Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Best of the Young Guns: Final 2009 Edition

I'm already thinking about who's due to excel in 2010 on the LPGA, but my annual top 30 prediction post isn't due out till January 28th (the anniversary of my 1st entry into Hound Dog's LPGA Prognostication Derby). Over the next few weeks, I'll continue to prepare for and lead up to my predictions for the coming season. Today, I'm going to rank the top 25 golfers from the rookie classes of 2006, 2007, and 2008. Who among the Young Guns generation has had the best career to date? Since I've already profiled all the members of each class in my posts on the Super Sophs, Junior Mints, and Senior Standouts, I'll focus on their top players' prospects for 2010 here.

Simply the Best

1. Ya Ni Tseng. After burning out a little at the end of her rookie season, she came on strong during the home stretch of her sophomore campaign, closing with 8-straight top 25s and 5-straight top 10s. Although she couldn't get her 3rd career win in 2009, she's still 1 of the few active players on the LPGA to be averaging at least 1 win per season. Thanks to making the top 20 more than 73% of the time she makes the cut, she's taking home over $55K per start. If she can get her putter working just a little bit better in 2010, she'll finish next season ranked higher than where she ended this past one in my Best of the LPGA list. She'll need to if she wants to stay #1 in 2010's final Young Guns ranking.
2. Na Yeon Choi. Thanks in part to her 1st and 2nd wins coming much closer together than Tseng's--only a few weeks apart late this past season--she had a better 2009 than her 2008 Rookie of the Year rival. And she's been almost as efficient as the #1 Super Soph at notching top 20s (averaging almost 2 out of every 3 cuts she makes) and raking in the winnings (over $46K per start) over the course of her brief career on the LPGA. With 0 missed cuts in 53 LPGA events and a 7-event top-20 streak going as she starts the 2010 season, it's hard to imagine her falling outside the top 20, but she'll need to keep improving her putting to break into the top 5 overall and to catch Tseng on this list.
3. Eun-Hee Ji: The Open jinx knocked her out of the top 40 in Hound Dog's key performance stats in 2009, but she's too good a player for that to happen again in 2010. 2 of her 5 career top 3s have been wins, so she's been better at making the most of being in contention than in racking up lots of top 10s, top 20s, and made cuts. Even so, she's averaging $37.5K per start over the course of her career, so even little improvements in ballstriking and short game will make her a legitimate top 10 threat in 2010. But she'll need some help from Tseng and Choi to pass them on this list.
4. Seon Hwa Lee: The former #1 in her generation and still the #1 Senior Standout didn't play all that badly in 2009, but she lost a lot of ground to her chief rivals when she finished #23 in my Best of the LPGA ranking. As Hound Dog pointed out, there's nothing that jumps out stats-wise to explain why her 3-year streak with at least 1 LPGA win ended or why she couldn't even make half a million dollars on the course this past season. Perhaps she'll be able to build some confidence and momentum by playing on the JLPGA during some of the LPGA's deadlines. It seems to me she plays her best golf when she gets about 30 starts in a season. That's why in 2010 I expect to see my 2nd-favorite player in her class improve on her $32.5K per start rate and maintain her 1 win per season clip.
5. In-Kyung Kim: Like Choi, my favorite player among the Junior Mints also made up ground in 2009 on her chief rival in her rookie class. Even though she averages about $5.5K less per start than Ji, she has a better top 20 per made cut rate (just over 53% to just under 48%). If she can improve her driving distance and accuracy just a little bit, and work on her endurance in the off-season, she's a legitimate Player of the Year threat in 2010.
6. Morgan Pressel: 2009 was this close to a breakout season for the fiery Senior Standout, as she was able to bring her short game back online after finally grooving her swing changes. As a result, she pulled her winnings rate back over $28K and top 20 per made cut rate over 53%. I said it before and I'll say it again: I have a feeling 2010 is going to be her year.
7. Ai Miyazato: With 13 real chances to win on the LPGA and JLPGA combined, my favorite player won only once on each tour in 2009. I'm still not convinced she ever scored as well as she was playing all season, despite moving her average winnings up to nearly $36K and her top 20 per made cut rate over 57%. The scary thing is, I don't think she was ever playing out of her skull. I'm thinking that her 64 in her final competitive round of 2009 is a sign of things to come in 2010. She's said she's aiming for Player of the Year this coming season--and I don't see why she can't do it.
8. Song-Hee Kim: I can't think of anyone except maybe Brittany Lang who deserves to be ahead of her on my best on the LPGA without a win list. If she can improve her iron play in the offseason, that 1st win will come sooner than later. Like Miyazato, her top 20 per made cut rate is just over 57% and she's averaging over $30K per start.
9. Angela Park: Even while falling off a cliff for most of 2009, the '07 ROY is still averaging more per start than Pressel. But who knows what shape she'll be in when the 2010 season starts?
10. Jee Young Lee: 2009 was easily the worst season of her LPGA career, thanks to a stretch from June to October when she played terribly. Still, she closed out November with 3-straight top 20s, bringing her top 20 per made cut rate to over 59%, so if that marks the end of her slump, then just about everyone else in the class ought to very jealous--and very worried. There's no way someone with her talent should be averaging less than $26K per start.

