Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Best on the LPGA: The Winless

As we head into the LPGA's 2010 season, I'm going to be breaking down the competition in various ways. Since a lot has changed since I last ranked the best on the LPGA without a win--Ai Miyazato, Na Yeon Choi, and Michelle Wie from the list got their 1st wins (not to mention Eunjung Yi and M.J. Hur from off it), for starters--I figured it was about time for an update. Since I plan to do similar lists for active players with 1 win, 2 wins, 3 to 6 wins, and 7 or more wins, I'm moving those with non-member wins off this ranking. For all these posts, I'll be using my Best of the Young Guns and Best of the LPGA rankings, as well as my ranking of the Class of 2009 and survey of the Class of 2010, to help me figure out who goes where. I'll be ranking each list in part by career achievements and in part by how likely a 2010 win is from the players on it. So here goes:

Most Likely to Win in 2010

1. Song-Hee Kim: This Futures Tour sensation got off to a slow start on the LPGA, but now has 5 top 3s and 19 top 10s. Plus, she's an excellent putter, one of the best on tour, and has been improving her ballstriking. That's what I call due.

2. Brittany Lang: In 38 more starts than Kim, she has 1 more top 3 and 5 more top 10s, but her slump was longer than deeper than Kim's ever was. 2009 was her 1st full season when she was truly past it and she established herself as one of the tour's best ballstrikers in it. Let's see if she's able to improve her short game even more in 2010. All she needs to break through is 1 week when her putter gets hot.

3. Sun Young Yoo: This late-blooming '06er has the game to contend any given week, but hasn't done it as often as she will in 2010. She gets a good number of top 20s (31 in 104 LPGA starts) and has started to get comfortable with her name near the top of the leaderboard (3 top 3s and 13 top 10s at the end of 2009 are big improvements on where she stood at the end of 2008). So let's see if she can build on her momentum and reach escape velocity in 2010. [Update (5/24/10): Winning the Sybase Match Play Championship wasn't the easiest way to get off this list, but she did it!]

4. Hee Young Park: With 4 KLPGA wins to her name and the ability to go very low any time, she just has to have a week where she avoids that one big number to get her 1st LPGA win. 2 top 3s and 10 top 10s in her 53 starts as an LPGA member just scratches the surface of her potential.

5. Kristy McPherson: I don't know, I just have a great feeling about her prospects in 2010. She's a precision player who has room to improve even in that area; she's contended at majors; she's gone through Solheim Cup trial by fire; and she has 3 top 3s and 12 top 10s in her 70 LPGA starts. What's not to like?

6. Amy Yang: Yes, she didn't live up to my prediction that she'd end up the 10th-best player on the LPGA in 2009. But she improved on her rookie season, when she won twice on the LET, in every major statistical category. She's on the verge of really breaking through. Once she figures out how to go low outside Europe, she'll be unstoppable!

7. Vicky Hurst: I never thought M.J. Hur would beat her to that 1st LPGA win, but there you have it. Still, 2009 was a pretty solid season for the tour's long-driving champion in her rookie season.

8. Stacy Lewis: 2009 was a big let-down for 2008's Q-School medalist, but still a pretty good year for a rookie. Look for her to tap into her considerable talents in 2010.

Have the Talent to Win Any Time, But....

9. Jane Park: She got off to a hot start in 2009 but then her back flared up and she was never the same golfer the rest of the season. Still, even with limited status her rookie season, she already has 3 top 3s and 6 top 10s in 57 starts as an LPGA member. And she felt well enough to caddy for Tiffany Joh at Q-School in December. So if she comes back rested and takes care of her back better in 2010, I expect a win out of her this season.

10. Shiho Oyama: 11 JLPGA wins in 9 seasons don't lie, but tendonitis in the elbows is hard to recover from. She had the wisdom to shut down her season midway through 2009 when it became clear playing through the pain was counterproductive. And she even stayed in the top 80 on the LPGA's money list, securing Category 1 status for 2010. Let's see if she comes back healthy.

11. Angela Park: Yes, her game has deserted her and she's dealing with issues bigger than golf. But even with all those problems she has 3 more top 3s and only 1 fewer top 10 than Kim. Without them, she'd be at the head of this ranking.

