Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Best on the LPGA: 3- to 6-Time Winners

I have a feeling those on this list are going to get a lot more company early in 2010--and none too soon, in my book. There's no quicker way to become a household name than to join the ranks of those who are already household names (or were in their day).

Sure, the most recent knock on the LPGA going around the golfy media--that the tour needs a single dominant player to re-emerge, now that Annika's step away from competitive golf is looking more and more permanent and Lorena's lead chase pack has virtually caught up to her--is mistaken, big time, on many grounds. What made Annika so great was the quality of her competition--Juli Inkster, Karrie Webb, Se Ri Pak, Cristie Kerr, Rachel (Teske) Hetherington, Mi Hyun Kim, and many of the veterans on this list, as well as younger superstars like Lorena Ochoa and Paula Creamer. For her to beat so many multiple winners so often was what laid the foundation for her fame, well before she became well-known outside the LPGA and its fans when she competed on the PGA Tour. Of those players, only Cristie Kerr has been able to join the active Hall of Famers by bringing her victory total to double digits. More on them next post. My point here is this: as the best players in the Young Guns and New Blood generations identify themselves by entering the winner's circle more often, it'll be easier for the casual fan to see that they're something special. My #1 case in point is the #1 player on this list. But I have a strong feeling we're going to see more double-digit victory totals from the top players in the classes of 2005 through 2009 than any other half-decade in LPGA history. It seems from this list that too many players from earlier half-decades have hit the wall.

Most Likely to Win in 2010

1. Ji-Yai Shin (6/1): 3 of her wins, including her only major thus far, the Women's British Open, came before she was even an LPGA member, and after the end of her rookie year, she maintained her 3 wins per season rate. I'm wondering what she's capable of when she actually gets comfortable on tour. She's set her sights squarely on LPGA Player of the Year in 2010 and has told the Korean media she plans to play less on the JLPGA. Which means we can expect a minimum of 4 LPGA wins from her in the coming season. For more reasons why, check out the guest post from Tim Maitland I'm putting up here at lunchtime.
2. Suzann Pettersen (6/1): Just as she had to wait a long time for her 1st win, she had to wait a long time for her 6th. But she convinced me during that drought that she's truly one of the tour's elite players. While I don't see another 5-win season on her horizon, I wouldn't be surprised if she won a couple of tournaments in 2010.
3. Angela Stanford (4/0): Like Pettersen, her wins have come largely in bunches. She won twice at the end of 2008, when it seemed like she was putting herself in contention every week, then won the opening event of 2009. And even though she's endured a little bit of a drought since then--due in no small part to taking time away from golf to support her mom during her cancer treatments--she improved all her key stats from 2008 to 2009. I wouldn't at all be surprised to see her to become the top American on tour in 2010.
4. Seon Hwa Lee (4/0): Although 2009 was a down year for her in wins and winnings, her key performance stats were right around her career norms, which had been good enough to make her a top 5 threat in her 1st 3 seasons on the LPGA. The 2006 Rookie of the Year is still averaging 1 win per season, so watch out for her in 2010. Accustomed to playing 30 events a year, she'll stay sharp when the LPGA's schedule goes dark, thanks to her dual membership on the LPGA and JLPGA. I expect her to win more often there than here, but you never know.