The Contenders

11. Brittany Lang: Once she starts making as many birdies as her ballstriking would suggest she should, the wins will start coming and the Duke jinx wil be broken. Watch for her 52% top 20 per made cut rate to go way up in 2010.
12. Hee Young Park. Just as I predicted, she broke the $1M barrier in career winnings in 2009. If she shows as much improvement in 2010 as she did this season, look for her to break the $2M barrier next one.
13. Momoko Ueda. She worked hard on her ballstriking all season and while the results were slow to manifest themselves, she eventually did start playing like one of the best in the world again. I expect her, like Pressel, to take off the training wheels in 2010 and have a fantastic season.
14. Inbee Park: She's consistently one of the best putters on the LPGA, so the key for her is improving her ballstriking, particularly her accuracy off the tee and with her approach shots. As she comes out of her own post-Open slump, the key for her in 2010 is to give herself more looks at birdies. If she can do this, her 2nd win can't be far away.
15. Julieta Granada: It's easy to let her 2-straight seasons of hanging onto her dual LPGA-LET membership by her fingertips obscure how good she was at the atart of her career. Hound Dog ranks her rookie season between Seon Hwa Lee's and Angela Park's. Even if you discount her $1M win at the ADT Championship that year, she's still won over a million dollars in her other 99 events. Over time, even big-money wins balance out anyway; she's barely averaging over $22K per start, but that's still better than many on this list. So perhaps I've been ranking her career a little low in her own class, where she's #12. Still, she can't afford another season of free-falling. Let's see if her great Q-School performance in December carries over into 2010.
16. Ji Young Oh: If she improves her iron play and putting in 2010, she could become a consistent contender. As it is, her 2 tour wins have seemingly come out of the blue. I really don't know what to expect from her in 2010, but my instincts have always told me it's going to be difficult for her to sustain her position so high on my list unless she makes big strides in those areas.
17. Kristy McPherson: Another leading candidate for best on tour without a win, she's a great ballstriker and a classic precision player. If she ever really gets her putter going in 2010, she could become a superstar. Maybe this season will be the year she realizes how good she really is.
18. Sun Young Yoo: She's really come on strong the last 2 seasons and is now definitely among the very best on tour without a win. Will she be ready to chase down the cream of the crop in 2010? I think so.
19. Amy Yang. She's made steady improvements each of her 1st 2 LPGA seasons, of which the last 1 was her 1st full one. I expect her to have a breakout season in 2010. But then I did in 2009, as well.
20. Jane Park: I'd love to see her put her back troubles behind her, so to speak, and show why she's 1 of my leading candidates to make the U.S. Solheim Cup team in 2011.

Quantum Leap Candidates
21. Shanshan Feng. She's run very hot and very cold in her 2 seasons on the LPGA. Most of her winnings come from the 2nd half of her rookie season. So let's see if she's able to play better more often in 2010.
22. Teresa Lu: 2010 will be a crossroads year for her, as she couldn't sustain her great play over most of 2008 and had a pretty big let-down in 2009. Neither her irons nor her putter were her friends this season; if she can improve in either 1 of those areas significantly in 2010, watch out for her to make that quantum leap.
23. Kyeong Bae: She came back from the brink in 2009 with some big-time performances in some big-time events. She's always been able to make a lot of birdies relative to her ballstriking and even her putting. Even though her driver and putter were off most of last season and her irons weren't much better, she averaged 3.25 birdies per round. I wonder how many she could make in a good season? Maybe we'll find out in 2010.
24. Sandra Gal. She made a large number of birdies in 2009 despite hitting very few greens by the standards of the LPGA's elite. If she can improve her driving accuracy and her iron play, she'll join them in 2010.
25. Meaghan Francella: Lu and Bae beat her to the $1M mark in career winnings, but Francella showed that even with worse-than-average putting and disappointing iron play in 2009, she still belongs on the LPGA. It'll be interesting to see what she's capable of when she starts a season completely healthy, as she should for the 1st time in a while in 2010.


