Take a close look at the top of the leaderboard in the NW Arkansas Championship. It tells you a lot about the future of the LPGA. Angela Stanford, who took her game to new levels in the past calendar year and is now one of the tour's top golfers, has used 2 consecutive back-9 charges--a 31 on the front Friday and a 32 on the back Saturday, both bogey-free--to break 70 twice and climb to -7 overall. Hanging right with her are veterans Pat Hurst (71, -5, T4), Helen Alfredsson (69, -4, T11), and Wendy Ward (69, -4, T11), along with a resurgent Stacy Prammanasudh (70, -4, T11). Lurking within 4 shots of Stanford are other players who like Stacy P are in the prime of their careers, Cristie Kerr (70, -3, T15) and Karen Stupples (72, -3 T15). But it's not Stanford these established players are chasing. And they're not alone. Not by a long shot.
It's not even celebrated players like major and 2-time winner Ya Ni Tseng, who's 1 behind Stanford after a pair of bogey-free 68s, or Michelle Wie, who's lived up to her tour-leading birdie rate but is 4 behind Stanford because of the 5 bogeys she made in her 1st 26 holes, that I'm really referring to, although if they can heat up their putters later today they still have a chance to win. Nor is it the hottest player on the LPGA right now (although Ai Miyazato shot a solid 68 to move to -2 overall), the Rookie of the Year race leader (although Ji-Yai Shin would be doing much better than -2 this week if she hadn't taken 67 putts over her 1st 36 holes), or the tournament's defending champion (although Seon Hwa Lee matched Ai-sama, fighting back to E overall). No, the players I'm referring to are the less heralded members of the LPGA's young guns generation, among them some of the best on tour without a win.
Your leader is former Futures Tour sensation and #4-ranked LPGA Junior Mint Song-Hee Kim, who's matched Stanford's back-9 charges virtually shot for shot, but has played her front 9s 2 shots better. Tied for 3rd, only 3 shots behind Kim, is #2-ranked Super Soph Na Yeon Choi, whose 65 yesterday did much more than extend her consecutive made cut streak to 47 events. And even though she made a lot of bogeys yesterday, their classmate Jane Park appears to be back from the back problems that sidelined and hobbled her earlier this season and is only 4 shots off Kim's pace heading into the final round.
Joining these already-elite young guns are many of their much less prominent peers. Take Senior Standout Na Ri Kim, who's been languishing in priority status Category 16 this season. This is only her 9th start of the season and 1st since early July. So what has she done this week but hit 24 of 26 fairways and 30 of 36 greens, going 70-67 to put herself within 4 shots of the lead? Or take Hye Jung Choi, another '06er who's brought her game back from the brink and is tied with Kim. Or late-blooming Sun Young Yoo, a fellow Senior Standout who's already made the quantum leap Kim has been searching for the past 4 years and is 1 shot ahead of her heading into the final round. They've all roared past their fellow classmate Brittany Lang, who offset Friday's eagle with a double early in her round on Saturday, but still has a chance to make a Sunday charge from a 5-shot deficit.
Throw in some surprise '09 winners--M.J. Hur is 4 back and Eunjung Yi is 6 back--along with lower-ranked Super Soph Taylor Leon and Junior Mints Irene Cho and Paige Mackenzie (all also 6 back), and 14 of the top 23 players through the 1st 36 holes have fewer than 4 full seasons under their belts as LPGA members. And if you push it back to include the top 38, 22 of them are LPGA young guns or new blood, thanks to moves in the right direction by Stacy Lewis (67) and Morgan Pressel (69) and in the wrong direction from Sandra Gal (76), Eun-Hee Ji (73), and Hee Young Park (72).
So let's hope Golf Channel focuses not only on who's there (as opposed to absentees like Lorena Ochoa, Suzann Pettersen, and In-Kyung Kim) but also on the key trend among those at the top. The LPGA's youth movement was on the move on Moving Day. Let's see who can take the prize today.
[Update 1 (2:12 am): Everyone on LPGA.com's notes and interviews page emphasized how important the mental and emotional side of the game are. It's great to hear that Stanford's mom is hanging in there through her chemo treatments!]
[Update 2 (2:36 am): Too bad that other Senior Standouts like Teresa Lu (75) and Kyeong Bae (74) moved backward in such a big way yesterday. But they certainly weren't alone; among the many who had trouble in the wind, I was sad to see Jeong Jang (75) and Katherine Hull (73) going in the wrong direction.]