The Contenders

5. Sophie Gustafson (5/0): Even though she remains a mercurial player, she's made the top 30 on the LPGA money list 5 straight seasons and in 2009 topped the LET money list. In 4 of them, her scoring average was below 72 and last year's was the lowest in that period. She definitely has the talent to win any week she tees it up, so even though her inconsistency is her Achilles' heel, she's a blast to watch when she's in contention. Plus, she's shown her commitment to 2010 by committing to play the LET's ANZ Ladies Masters for the 1st time in 6 years (on which more later).
6. Hee-Won Han (6/0): She was averaging a win a year over her 1st 6 seasons and was a fixture on the top 10 of the money list for 4 of them, but since taking a maternity leave in 2007, enduring long separations from her son in 2008, and struggling a bit by her standards in 2009, she's something of a question mark for 2010. Her scoring average last season was the closest to going above 72 since her rookie season in 2001 and she had almost as much trouble finishing in the top 10. But the 2 times she did, she took home bronze medals. If she can improve her ballstriking, particularly her approach shots, in the coming season, she'll be a top 15 player again for sure. But I'm not sure how much time on the range her son will let her have.
7. Maria Hjorth (3/0): She came back from maternity leave and got stronger as the season progressed, culminating with a silver medal in Korea and ending up with the lowest scoring average of her 12-year career on the LPGA. If she maintains her excellent ballstriking and gets her putter going in 2010, this former English major could write a new chapter in a very solid career to date.
8. Catriona Matthew (3/1): She took even less time to come back from her maternity leave than Hjorth, winning the Women's British Open in her 2nd event back from giving birth. Let's see what she does with a full season in 2010. It'll be hard to top her Player of the Year award from the LET, but seeing as how she actually came close to striking the ball as well in 2009 as she did in 1999-2005, when she was a consistent top 30 player and sometime top 10 threat, it won't take very big improvements to keep her momentum going.
9. Candie Kung (4/0): If she could have hung in there on Sunday at the U.S. Women's Open, her 2009 would have been quite different, but as it was, it was a huge disappointment. She wasn't that terrible off the tee (she was actually fairly solid), but her approach shots were off and her putting was horrific. It was the 1st time in her career, barring an injury-shortened 2007, that she failed to break the 72 barrier in scoring average, she could only manage 2 top 10s, and she missed more cuts than at any other time in her 8-year LPGA career. So of course I think she's poised for a comeback in 2010.
10. Brittany Lincicome (3/1): As high as I am on everyone else's chances in 2010, I'm skeptical about Lincicome's. Yes, she had the shot of the year in 2009, denying Kristy McPherson her 1st LPGA win and Cristie Kerr her 2nd career major with her walkoff eagle at the KNC. But she's still never broken the 72 barrier in scoring average, never notched more than 5 top 10s in her 5-year LPGA career, and never hit more than 68% of her fairways. When you're as long as she is, a little lost accuracy isn't that big a deal, but Bam Bam hasn't even exceeded a 65% fairway rate since her rookie season.

Quantum Leap Candidates

11. Wendy Ward (4/0): This 1996 rookie had her best season on the LPGA since the 2000-2006 period, when she was a regular top 30 threat. Her scoring average in 2009 was the 3rd-best of her career and her approach shots were so good she compensated for innaccuracy off the tee and an inconsistent putter to still average 3.52 birdies per round. I don't see her as a true top 30 threat in 2010, but if she drives for a little more show and putts for a little more dough next season, she'll most likely prove me wrong.
12. Pat Hurst (6/1): She surprised me twice in 2009, first by winning the MasterCard Classic and following it up with a T8 at the KNC, then by failing to break into the top 10 the rest of the season. It's not like last season was terrible--in fact, she improved her ballstriking, particularly her approach shots, in significant ways--but just as only her rookie season in 1995 was worse than her 2008, so, too, was her 1996 the only other season she ended up with a higher scoring average than in 2009. Even in her maternity-leave shortened 1999, she only had 1 fewer top 10 than last season (in 8 fewer starts). So she'll need to make yet another comeback in 2010. Can she do it?
13. Grace Park (6/1): Speaking of comebacks, she's coming back from hip surgery. Can this former Player of the Year candidate and 2004 Vare Trophy winner put her long-standing back problems behind her in 2010?

On the Bottom, Looking Up

14. Lorie Kane (4/0): 2010 is her last stand on the LPGA, as Hound Dog noted last week. Her last 4 seasons have gotten progressively worse, so I'm not at all optimistic on her chances of avoiding Q-School in December. Or of returning to the LPGA in 2011.
15. Dorothy Delasin (4/0): This 2000 Rookie of the Year had been struggling to keep her card from 2006-2008, but she fell off a cliff in 2009, going 0 for 16 in made cuts and even bombing out of Q-School. Her 1st 4 years on tour when she averaged a win a year and was a consistent top 30 threat are a distant memory now. I wonder if she'll be trying to find her game on the Futures Tour in 2010?

