LPGA Money List (rank), stroke average (rank), birdies per round average (rank [in total birdies]), greens in regulation rate (rank): I focus on four key indicators of how well someone is playing this season--how much money they've made, how they've scored, how many birdies they've averaged per round, and how many greens they've hit in regulation on average per round, plus how they rank in each category (except for birdies, which LPGA.com ranks by total and not by average). I figure I can figure out how well they're hitting their irons and putting by comparing the last three figures, so I don't include putts per green in regulation here. Some of the figures Hound Dog thinks are the most important I'm looking at in the career stats (below), where I think they belong. These stats are all about the present and future.

1. Ai Miyazato, $328.6K (#19), 70.84 (#10), 3.67 (#12), 70.3% (#15)
2. Brittany Lang, $286.0K (#20), 71.12 (#17), 3.38 (#9), 72.7% (#5)
3. Jee Young Lee, $260.5K (#24), 71.56 (#24), 3.67 (#7), 68.4% (#32)
4. Sun Young Yoo, $241.4K (#28), 71.26 (#18), 3.45 (#19), 70.4% (#13)
5. Seon Hwa Lee, $207.4K (#31), 71.35 (#19), 3.21 (#22), 67.1% (#42)
6. Meaghan Francella, $186.4K (#34), 72.24 (#44), 2.87 (#50), 67.4% (#40)
7. Kyeong Bae, $159.0K (#38), 72.88 (#73), 3.25 (#58), 68.2% (#33)
8. Morgan Pressel, $132.8K (#41), 71.76 (#28), 3.07 (#36), 65.7% (#59)
9. Teresa Lu, $131.9K (#42), 72.49 (#52), 3.19 (#26), 64.4% (#81)
10. Louise Stahle, $83.7K (#63), 72.69 (#64), 2.92 (#98), 69.6% (#23)
11. Minea Blomqvist, $75.2K (#69), 72.80 (#68), 3.35 (#28), 57.5% (#138)
12. Karin Sjodin, $70.2K (#75), 72.00 (#35), 3.46 (#66), 69.0% (#26)
13. Katie Futcher, $68.3K (#77), 73.68 (#106), 2.60 (#58), 62.5% (#99)
14. Hye Jung Choi, $52.2K (#87), 73.82 (#111), 1.94 (#114), 58.1% (#135)
15. Allison Fouch, $50.4K (#90), 74.55 (#132), 2.73 (#50), 65.4% (#63)
16. Julieta Granada, $27.3K (#112), 75.33 (#146), 2.33 (#106), 54.6% (#145)
17. Sarah Jane Smith, $18.5K (#123), 73.96 (#115), 2.65 (#108), 64.8% (#74)
18. Na Ri Kim, $16.9K (#126), 74.18 (#119), 2.71 (#137), 60.7% (#112)
19. Kim Hall, $10.8K (#135), 74.91 (#141), 2.44 (#127), 59.3% (#123)
20. Linda Wessberg, $8.1K (#139), 75.32 (#145), 2.10 (#141), 55.1% (#144)
21. Danielle Downey, $3.1K (#149), 76.38 (n.r.), ? (n.r.), ? (n.r.)

Career LPGA Money List (rank), # of LPGA events entered/majors/wins/top 3s/top 10s/top 20s/cuts made (made cut rate): About the only thing these stats are useful for is comparing people who entered the LPGA in the same year (although if you count generations by 3 years, it can be interesting). Between inflation, changing purses, and length/timing of careers, it's very hard to compare and contrast winnings across generations of LPGA greats. Fortunately the Senior Standouts haven't been at this all too long, so the career money list is a decent stat for comparing them, even if it's a bit unfair to people who have not been exempt both years. What would really be great is if we had a world money list in inflation-adjusted dollars, with inflation- and exchange-adjusted other cash denominations added in (or just totalled up separately to avoid comparing dollars and yen), which included all each golfer earned as a professional on any tour. But even the guys don't have that, so that'll have to remain a dream for now--although Thomas Atkins has posted an inflation-adjusted LPGA Career Top 50 as of the end of the 2008 season and a Top 50 ranking over at Hound Dog's place. In any case, I include these other ways of seeing how the Senior Standouts finished relative to their competition in the tournaments they entered because they reveal a lot about how well someone is able to compete at every level, from just making cuts to grinding out top 20s and top 10s to contending for wins. Many thanks to the LPGA for updating their 2009 Performance Chart after every event!

