Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Best of the Young Guns: September-Plus 2009 Edition

Time sure flies when you're having fun! It seems like yesterday when I was last ranking the top players among the LPGA's young guns (the generation encompassing the rookie classes of 2006-2008), but it was actually 4 months ago. Since then, I've had the opportunity to rank all the Super Sophs, Junior Mints, and Senior Standouts. Although there are only 4 events remaining on the LPGA schedule for the 2009 season, I'll be doing 1 more cycle of rankings for each class, culminating in a final ranking of the top players in January 2010, so this is only the middle such ranking. But it'll give a strong indication of how the top millionaires among the Young Guns stack up by then. So let's get right to it.

1. Ya Ni Tseng: Even though she's slowed down of late, she's still the best player in her generation. The LPGA's long fall break couldn't have come at a better time for her, as she's been dealing with the same kind of mini-slump that befell her last season when she got tired and started having problems with her stance, set-up, and swing. If she can get some rest and refocus on the fundamentals, she could still end up being the best player of 2009. But she'll need wins to do it.

2. Seon Hwa Lee: She's suffering through her 1st really rough season when you look at results, but her key '09 stats are the same or better than her career averages, so you have to figure what's happened is that a lot of people just started playing better than her all of a sudden. This suggests 2 things to me. 1st, she's benefitted in the past more than other players from a fuller LPGA schedule, in that her conditioning, concentration, and drive have helped her remain a more consistent performer than most of her peers (just compare the 3 other players in her generation who have played over 100 events already: Jee Young Lee has dealt with injuries, Brittany Lang with a protracted slump, and Sun Young Yoo with a tough start to her rookie season). And 2nd, she's a real threat to win at least 1 of the last 4 events this season. Why not? She's averaging over a win per season over her 1st 3!

3. Na Yeon Choi: Lorena Ochoa has the longest made-cut streak on the LPGA, followed by Cristie Kerr and Paula Creamer (if you ignore their rare WDs). Guess who's next? Yup, this Super Soph. She's on track to join Tseng in breaking the $1M barrier for the 2nd time in a row; she's already joined her in the $2M Club in career winnings. More important, she broke through for her 1st career LPGA win. The fact that she denied Ai Miyazato her 2nd means that she stays ahead of the hottest player in the world of women's golf this ranking.

4. Ai Miyazato: You heard me right: there's nobody in the world playing better than Ai-sama right now. She not only has 7 LPGA top 10s in a row, but she's played well enough to win just about every time she's teed it up lately, including last week in the Japan Women's Open. Since late April, she's finished outside the top 20 only twice: once when she could "only" manage to go -8 at the Farr in early July and once when she failed to break 70 on the JLPGA in mid-August. In fact, her only bad finish of the year was in the high winds at the Kraft Nabisco Championship and even then she still made the cut, making it possible for her to now have a 22-event made-cut streak on the LPGA, the 5th-longest streak on tour (which still pales beside the fact that she hasn't missed a JLPGA cut since 2004). It's looking like she'll be playing the next 3 JLPGA events and has freed up her schedule to rejoin the LPGA in Korea, so she's clearly gearing up for a final push at the end of the season. I predict that she gets her 1st JLPGA win since 2006 and runs the table on LPGA prizes: money list, scoring average, and Player of the Year. You heard it here 1st!

5. Eun-Hee Ji: I'm surprised to see the U.S. Women's Open curse is affecting her almost as badly as it hit Inbee Park last year. Even though she hasn't been the same golfer since she won the Open, she can still break the $1M barrier this season with a strong finish in late October and November. Like Seon Hwa Lee, though, she'll need to start hitting more greens if she wants to improve on her recent results.

6. In-Kyung Kim: Even though she, too, is suffering through a mini-slump, culminating in last week's missed cut, she's still a viable Player of the Year candidate if she can turn it around and pour it on down the home stretch.

7. Morgan Pressel: She missed a great chance for a win midway through the season when she had finally put together all her swing and short game work for a stretch of very very good golf. When she's sticking her approach shots and making her putts, very few players can beat her on tour, given how many fairways she hits and the distance she gained this season. But that's true of other precision players like Lee, Ji, and Kim, as well. Pressel's going to have to find another gear to move back up these rankings.

