Monday, October 19, 2009

On the Relative Strength of Women's Professional Tours, Once Again

Check out the KLPGA's key stats as of last week (courtesy of bangkokbobby at Seoul if you want some data to compare the relative strength of professional tours in the world of women's golf. [Update (2:36 am): Whoops, he's now got the current stats up!]

Their #3 money leader, Sun Ju Ahn, has a 70.22 scoring average, is averaging 3.94 birdies per round, is hitting 78.6% of her greens, and has broken 70 38.9% of the time. The stats for their #2 player, Hee Kyung Seo, are almost as impressive: 70.77, 3.84, 76.7%, and 38.5%. And #1 So Yeon Ryu is also putting up elite numbers: 70.87, 3.74, 78.9%, and 30.8%. Even in the midst of off-years, #6 Hye Yong Choi and #9 Ha Neul Kim are hanging in there: although they aren't in the top 10 in the other key stats, the latter has a 71.67 scoring average and 3.53 birdie rate, while the former has a 72.10 scoring average. That's 5 players who can excel anywhere in the world of professional women's golf. As far as I know, none of them are planning to leave the KLPGA next season, but when they eventually do, watch out for them.

By contrast, only 1 LET player has a scoring average under 71 this season. Like Ahn, Becky Brewerton (70.97) was a disappointment in last season's LPGA Q-School. (It'll be interesting to see if they have a chance for redemption this December--they'll need to get an exemption into this year's final qualifying round, as they didn't play in either of the sectional qualifiers this time around.) But Brewerton is also the top LET regular in birdie rate at an impressive 4.02; despite hitting only 71.9% of her greens in regulation, she's well ahead of Tania Elosegui (71.02, 3.82, 79.8%), Melissa Reid (71.23, 3.74, 74.4%), Jade Schaeffer (72.30, 3.72, 66.8%), and Gwladys Nocera (71.93, 3.65, 80.1%). We'll definitely see Elosegui and Nocera at Q-School this December, along with Emma Cabrera-Bello (72.74, 3.48, 68.4%), Iben Tinning (71.44, 3.49, 76.1%), Beatriz Recari (72.18, 3.24, 71.5%), and Marianne Skarpnord (71.15, 3.47, 74.0%). They're likely to be joined by LPGAers who could well fall outside the top 80 on the money list in 2009: Louise Stahle, Minea Blomqvist, Anna Rawson, Karin Sjodin, Carin Koch, Wendy Doolan, Eva Dahloff, Ashleigh Simon, Anja Monke, Johanna Mundy, Sophie Giquel, and Linda Wessberg (Louise Friberg and Silvia Cavalleri would be on the list, too, but their 2008 and 2007 wins, respectively, give them full status for 2010). The reputation of European women's golf is riding on the shoulders of these 18 (or 19, if Brewerton gets an exemption into the final qualifying tournament) players. If they can join their top peers on the LPGA in 2010, they'd certainly make a strong case for the quality of play on the LET in 2009.

On the JLPGA, Miki Saiki was last season's LPGA Q-School disappointment. Shiho Oyama, who played great in that event, seems to have shut it down on an injury-ridden season (tendonitis in both arms and an untimely neck injury while in contention in Japan in early August). So it's an open question whether either of them will join Yuko Mitsuka at Q-School. If Oyama can stay in the top 80 (she's a little over $12K ahead of Il Mi Chung, the #81 player on the LPGA money list) or even remain in the top 90 (she's about $35K ahead of Mindy Kim), she'll be able to avoid Q-School, as she'll be guaranteed of getting into any full-field event (it's theoretically possible to get bumped from some fields if you're in the #91 through #100 spots on the money list, as the 2nd 10 who make it in via Q-School get shuffled in between those players on the 2010 priority status list, and others can leapfrog your standing by winning or getting into the top 40 on the 2010 money list). In fact, unless top JLPGA players get automatic exemptions into the final qualifying round, the entire weight of Japanese women's golf could well be resting on Mitsuka's shoulders alone. So how do her stats measure up against the best of the KLPGA and LET? Well, she's 8th in scoring at 71.67 (Sakura Yokomine, Mi-Jeong Jeon, and Chie Arimura all have scoring averages under 70, as does Ai Miyazato, who hasn't played enough events to make it onto the official list; similarly, Momoko Ueda has a slightly lower scoring average than Mitsuka, who'd be 10th if everyone who had played on tour this season were shown); 8th in birdie rate at 3.26 (ahead of both Miyazato and Ueda in JLPGA events); and 11th in greens in regulation rate at 67.0% (ahead of Miyazato but behind Ueda, who'd be leading the tour in this category if she had played in enough events). These stats are good enough to put her 5th on the money list, but she's been having a rough 2nd half of the season and hasn't followed up on her season-opening victory. As for Australia's Tamie Durdin, who will also be competing at LPGA Q-School, she's 20th on the JLPGA money list, with a 72.89 scoring average, 2.81 birdie rate, and 62.9% GIR rate. Clearly, she'll have to rely on her experience to make it into the top 20 there and will need to elevate her game just to make cuts on the LPGA should she succeed in December.

As for the Futures Tour, we'll have to see how regulars Alison Walshe (72.08, 3.19 birdie rate), Dewi Claire Schreefel (72.70), and Hannah Jun (73.07) in particular stack up against their Q-School competition, not to mention their peers who joined them mid-season from the NCAA like Amanda Blumenherst (70.58 scoring average over 6 events), Pernilla Lindberg (70.87 scoring average and 69.5% GIR in 10 starts), Tiffany Joh (74.21 in 8 starts), Maria Hernandez (72.28 in 6 starts), Paola Moreno (71.90 in 7 starts), Jane Chin (72.25 in 8 starts), and Cindy LaCrosse (71.13 in 11 events). The tour's top 5 players--Mina Harigae (70.89, 3.30 birdie rate), Jean Reynolds (71.26, 3.40, 74.3%), Misun Cho (71.29, 3.10, 81.5%), Samantha Richdale (71.56, 3.02), and Song Yi Choi (72.00, 3.00, 70.2%)--have earned their LPGA cards for 2010 already.

It'll be interesting to see if we end up with more full-status LPGA members via Q-School from the Futures Tour than from the LET in 2010. If so, it would suggest that LET courses are set up easier than any other tour's, as the Euros' very high birdie and GIR rates would probably not have carried over to Florida. Without seeing how the players on these tours stack up against each other on the same course under similar conditions, it's difficult to compare even identical stats categories. But what the stats we've surveyed do allow you to do is generate hypotheses and a more general set of expectations--for the final qualifying round and beyond. The Futures Tour's Harigae, Blumenherst, and Lindberg on paper look to be the equals of the LET's Elosegui, Nocera, and Skarpnord, and they all seem to be having better seasons than the JLPGA's Mitsuka. I'd be shocked if any of them weren't on the LPGA in 2010. But because the JLPGA's and KLPGA's top players tend to stay on those tours in greater numbers than on the LET, I'll stick by my claim that they're the #2 and #3 tours in the world of women's professional golf.

[Update 1 (2:16 am): I'd add Colombia's MariaJo Uribe and Spain's Azahara Munoz to the list of the players to watch at LPGA Q-School in December, but they haven't yet played enough professional events to really compare their incredible scoring averages to those of their peers.]

[Update 2 (10/22/09, 7:21 am): With more than 10 players likely to have dual LPGA-JLPGA membership in 2010 (barring absolute meltdowns in JLPGA Q-School at the end of November and early December), we'll have much more data than usual to compare quality of play on different tours.]

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