As with my other pre-season wins-based rankings, the following tiered and ranked list of the best on the LPGA without a major is ordered partly by how well the golfers on it were playing in the 2nd half of the 2009 season and partly on their annual and career achievements. It's 33% expectations, 33% speculations, and 33% hunches, of course, but hopefully it's better-informed than the now-classic Paula Watch and soon-to-be-classic Wie Watch. Oh, and the numbers in parentheses are for LPGA wins and international wins (only from the JLPGA, KLPGA, LET).
Most Likely to Break Through in 2010
1. Ai Miyazato (1/15): 2009, her 1st full healthy season since she was a rookie in 2006, was much more of a return to her normal game than a hot streak. Even in the face of her injuries and their aftermath from mid-2007 to mid-2008, she's still finished in the top 10 in a major each of the 4 seasons she's been an LPGA member--and both years she was healthy she got 2. With Player of the Year firmly in her sights for 2010, she's bought a house in the U.S. and started training in Phoenix. Like Jason Sobel, I expect great things from her this coming season, particularly in the majors. More on that later!
2. Na Yeon Choi (2/4): Barring last season's wind-swept Kraft Nabisco Championship, where she ballooned to T40, her worst finish in a major as an LPGA member has been T21 and she's made the top 10 in half her starts, including her last 3 in a row. And she accomplished all that before she broke through for her 1st and 2nd wins of her short LPGA career in the last third of last season. Watch out for her in 2010!
3. Paula Creamer (8/2): Her LPGA bio page fails to note her 2 JLPGA wins in 2005, which is odd, because they got featured on LPGA.com that year. I mention this to belabor the obvious: as most players in the Double Digits Club in worldwide wins have won at least 1 major, she's just the slightest bit due for her 1st. Since becoming an LPGA member in 2005, her only finish in a major outside the top 25 was in the 2006 LPGA Championship and she's finished inside the top 10 in 40% of her starts, including her last 2 in a row. Given that record, the only reason she's not #1 on this list is the uncertain status of her health in 2010. [Update (7/11/10): Congrats to Paula for being the 1st player in 2010 to graduate from this list. Look for a new version tomorrow, reordered to reflect how everyone's actually playing this season!]
4. In-Kyung Kim (2/1): In her last 6 majors, her worst finish has been T28 in the winds at the 2009 KNC; everything else has been a top 20 or better, including 2 T3s at consecutive U.S. Women's Opens. Her season-ending win in Dubai shows she's capable of beating major-quality fields. And that came at the end of a run after her win at the State Farm where she uncharacteristically mixed 4 missed cuts in with many strong tournaments. Imagine what she's capable of when she's rested and prepared for a new season!
5. Michelle Wie (1/0): As much as her rookie season exceeded my expectations, her performance in last year's majors was nowhere near her 7 close calls from 2003-2006, including 6 top 5s. Look for her to rectify that in 2010, although it's still an open question how early her season will start and how rusty she'll be when her winter term (carrying 20 credits at Stanford) ends.
6. Angela Stanford (4/0): Her best chance to win a major to date came in the 2003 U.S. Women's Open, but Hilary Lunke answered Stanford's 27-foot birdie with her own walkoff birdie to win the 18-hole playoff instead. Since then, she's had 10 top-25 finishes in majors, including 2 top 5s at the LPGA Championship. She may have cooled off a bit from her hot streak at the end of 2008 and start of 2009, but she's definitely got the game to win a major in 2010.
7. Song-Hee Kim (0/0): With top 25s in 5 of her last 6 majors, she's got the talent and the game to make her 1st LPGA win a major. I'm talking Cristie Kerr-style talent and game. Let's see if she can catch her in 2010 in total majors won.
8. Seon Hwa Lee (4/3): One of the main reasons she finished so low on the money list in 2009, barely hanging onto the top 30 after being a top 5 threat the previous 2 seasons, was her uncharacteristically bad performances in last year's majors, including a WD at the U.S. Women's Open and an MC at the Women's British Open. Whereas her worst performance in 2008 was a T27 at the U.S. Women's Open, her best in 2009 was a T30 at the wind-blown KNC. Still, last season's overall performance stats were near her career norms and she's going to be able to stay sharp this one by filling out her schedule on the JLPGA. She's shown she can handle big-time pressure, beating Ai Miyazato in the last Women's World Match Play Championship and running up one of the best head-to-head records in international team play ever. I'd love to see the Stone Buddha in the hunt on more than 1 major Sunday this season. As she followed up her 2 top 20s in the 1st 2 majors of 2006 with 2 top 10s in them in 2008, the numbers are in her favor in 2010 (not to mention the Chinese zodiac).
9. Brittany Lang (0/0): She's finished inside the top 40 in 8 of her last 9 majors (the only blemish being a missed cut at the 2008 WBO). She still hasn't improved on her T2 finish (with fellow then-amateur Morgan Pressel) in the 2005 U.S. Women's Open that Birdie Kim won with a walkoff slam dunk from the sand, much less her 1st professional major, a T8 at the KNC. But she's long and straight enough to contend in any major and just needs to have a good putting week to make her 1st LPGA win a major.