8. Jee Young Lee: For Lee, it's not so much finding another gear as replacing a blown tire. She started the season playing consistently well and lately she's been playing consistently badly. Her greens in regulation rate is way down and making so few birdies she almost failed to qualify for the Asian Swing. Let's hope the time off and the return to Korea her some good. There's no reason she can't challenge Tseng for top bomber in class over the course of her career!

9. Song-Hee Kim: She's been on a tear this season and has been playing well enough to join Miyazato and Choi in getting that 1st LPGA win, but it just hasn't happened yet. If she would just hit some more greens, she could finish the season averaging over 4 birdies per round. And if she does that, I'll bet she won't have to wait till next season for that breakthrough win.

10. Brittany Lang: Although she's been playing less consistently this season than Kim, she's in the exact same boat, as her putter let her down Sunday when she had a great chance to battle Ochoa down the stretch. She's too good a player not to break through for her 1st LPGA win soon. Only question is when. I'm not kidding when I tell you that she has the same kind of game as Cristie Kerr and Angela Stanford--long and straight and accurate with her approach shots. If she worked with Dave Stockton or someone else who could help her with her putting, she'd be a monster on tour.

11. Angela Park: This former rookie of the year's struggles continue. It was reported on Seoul that after opening with a 69 last week, she started the front Friday 9-over through 9 holes and WDed in tears after a bad drive. So dropping to #51 on the money list and not qualifying for the Asian Swing is probably a blessing in disguise. She can play the Tour Championship or not and turn the page on a horrific 2nd half of the season. 1st step is to get a sense of perspective: plenty of great players have gone through such slumps when they have the weight of a country's expectations on them piled on top of their own self-imposed standards--and have come back from the brink (cf. Ai Miyazato, for one). 2nd step is to focus on your short game: take the pressure off your long game by feeling like you can get up-and-down from anywhere within 100 yards and in. 3rd step is to hit the gym: you'll feel better physically and mentally and get more distance without having to do more than make minor adjustments to your swing as your body changes. The rest will take care of itself. Just give yourself time. If all goes well, you'll be playing Olympic golf before the home crowd in 2016. There's plenty of time between now and then to return to the top of the women's game.

12. Inbee Park: She's turned the corner on the worst of her post-Open hangover, but she's still hitting an abysmally low number of greens. Even a short game as great as hers can't compensate for that. So improving her iron play and her strategy on approach shots is job #1. When I watcher her play with Ai-same a couple of years ago in the Wegmans, I thought their games were very similar. Turns out Inbee broke through 1st but that Ai-sama's been able to make a real quantum leap. No reason Inbee can't do the same.

13. Hee Young Park: OK, she hasn't joined the Million Dollar Club just yet, but she should before the season is done. She's impressed me with improved consistency this season, especially on courses that require some accuracy off the tee. She's shooting fewer of those huge numbers that sabotaged her low numbers so often last season. Next step for the Rocket--like for Song-Hee Kim and Inbee Park, who are about as long off the tee as she is (close to 260)--is to improve her accuracy on her approach shots and start hitting more greens. It's all about giving yourself more birdie chances. Kim is giving herself a lot and making a lot, Inbee isn't and is doing the best she can, and Hee Young is in between in both areas. There's no reason she can't catch Na Yeon Choi, as she did on the KLPGA.

14. Kristy McPherson: Now that she's joined the Million Dollar Club and got some Solheim Cup experience, she should know what it takes to make another quantum leap. Her ballstriking and accuracy have been excellent all season, so it comes down to short game for her. She's got that Paula Creamer/Morgan Pressel American precision-player vibe going--there's no reason she can't consistently play at their level.

15. Ji Young Oh: I still don't know what to make of her--have her 2 wins been more a matter of timing and luck, or is she really as good as Tseng, In-Kyung Kim, Ji, and Pressel? Her stats say no, but the fact of that pair of wins remains. Over time, I expect her to get passed by a lot of people unless she figures out how to make more birdies, but I've been wrong about her before. Maybe she'll continue to surprise me.