For your reference, here's how the top 25 Young Guns stack up, stats-wise.

[Note: *=non-member win (not counted toward other stats).]

1. Seon Hwa Lee (2006), $3.64M (#43), 112/0/4/11/28/53/2/0/9/101 (.902)
2. Ai Miyazato (2006), $3.25M (#53), 91/0/1/8/30/44/1/0/13/77 (.846)
3. Ya Ni Tseng (2008), $3.05M (#58), 54/1/2/12/24/38/0/0/2/52 (.963)
4. Morgan Pressel (2006), $2.78M (#65), 98/1/2/9/28/46/0/0/12/86 (.878)
5. Jee Young Lee (2006), $2.70M (#70), 104/0/1*/7/27/54/5/0/8/91 (.875)
6. In-Kyung Kim (2007), $2.47M (#76), 77/0/2/7/22/34/0/0/13/64 (.831)
7. Na Yeon Choi (2008), $2.44M (#79), 53/0/2/8/20/35/0/0/0/53 (1.000)
8. Julieta Granada (2006), $2.21M (#89), 100/0/1/5/10/22/0/1/36/63 (.630)
9. Brittany Lang (2006), $2.19M (#90), 107/0/0/6/24/44/0/0/23/84 (.785)
10. Angela Park (2007), $2.11M (#92), 73/0/0/8/18/25/3/0/11/59 (.808)
11. Eun-Hee Ji (2007), $2.10M (#93), 56/1/2/5/15/22/0/3/7/46 (.821)
12. Song-Hee Kim (2007), $2.09M (#94), 69/0/0/5/19/31/0/0/15/54 (.783)
13. Inbee Park (2007), $1.79M (#110), 76/1/1/3/11/19/1/1/19/55 (.724)
14. Sun Young Yoo (2006), $1.67M (#114), 104/0/0/3/13/31/1/0/20/83 (.798)
15. Ji Young Oh (2007), $1.39M (#132), 76/0/2/2/8/17/0/0/21/55 (.724)
16. Kristy McPherson (2007), $1.30M (#139), 68/0/0/3/12/21/0/0/17/51 (.750)
17. Hee Young Park (2008), $1.14M (#160), 53/0/0/2/10/17/0/0/12/41 (.774)
18. Kyeong Bae (2006), $1.09M (#166), 95/0/0/2/9/16/4/0/27/64 (.674)
19. Teresa Lu (2006), $1.03M (#175), 91/0/0/1/6/20/1/0/21/69 (.758)
20. Meaghan Francella (2006), $.92M (#193), 74/0/1/1/6/14/0/0/28/46 (.622)
21. Jane Park (2007), $.89M (#202), 57/0/0/3/6/11/4/0/10/43 (.754)
22. Momoko Ueda (2008), $.83M (#211), 37/0/1*/1/5/12/0/0/6/31 (.838)
23. Shanshan Feng (2008), $.60M (#247), 48/0/0/1/5/7/1/0/20/27 (.563)
24. Sandra Gal (2008), $.48M (#277), 45/0/0/0/2/12/2/0/9/34 (.756)
25. Amy Yang (2008), $.36M (#301), 30/0/0/1/3/8/0/0/6/24 (.800)

[Update 1 (1/12/10, 12:55 am): Congrats to the Senior Standouts for upholding the Young Guns' honor and beating out the first New Blood generation--the Class of 2009--for the top spot in Hound Dog's ranking of the greatest rookie classes on the LPGA. FYI, Super Sophs are in 3rd and the Junior Mints are in 11th on HD's list. He rightly points out how quickly the talent pool on the LPGA is deepening. I expect that the Class of 2010 will be one of the deepest classes in LPGA history, but I doubt they'll have as many players in the top 25 as either the '06ers or the '09ers.]

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