The Contenders

12. Amanda Blumenherst: She's probably the rookie with the highest expectations put on her, at least by the U.S. golfy media, and she came through by winning medalist honors at Q-School. Let's see if she can live up to the hype in 2010.

13. Azahara Munoz: She's already won on the LET and will be able to take advantage of the dual LPGA-LET membership that gives her if she plans her transcontinental travel carefully. As one of 4 players with a great chance to win Rookie of the Year on both tours in 2010, though, her scheduling could get quite complicated.

14. Tania Elosegui: Although she got very few LPGA starts in her rookie year, watch out for her in her sophomore season. She won on the LET in June and finished 5th on their money list in 2009. He 1-2 Solheim Cup record is no indication of her talent or potential. She's essentially a rookie in 2010, but with more professional experience than most of the real rookies.

15. Pernilla Lindberg: Like fellow Annika disciple Anna Nordqvist, she has the talent, the work ethic, and the mentoring to make an immediate impact in her rookie seasons on both the LPGA and LET.

16. Lindsey Wright: I had thought she was going to be the next Australian to break through, but injuries in the 2nd half of 2008 opened the door for Katherine Hull to beat her to it. And even though she stayed healthy all 2009, her 2nd half of the season was a disappointment compared to the 1st. But she's still super-due for that 1st win!

17. Mariajo Uribe: She already has experience what being at the top of the leaderboard on the LPGA is like, having played well in several professional events as an amateur, most notably the U.S. Women's Open. Let's see if she translates that into success on both the LPGA and LET in 2010.

18. Sandra Gal: She put up some low numbers and hung around the top of the leaderboard a few times, but had trouble staying there in 2009. Expect her to build on those experiences in 2010. [Update (3/27/11): What a way to get your 1st win--staring down Ji-Yai Shin over the weekend!]

19. Mika Miyazato: She showed in 2009 why she had been considered Japan's top amateur for years, outplaying fellow LPGA rookie Stacy Lewis over the course of the season and nearly running away with Japan's top professional tournament, the Japan Women's Open, until a collapse on Sunday ended her hopes. With no dual membership distractions and plenty of time to return to Japan when the LPGA schedule goes dark in 2010, she shouldn't have the 2nd-half drop-off that she suffered her rookie season.

20. Marianne Skarpnord: Another LETer who broke through in 2009, I expect her to make a smooth transition onto the LPGA.

21. Gwladys Nocera: She's a legitimate LET superstar, but most of her wins there have come when the top Europeans were competing on the LPGA. Although she certainly proved herself in the Solheim Cup, we'll get a good sense of how well this veteran can compete week in and week out against the best women golfers in the world.

22. Mina Harigae: Yes, she won the Futures Tour money-list title and got 3 wins there early in her 1st professional season, but I just don't see her making the kind of quantum leap when she joins the LPGA. I'm hoping she surprises me.

23. Maria Hernandez: We'll see if she can build on the momentum from her NCAA Player of the Year season as a senior and play well on both the LPGA and LET in 2010.

Quantum Leap Candidates

24. Teresa Lu: Her 2009 wasn't as good as her 2008, but, even so, it showed she belongs among the LPGA's regulars. And if she bounces back like I expect her to, she'll be among the LPGA's elite in 2010.

25. Kyeong Bae: Given how bad she played for most of last season, it was easy to forget she has 2 top 3s and 9 top 10s in her 95 LPGA starts. But her few very good results in 2009 reminded us what she's capable of in 2010.

26. Beatriz Recari: Another LET regular who broke through in 2009 and rode the momentum over to the LPGA. We'll see what she's capable of in 2010. [Update (10/18/10): Wow, I couldn't leave Recari off the list because of her LET win, but after going 4 for 14 in '10 when it came to making cuts, I never would have come close to predicting yesterday's win at the CVS/pharmacy LPGA Challenge! Her win should give the remaining golfers on this list a lot of confidence!]

27. Shanshan Feng: She showed what she's capable of in the 2nd half of 2008, when she went from a rookie in danger of losing her card to 1 of the best players on tour. But she never really hit her stride in her sophomore season. Let's see if she can put that mini-slump behind her and start to contend again in 2010.

[Update 1 (1/14/10, 1:44 am): For more on Sun Young Yoo, check out this post from Happy Fan, which mostly focuses on KLPGA showdowns, but notes how close Yoo came to knocking off Shin at the NW Arkansas event last season.]

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