10. Sophie Gustafson (5/18): Even though she's played about the same high-quality golf (if rather inconsistently so) over the past 4 seasons and change, the last 2 haven't been as kind to her when it comes to the majors. Compared to 4 top 10s in a 7-major run from the end of 2005 to the middle of 2007, her best recent finish has been a T16 at the 2009 LPGA Championship. But coming off yet another LET money title, she's coming into 2010 with a lot of confidence and gearing up for an early-season charge.
11. Jee Young Lee (1*/2): She's struggled the last 3 majors, after establishing 1 of the best records in them among LPGA's Young Guns, with 3 top 10s capped by a T2 in the WBO in 2007 and no finish worse than T22 between the 2006 LPGA Championship and the 2009 KNC. Her falloff last season, though, was much more severe than Seon Hwa Lee's and she'll need a big comeback in 2010 to put herself back in most conversations about this season's contenders for majors.
12. Momoko Ueda (1*/8): She's been working harder on her game than almost anyone on the LPGA since she joined it in 2008, but unfortunately the results didn't really start to show last season until after she had taken a big step backwards in the majors from her rookie season. Still, she's made 9 straight cuts in majors and is certainly ready to win outside Japan.
13. Katherine Hull (1/0): 2 top 20s last season, including a T8 in the wind at the KNC, show what she's capable of. I've heard on the grapevine that Dean Herden, Ji-Yai Shin's caddy, thinks Hull is on track for a win in 2010, so I emailed him for a quote. I'll insert it here when he gets back to me.
14. Hee-Won Han (6/2): Back when she was among the very best players in the world from 2003-2006, she had 10 top 25s in the majors. But 3 of her best 4 career finishes in them have actually come since her son Dale was born, including a T6 at the windy 2009 KNC (the 2nd in her last 4 starts there) and a T9/T3 combo in the last 2 Women's British Open. Count her out at your own risk!
15. Maria Hjorth (3/5): Don't be fooled by that dip in her majors output in late 2008 or her late start to the 2009 season--both were strictly a pregnancy effect. Now that she's put her maternity leave behind her by getting stronger with each start in 2009, she's ready to be the kind of player again who averaged 2 top 10s a year in 2007 and 2008--although I doubt she'll improve on that T2, 4th, 2nd run from the '07 WBO to the '08 U.S. Women's Open. Her T11 in last season's WBO shows what she's capable of, though.
Quantum Leap Candidates
16. Kristy McPherson (0/0): Her worst finish in the last 6 majors she's qualified for was T34 at the U.S. Women's Open; the rest were all in the top 25, capped off by T2 at the KNC, T5 at the LPGA Championship, and 7th at the WBO last season. So she's already shown she has what it takes to contend--can she close the deal in 2010?
17. Sun Young Yoo (0/0): She's made the cut in 6 of her last 7 majors, a fitting companion to her late bloom on the LPGA relative to most of her Young Gun-generation peers. Even though her best finish in a major (and only top 20) was T12 at last season's KNC, she's been putting up impressive performance stats over the last 2 seasons. Like Lang, she just needs her putter to get hot the right week this season to make her 1st LPGA win a major.
18. Hee Young Park (0/4): She's the kind of fearless, aggressive, and unfortunately inconsistent player who you wouldn't expect to play a U.S. Women's Open or a WBO all that well. But her 3 best finishes in majors in her career have all come in the last 2 seasons at these events--T9 stateswide and T14/T11 across the pond. So maybe she's finding better ways to minimize the damage when she gets into trouble.
19. Amy Yang (0/3): A T9 at last year's LPGA Championship is the only hint she's shown in the majors of her prodigious talent. I'm high on her chances to transfer her success on the LET over to the LPGA--with her game, it could happen as easily in a major as not.
20. Vicky Hurst (0/0): Her best--and only--finish in a major came in last year's WBO (T28), but be patient. Her rookie season was certainly better than Song-Hee Kim's, and look where Kim is on this list with 2 more full LPGA seasons under her belt.
21. Candie Kung (4/0): Her solo 2nd to Eun-Hee Ji at last year's U.S. Women's Open was the best performance in a major of her career, but let's not forget that from late 2002 through 2006, she was a regular in the top 30, finishing inside it in 10 of 17 starts, including 7 top 10s and 2 top 5s in that run. So if she can come as close as she did to graduating from this list in 1 of the worst seasons of her career, what if she returns to her career norms--or peaks--in 2010?
22. Christina Kim (2/0): Even though she had an uncharacteristically weak Solheim Cup year, her best performances in last year's majors outdid her best previous season (7th at the KNC and T3 at the WBO vs. T8 in the KNC and T6 in the LPGA Championship in 2004). So let's see if end her 4-season victory drought in a 2010 major.
23. Stacy Lewis (0/0): Her best finish in a major last season--T9 at the LPGA Championship--her only finish in the top 45 out of all of them--wouldn't have felt like quite such a letdown if she hadn't finished T3 at the KNC in 2007 and T5 at the U.S. Women's Open before she joined the LPGA. Can she play up to her expectations in 2010?
24. Natalie Gulbis (1/0): From late 2004 through the 2006 season, she made the top 20 in majors 9 times in a row, including a run of T5, T4, T8, and T3 in 1 calendar year from the LPGA Championship to the KNC. If she's healthy in 2010, I don't see why she can't continue to approach this level of play again.
25. Mi Hyun Kim (8/11): Another player who is overdue for a major, having averaged well over a top 10 per season in them over her 1st 10 on tour. Let's see how motherhood treats her game before we move her up this list, though.