Thursday, May 13, 2010

On Yuko Mitsuka and Angela Park

When reading about Yuko Mitsuka (三塚 優子)'s 2-stroke slow-play penalty during the 1st round of the Salonpas Cup last week, her tearful protest by walking off the course, the huge fine (2 million yen or around $20K), and her multiple apologies and self-imposed suspension for 11 events (including the U.S. Women's Open, Evian Masters, and British Open), I couldn't help but be reminded yesterday of Angela Park's own 2-stroke slow-play penalty while she was in contention in the 2008 SBS Open. Here's why.

Park ran away with the LPGA's Rookie of the Year award in 2007, coming close to winning multiple times and repeatedly being praised by Johnny Miller as having the best swing on tour. And for awhile it looked like her breakthrough win would come during the kick-off event of her sophomore campaign. But after bogeying the 10th hole to drop 2 shots off the pace, she was hit with the slow-play penalty. Paul Arnett focused on her initial reaction, which included a bunch of birdies down the stretch and a lot of tears and criticism after the round. So far there are a lot of similarities with Mitsuka, who is also a 4th-year professional and has already found a lot of success on the JLPGA, having earned Rookie of the Year in 2008 (apparently her 1st full season on tour, even though she played 30 events in 2007), having never finished worse than 14th on the money list, having won once in each of her 1st 3 seasons, and having ended last season ranked 9th after having finished 5th on the money list. Sure, Mitsuka's penalty came on the 1st day of the event rather than the last, her initial reaction to it was more extreme than Park's, and the JLPGA took a much harder line on it than the LPGA did on Park's. But in both cases a rising young star reacted badly to a slow-play penalty and will have to live with the consequences for the rest of her career.

Whereas Park had a successful 2008--thanks in large part to a 7-event run in which she finished T3 at the U.S. Women's Open, T4 at the NW Arkansas event, T2 at the Evian Masters (where she was the 1st to drop out of a 3-way playoff), and T6 at the Safeway Classic--and had 3 top 10s in her 1st 4 events of 2009 (including another disappointing Sunday at the SBS Open when she was in contention), her game has since fallen off the cliff. As her swing and ball-striking deserted her (she went from averaging in the mid 240s off the tee with around 70% of her fairways hit over her 1st 2 seasons to under 230 and around 60% that season), she started skipping and withdrawing from events, prompting rumors late last season that she was going to quit the game. So far this season she hasn't yet been able to avoid the "1 awful round per week" syndrome and continues to struggle to find the fairways and get her length off the tee and swing back. Looking back on her career, the slow-play penalty controversy in early 2008 and her family's reported falling out with Inbee Park's family in mid-2008 were the 1st signs that all was not well in her world.

Mitsuka's struggles seem tame by comparison, amounting mainly to failure at LPGA Q-School at the end of last season and problems with her putter at the beginning of this season. Her birdie rate has dropped from a high of 3.49 last season to 2.63 this season, and her lack of confidence on the greens may have had something to do with the time she took on a difficult putt in the Salonpas Cup that led to the slow-play penalty. Given that her fine was worth about a quarter of her winnings this season, that she's effectively benched herself until mid-August, and that she's missing out on the chance to represent Japan in major international events, I'd say her putting woes are the least of her worries right now.

I'm rooting for comebacks from both Mitsuka and Park, starting for the latter with her 11:50 am appointment at the 10th tee in the Bell Micro LPGA Classic today!

[Update 1 (11:22 am): Head on over to Devil Ball Golf and help Jay Busbee reach the 1000-comment mark for his take on Mitsuka!]

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