[Update 1 (1:00 pm): Here are links to Tim Maitland on Shin and bangkokbobby on Grace Park.]

[Update 2 (1:36 pm): Oh, man, how could I have forgotten 3-time LPGA winner Wendy Doolan? Due to breast cancer treatments, she played a limited LPGA schedule in 2009 and didn't add to her total of 34 career top 10s. She's got full status in Category 1 for 2010 due to a medical exemption, so she'll get her opportunities to play if she's healthy enough. She's starting her season on the ALPG back home in Australia, so we'll get a pretty good sense of how she's doing. Let's say she belongs at #14 on this list, ahead of Lorie Kane.]


Mike said...

I'm a bit higher on Lincicome's chances than you are. After a poor 2008 (in which she admitted she spent too much time enjoying herself) she bounced back really nicely. Her best previous year had been 2007, but I think you can argue that 2009 was a move in the right direction -- she missed more cuts, but had more top 10s. (That could be a simple matter of having fewer tournaments to play: she played 22 in 2007, but only 13 in 2009.) Earlier in the year there was talk that she was getting into the Vision54 thing, but I suspect she just needs to improve her on-course strategy. If she does that this year, I think she could win a couple of times.

I do hope Grace Park can come back. She was a promising player (and a lot of fun to watch) before the health problems.

The Constructivist said...

I admit it--as a short hitter myself, I'm less enamored of the LPGA's bombers than straight shooters and precision players. If Lincicome ever got really serious about improving her game, she could certainly be a force. But I've never seen that, even last year when she came back from the brink. To give her credit, she did play a little steadier in '09 and she impressed me at the U.S. Women's Open. But I'm just not a fan, and that's probably biasing my ranking.

As for Grace, I should have linked to bangkokbobby's career overview:

Mike said...

We do miss Grace. Thanks for the link.

BTW, I don't think being a long hitter is as big a deal as everybody makes it out to be. Just look at Jiyai Shin and Paula Creamer on the LPGA, or Brian Gay and Fred Funk on the men's tours. On "long" courses, there are only 3 or 4 holes (max) that a short hitter won't reach in regulation, but they'll still be close enough to get up and down for par. Once you realize that, you can see why the short knockers get it done as often as they do. And when players say the courses are too long, all they've really done is take themselves out of the running.

The reason I think Lincicome could be great is because her wins are mostly big tournaments where there's a lot of pressure. The ability to get out of your own way in a pressure situation is much harder to develop than the golf skills themselves. That's why I'm such a big Michelle Wie fan; you don't go through the public scrutiny she has and keep coming back unless you've got some serious mental strength.

The Constructivist said...

I agree completely with you on the potential of shorter hitters to compete with anyone. Sure, there's more pressure on them to be accurate and to have a strong short game, but those are skills everyone would benefit from developing.

I agree Brittany has made the most of her times in contention, but I'm not sure I'd draw the same conclusion as you that this means she handles pressure situations well. There's all kinds of pressure, from being in contention on the back 9 of a major to struggling to make the cut on a Friday. I'd like to see her develop her ability to handle a range of pressure situations....

demotutorial said...

do you have anything on up and coming LPGA stars or those who are most like to succeed, but are not on the roster just yet? I am thinking of somebody like Recari who was a sensation and a surprise all the same. And also of Zakiya Randall who have proved her mettle on the golf course even before she turned 17 or 18 years ago.

The Constructivist said...

See the right sidebar for my takes on up-and-coming LPGAers. I focus on the JLPGA much more than any other tour besides the LPGA, so this is the 1st I've heard of Randall. Would love to see her make it on the Futures Tour/LPGA down the road!