16. Sun Young Yoo: Compare Yoo's stats to Oh's to get a sense of why I'm so puzzled. And consider that Yoo's done much of her damage only over the past 2 seasons. She's gone from just making cuts to almost putting herself in contention in that stretch of very very good golf. She's the same kind of player as Choi and Miyazato--she's got the length of a Song-Hee Kim, Hee Young Park, or Inbee Park, but the accuracy of an In-Kyung Kim or Paula Creamer--so once she gets her short game going, there's no reason she can't be averaging as many birdies as they've been getting this season. Once she does that, she'll be putting herself in contention more regularly and giving herself more chances to get that first LPGA win. 2 of her 3 career top 3s have come in her last 3 events, so she's one of the few players on this list who would have really benefitted from a fuller October schedule. Hopefully she'll come back from the break hotter than ever.

17. Teresa Lu: This has been a bit of a disappointing season for Lu, who hasn't been able to follow up that well on her improved performance last year when it seemed like all the Taiwainese players on the LPGA were doing great. But she;'s finally joined the Million Dollar Club, so hopefully her 2010 will be better. Like many players in her generation, it all starts with hitting more greens and ends with improvements in her short game.

18. Jane Park: OK, so injuries have curtailed her schedule and messed with her game, but don't forget that she was one of the best players on tour at the start of the season. She'll be back at that level, maybe even as soon as the Tour Championship. I'm rooting for her and Tiffany Joh to join Christina Kim on the 2011 Solheim Cup team. Those 3 could do more to destroy stereotypes of Asian American women than a trillion words of mine. More important to her, no doubt, she's most likely to be the next member of the Million Dollar Club. It should happen early in 2010. You heard it here 1st!

19. Julieta Granada: We should see a lot of Granada on the LET this month and next as she tries to improve on her #97 ranking on their money list. She's hitting a lot of fairways and greens over there in the few events she's entered, following up nicely on her T2 in their Q-School back in January. Let's see if she can make more money in the 5 or so LET events she'll be playing this year than in her 17 LPGA ones. If so, and if she doesn't do well enough in the Tour Championship to get back into the top 100 on the LPGA money list, I'm wondering if she's going to bypass LPGA Q-School and just play full-time on the LET next year. She needs to do something to get her game and her confidence back!

20. Kyeong Bae: What a roller-coaster season she's had, but she's peaked at the right times, has joined the Million Dollar Club, and will be playing on the Asian Swing.

21. Meaghan Francella: Even though she's gone back to playing badly of late, she just barely stayed within the top 50 on the money list and will be giving herself 2 extra chances to beat Jane Park to the $1M mark. For 2010, it's the same old story as for everyone else in the bottom half of the generation's elite: more GIRs, more birdie chances, more made putts.

For your reference--and mine--here are the stats on which I'm basing this 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 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. Ellipses indicate that I'm skipping members of the Young Guns generation who haven't yet broken the $1M mark in career winnings.

1. Ai Miyazato, $1.45M (#2), 70.33 (#3), 3.97 (#9), 71.9% (#10)
2. In-Kyung Kim, $1.16M (#6), 70.99 (#13), 3.88 (#5), 72.7% (#5)
3. Ya Ni Tseng, $1.06M (#8), 70.57 (#8), 3.77 (#1), 71.8% (#12)
4. Na Yeon Choi, $966.4K (#10), 70.62 (#9), 3.70 (#3), 70.9% (#14)
5. Eun-Hee Ji, $911.1K (#12), 71.73 (#29), 3.31 (#25), 67.2% (#56)
6. Song-Hee Kim, $848.5K (#13), 70.62 (#10), 3.81 (#8), 69.0% (#30)
7. Kristy McPherson, $713.5K (#15), 71.32 (#22), 3.22 (#16), 70.7% (#15)
8. Morgan Pressel, $553.9K (#20), 71.28 (#18), 3.25 (#18), 68.7% (#36)
9. Sun Young Yoo, $552.8K (#21), 71.13 (#14), 3.54 (#11), 71.9% (#8)
10. Ji Young Oh, $522.2K (#22), 71.84 (#32), 2.99 (#41), 68.3% (#38)
11. Brittany Lang, $502.1K (#24), 71.18 (#15), 3.32 (#10), 72.3% (#6)
12. Hee Young Park, $487.9K (#25), 71.96 (#35), 3.33 (#27), 66.1% (#60)
13. Seon Hwa Lee, $425.4K (#31), 71.31 (#21), 3.29 (#20), 67.9% (#47)
14. Kyeong Bae, $305.4K (#40), 72.71 (#74), 3.17 (#52), 66.2% (#67)
15. Jee Young Lee, $288.2K (#42), 72.06 (#38), 3.25 (#19), 65.4% (#78)
16. Meaghan Francella, $258.2K (#48), 72.50 (#62), 2.84 (#63), 66.2% (#69)
17. Angela Park, $246.3K (#51), 73.62 (#116), 2.80 (#113), 60.4% (#131)
18. Teresa Lu, $229.7K (#53), 72.56 (#67), 2.99 (#39), 65.7% (#76)
19. Jane Park, $192.0K (#57), 72.78 (#79), 2.85 (#77), 62.2% (#108)
20. Inbee Park, $185.1K (#59), 72.79 (#80), 3.09 (#36), 58.8% (#141)
21. Julieta Granada, $61.7K (#106), 74.00 (#125), 2.63 (#105), 61.3% (#121)

