Friday, March 26, 2010

Kia Classic Thursday: All Eyes on La Costa

Na On Min's bogey-free 66 yesterday at the Kia Classic puts the 9th-ranked player in the Class of '07 1 shot ahead of Na Yeon Choi, 2 shots ahead of Inbee Park, Seon Hwa Lee, and Catriona Matthew, and 3 shots ahead of In-Kyung Kim and Amanda Blumenherst. Min, the current money list leader on the SunCoast Series (thanks in part in her mid-February win in horrific conditions), is coming back from a wrist injury that kept her from touching her clubs from the end of May to the end of September last season. Speaking of comebacks, it's great to see Seon Hwa Lee, whose debut on the JLPGA was deeply disappointing, among the leaders, along with Inbee Park, who seems to have finally shaken off the U.S. Women's Open jinx for good, even if it did crop up recently when a retroactive penalty denied her her 1st career win there. We'll see if Lee can keep scrambling her way around La Costa and if Park can straighten out her driver. If so, watch out for them to surprise hotter and steadier players like Kim and Choi, who seem to be picking up right where they left off at the end of last season.

It's fitting that so many Korean golfers, including the KLPGA's top player Hee Kyung Seo, would be playing so well in an event sponsored by a Korean car company, but it's still somewhat surprising that so many precision players have made their way to the top of the leaderboard. Sure, Korean-Americans Vicky Hurst (71) and Michelle Wie (72) bombed their way into the top 36 players after day 1, but like Suzann Pettersen (70) they were down around 260 in driving distance while Laura Davies (72) was the only player in the field to top 280. The only thing that really stands out to me about the lead pack is that they putted really well: lots of up-and-downs and good jobs converting their birdie opportunities. We'll see if over time the tour's straight shooters like Song-Hee Kim (71) and Cristie Kerr (71) can take advantage of their combination of length and accuracy over the next 54 holes and negate the advantages of great scrambling and hot putters that dominated the 1st 18.

We'll also see if Ai Miyazato can bounce back from an uncharacteristic 39 on the back that put her 8 shots off the lead. She found out during the pre-tournament interviews that nobody in LPGA history has ever won the 1st 3 events of a season in a row, so who knows how the added pressure will affect her. Speaking of pressure, Lorena Ochoa (70) is fielding lots of questions about her motivation and work ethic, when it's really a combination of getting used to new clubs, new strength, and playing at lower altitudes than Mexico City, where she practiced all season after getting married and moving there. Similarly, Ji-Yai Shin (72) has lost 10 pounds, gained a lot of strength, and switched from graphite to steel shafts, so she, too, is going through all kinds of technical and feel adjustments. The top 3 players in the world right now know what a fine line it is between greatness and mediocrity on a tour that has so much parity at the very top and so many players threatening to join the elite.

[Update 1 (1:18 am): I've really been enjoying Beth Ann Baldry's profiles of Mi Hyun Kim and the other new moms on tour (including Laura Diaz, which was a pleasant surprise to me!), as well as of Grace Park. Hope she keeps up that pace all season. There are so many great stories on tour.]

[Update 2 (2:18 am): Nice post on Ai Miyazato's quest to go 3 for 3 on the LPGA in 2010 by John Strege.]

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