1. Seon Hwa Lee, $3.39M (#47), 98/0/4/10/25/50/91 (.929)
2. Jee Young Lee, $2.60M (#68), 91/0/0/7/27/51/85 (.934)
3. Morgan Pressel, $2.28M (#83), 85/1/2/6/24/40/73 (.859)
4. Julieta Granada, $2.17M (#87), 93/0/1/5/10/21/60 (.645)
5. Ai Miyazato, $2.06M (#89), 80/0/0/4/22/34/66 (.825)
6. Brittany Lang, $1.80M (#103), 94/0/0/4/20/38/72 (.766)
7. Sun Young Yoo, $1.29M (#134), 91/0/0/1/11/26/71 (.780)
8. Kyeong Bae, $.92M (#190), 85/0/0/2/8/14/60 (.706)
9. Teresa Lu, $.92M (#191), 81/0/0/1/6/19/60 (.741)
10. Meaghan Francella $.82M (#207), 64/0/1/1/6/12/39 (.609)
11. Minea Blomqvist, $.65M (#232), 70/0/0/1/3/8/47 (.671)
12. Hye Jung Choi, $.61M (#240), 65/0/0/0/7/11/44 (.677)
13. Karin Sjodin, $.49M (#270), 74/0/0/0/3/10/44 (.595)
14. Katie Futcher, $.45M (#278), 75/0/0/0/4/6/51 (.680)
15. Alison Fouch, $.43M (#281), 43/0/0/1/3/6/27 (.628)
16. Kim Hall, $.35M (#304), 67/0/0/1/3/4/28 (.418)
17. Linda Wessberg, $.34M (#310), 43/0/0/0/5/6/26 (.605)
18. Virada Nirapathpongporn, $.23M (#367), 57/0/0/0/1/4/28 (.491)
19. Nina Reis, $.23M (#369), 52/0/0/0/3/4/28 (.538)
20. Louise Stahle, $.14M (#429), 31/0/0/0/1/2/16 (.516)
21. Danielle Downey, $.14M (#430), 35/0/0/0/1/2/11 (.314)
22. Sarah Jane Smith, $.12M (#444), 28/0/0/0/1/3/11 (.393)
23. Na Ri Kim, $.11M (#457), 43/0/0/0/0/2/18 (.419)
24. Veronica Zorzi, $.09M (#488), 16/0/0/0/0/1/13 (.813)
25. Ashley Johnston, $.05M (#550), 13/0/0/0/0/0/6 (.462)

Other Career Measures: Rolex Ranking (as of 6/29/09) and rank, Golfweek/Sagarin Performance Index (as of 6/28/09) and rank, International and Non-Member LPGA Wins (as of the end of the 2008 season): This is a way of seeing how those Senior Standouts who sometimes or regularly or often compete on other tours stack up over the course of their careers to date (the RR includes results over the past 104 weeks on the LPGA, LET, JLPGA, KLPGA, and Futures Tour; the GSPI includes results over the past 52 weeks on all these tours except the KLPGA).

1. Seon Hwa Lee, 3.75 (#16), 70.77 (#23); 3
2. Jee Young Lee, 3.33 (#20), 70.73 (#21); 2
3. Ai Miyazato, 2.96 (#27), 70.51 (#16); 14
4. Brittany Lang, 2.85 (#31), 70.88 (#26); 0
5. Morgan Pressel, 2.51 (#37), 71.66 (#44); 0
6. Sun Young Yoo, 2.50 (#38), 71.11 (#31); 0
7. Teresa Lu, 1.73 (#60), 71.89 (#57); 0
8. Minea Blomqvist, 1.39 (#71), 72.08 (#66); 5
9. Meaghan Francella, 1.31 (#77), 71.89 (#56); 0
10. Allison Fouch, 1.09 (#83), 73.50 (#157); 0
11. Kyeong Bae, 1.06 (#185), 73.40 (#212); 3
12. Hye Jung Choi, .84 (#108), 72.55 (#89); 1
13. Katie Futcher, .78 (#114), 72.26 (#76); 0
14. Louise Stahle, .72 (#123), 73.30 (#140); 0
15. Karin Sjodin, .59 (#141), 73.31 (#142); 1
16. Linda Wessberg, .55 (#151), 74.18 (#141); 6
17. Kim Hall, .54 (#153), 74.53 (#249); 0
18. Julieta Granada, .46 (#173), 74.29 (#224); 0
19. Sarah Jane Smith, .40 (#191), 73.21 (#134); 0
20. Danielle Downey, .35 (#204), 74.22 (#218); 0
21. Na Ri Kim, .29 (#226), 73.92 (#185); 0
22. Veronica Zorzi, .28 (#230), 74.15 (#206); 2
23. Nina Reis, .21 (#257), 73.66 (#168); 5
24. Virada Nirapathpongporn, .14 (#301), n.r. [too few events in database]; 0

FYI, here's the rest of my 2009 schedule:

July: Class of 2007 (pre-WBO)
August: Class of 2008 (post-Safeway)
September: Young Guns (post-Longs Drugs)
October: Class of 2006 (post-Korea)
November: Class of 2007 (post-Stanford)
December: Class of 2008 (post-Q School)
January '10: Young Guns (final 2009 ranking)

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