Career LPGA Money List (rank), # of LPGA events entered/majors/wins/top 3s/top 10s/top 20s/withdrawals/disqualifications/missed cuts/finished events (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 Young Guns 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 over at Hound Dog's place. In any case, I include these other ways of seeing how the Young Guns 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, $3.61M (#45), 108/0/4/11/28/53/1/0/9/98 (.907)
2. Ai Miyazato, $3.18M (#55), 88/0/1/8/29/41/1/0/13/74 (.841)
3. Ya Ni Tseng, $2.81M (#63), 49/1/2/11/19/33/0/0/2/47 (.959)
4. Morgan Pressel, $2.70M (#68), 95/1/2/8/27/45/0/0/12/83 (.874)
5. Jee Young Lee, $2.63M (#72), 101/0/0/7/27/51/5/0/8/88 (.871)
6. In-Kyung Kim, $2.39M (#80), 72/0/2/7/20/31/0/0/11/61 (.847)
7. Julieta Granada, $2.21M (#88), 99/0/1/5/10/22/0/1/36/62 (.626)
8. Angela Park, $2.10M (#90), 71/0/0/8/18/25/3/0/11/57 (.803)
9. Eun-Hee Ji, $2.07M (#91), 52/1/2/5/15/22/0/3/6/43 (.827)
10. Na Yeon Choi, $2.06M (#92), 48/0/1/6/18/30/0/0/0/48 (1.000)
11. Brittany Lang, $2.02M (#97), 103/0/0/5/21/41/0/0/23/80 (.777)
12. Song-Hee Kim, $1.91M (#106), 64/0/0/5/16/27/0/0/14/50 (.781)
13. Inbee Park, $1.70M (#112), 73/1/1/3/9/17/1/1/19/52 (.712)
14. Sun Young Yoo, $1.60M (#116), 100/0/0/3/13/29/1/0/20/79 (.790)
15. Ji Young Oh, $1.35M (#134), 71/0/2/2/7/16/0/0/21/50 (.704)
16. Kristy McPherson, $1.20M (#152), 66/0/0/2/11/19/0/0/17/49 (.742)
17. Kyeong Bae, $1.07M (#165), 95/0/0/2/9/16/4/0/27/64 (.674)
18. Teresa Lu, $1.02M (#178), 89/0/0/1/6/20/1/0/21/67 (.753)
19. Hee Young Park, $.96M (#187), 48/0/0/1/8/14/0/0/11/37 (.771)
20. Meaghan Francella $.89M (#200), 71/0/1/1/6/13/0/0/28/43 (.606)
21. Jane Park, $.89M (#202), 56/0/0/3/6/11/4/0/10/42 (.750)

