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)....
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.... 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.
Well, my old #1 was already the 1st to graduate from both my 1-time and 2-time winners lists. So it makes sense that my new #1 would be the first to join her on this list. We're far enough into the 2010 season that it's time to reshuffle the rest of the list, based as usual on who's most likely to win next.
Most Likely to Win in 2010
1. Ya Ni Tseng (3/2): It took her what felt like forever to get her 2nd LPGA win, but she didn't have to wait that long for LPGA win #3 (or major #2). Given that she was riding a 5-event top-10 run into 2010 and is averaging 1 win and $1.55M in winnings per season over the course of her short career--not to mention her convincing defeat of Karrie Webb and Laura Davies down under earlier this season--her being #1 on the money list at this point in the season is no surprise at all.
2. 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. Looks like the off-season work that Tim Maitland reported on at the start of the season is paying off already. Now that she's recovered from her intense training, look for her to start winning.
3. 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. Too bad she ran into an Ai-sama buzz saw in Thailand and a Ya Ni chain saw at Mission Hills, but she's playing well enough to win any time she tees it up, as long as she stays healthy.
4. Ai Miyazato (3/0): I've said it before and I'll say it again: she gave herself 13 chances to win on the LPGA and JLPGA in 2009, but could close the deal only at the Evian Masters (her 1st, obviously) and Sankyo Ladies (her 15th). So last season's #4-ranked LPGA player and #6-ranked JLPGA player is my frontrunner for LPGA Player of the Year in 2010. Yup, I'm expecting multiple wins from her on the LPGA this season. But after starting the season 2 for 2, her last 2 LPGA starts have been deeply disappointing. Here's hoping she gets her groove back on the JLPGA the rest of this month and builds momentum for the tour's 1st major, the Salonpas Cup, in the 1st week of May.
5. 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. She'll have to outdo Cristie Kerr to get there, it's looking like!
6. 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. Despite her weak finish at the KNC, she's already put together 3 solid LPGA events in 2010 and has shown flashes of brilliance over here, so I'm looking for her to do well in Japan this month.
7. 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. Too bad she started her season so badly on both tours, but her T10 out of the blue at the KNC shows what kind of talent she has.
8. Maria Hjorth (3/0): In 2009, 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. She hasn't finished worse than T26 on the LPGA so far this season, but was the victim of the LPGA's harsh penalty for missing a pro-am starting time (even as an alternate), so didn't get a chance to compete in the KNC. Look for her to turn that into extra motivation when the LPGA returns to action.
9. 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. So far she's made 3 of 4 cuts but hasn't done anything all that special this season just yet.
10. 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. 4 solid starts to her 2010 season, including a T6 and T15 in the 1st 2 U.S.-based events, show she's going to be a player to be reckoned with this season.
11. 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. Even though she has JLPGA membership in 2010, she's hasn't yet teed it up in Japan. After a surprise T3 in the Kia Classic sandwiched between 3 finishes outside the top 35, it seems she might benefit from more weeks playing in a row.
12. 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. Except for her missed cut in the Kia Classic, she's gotten 3 top 30s so far this season, so she's playing better than I expected from her overall thus far.
Quantum Leap Candidates
13. Grace Park (6/1): Can this former Player of the Year candidate and 2004 Vare Trophy winner put her long-standing back problems behind her in 2010? It sounds like she's completely healed from last season's hip surgery and eager to play golf again. And it looks like she's ready to return to the game's elite. Her top 10 at the KNC has been the happiest surprise of the season so far.
14. 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? Although she's made all 4 cuts this season, her best finish is only a top 20 at the Kia Classic. Let's see if she can surprise again the rest of 2010!
15. Wendy Ward (4/0): This 1996 rookie had her best season in 2009 on the LPGA since the 2000-2006 period, when she was a regular top 30 threat. Her scoring average last season 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 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 in 2010, she'll most likely prove me wrong. She missed her 1st cut of this season at the KNC, but that's a little misleading, as the 2 Asian events she played in didn't have cuts....
On the Bottom, Looking Up
16. Wendy Doolan (3/0): 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. So far she hasn't set the LET/ALPG or LPGA on fire, but don't count her out just yet.
17. 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. After a surprise top 10 on the LET/ALPG, she was DQed at the Kia Classic and didn't qualify for the KNC.
On the Outside, Looking In
18. 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. Can she turn her career around on the Futures Tour this season?