Other Career Measures: Rolex Ranking (as of 10/5/09) and rank, Golfweek/Sagarin Performance Index (as of 10/4/09) and rank, the Hound Dog Top 70 (as of 9/14/09); and International and Non-Member LPGA Wins (as of the end of the 2008 season): This is a way of seeing how those Young Guns 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. Ya Ni Tseng, 7.79 (#5 RR), 69.89 (#10 GSPI), #8 HD; 0
2. In-Kyung Kim, 6.18 (#9 RR), 70.24 (#13 GSPI), #7 HD; 0
3. Ai Miyazato, 6.11 (#10 RR), 69.72 (#7 GSPI), #3 HD; 14
4. Song-Hee Kim, 4.86 (#11 RR), 70.25 (#14 GSPI), #12 HD; 0
5. Na Yeon Choi, 4.76 (#13 RR), 69.86 (#9 GSPI), #13 HD; 4
6. Eun-Hee Ji, 4.47 (#15 RR), 70.83 (#21 GSPI), #14 HD; 4
7. Kristy McPherson, 3.98 (#22 RR), 70.70 (#19 GSPI), #17 HD; 0
8. Morgan Pressel, 3.75 (#23 RR), 70.99 (#26 GSPI), #22 HD; 0
9. Seon Hwa Lee, 3.74 (#24 RR), 70.95 (#25 GSPI), #21 HD; 3
10. Sun Young Yoo, 3.38 (#31 RR), 70.67 (#18 GSPI), #19 HD; 0
11. Brittany Lang, 3.23 (#32 RR), 70.07 (#12 GSPI), #20 HD; 0
12. Ji Young Oh, 3.01 (#36 RR), 71.66 (#46 GSPI), #26 HD; 0
13. Jee Young Lee, 2.58 (#40 RR), 71.07 (#30 GSPI), #35 HD; 2
14. Inbee Park, 2.55 (#42 RR), 72.68 (#103 GSPI), n.r. HD; 0
15. Hee Young Park, 2.51 (#47 RR), 71.76 (#50 GSPI), #25 HD; 4
16. Angela Park, 2.49 (#48 RR), 73.21 (#140 GSPI), n.r. HD; 0
17. Jane Park, 1.80 (#65 RR), 71.97 (#62 GSPI), #55 HD; 0
18. Teresa Lu, 1.69 (#68 RR), 71.54 (#46 GSPI), #52 HD; 0
19. Kyeong Bae, 1.65 (#71 RR), 72.46 (#85 GSPI), #47 HD; 3
20. Meaghan Francella, 1.34 (#83 RR), 72.11 (#65 GSPI), #49 HD; 0
21. Julieta Granada, .58 (#167 RR), 73.92 (#194 GSPI), n.r. HD; 0.

As I indicated at the top, here's the rest of my 2009 schedule:

October: Class of 2006 (post-Korea)
November: Class of 2007 (post-Tour Championship)
December: Class of 2008 (post-Q School)
January '10: Young Guns (final 2009 ranking)


courtgolf said...

I'm sorry, sir. You will have to redo all of your lists. In an effort to support our "Future of Women's Golf" initiative, all lists ranking professional women golfers must begin with Michelle Wie. (genuflect) :-D

It's pretty amazing that no matter what criteria you choose for a ranking system, the Korean women are a huge part of the list.

The Constructivist said...

And that Morgan, Kristy, Brittany, Angela, and Jane are the only Americans on the list. (Angela's a naturalized citizen; she and Jane are of course of Korean descent, too.)

LPGA Fan said...

Great detailed report. I especially like your opinion of Ai-sama and your prediction. Hope the limb is strong enough. :~)

The Constructivist said...

Me too!!

kraa said...

Nice list. However golf careers are very long and folks like Paula Creamer (same age as Miyazato!!!) and Lorena Ochoa are young enough to be on the top for another decade.

As for #1 this year I am about 90% convinced that Lorena will defend all her titles (except money list perhaps).

The Constructivist said...

Good points, kraa. Heck, there's no reason really that Cristie Kerr can't keep it going for that same length. Or Suzann Pettersen, Jeong Jang, Hee-Won Han, Mi Hyun Kim, and even Se Ri Pak and Grace Park....

My point in doing this list isn't to suggest that these players will automatically ascend to the top of the LPGA, though. It's just to see who among them is having the best career right now. It's entirely possible that players not yet on the list like Momoko Ueda and Amy Yang will end up with better careers than all of them. Time will tell!