Sometimes I do rankings, as in my Best of the LPGA and Top Young Guns lists, that evaluate performance over a single season or over a career, respectively. But when I break down the LPGA according to numbers of wins, as I do in posts you can get to via my right sidebar, I do it by my sense of who's most likely to get their next win. So the following tiered and ranked list of the best on the LPGA without a major is based on a complicated formula: 33% expectations, 33% speculations, and 33% hunches, and 1% annual and career achievements. Approximately. 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 (5/15): Yes, I know she's been inconsistent this season (at least compared to the rest of the LPGA's ultra-elite) and hasn't been able to put together 4 good rounds lately, but she loves the Women's British Open, having finished T11 in 2005 at Royal Birkdale before she joined the LPGA, then gone 9th, T58, 5th, and T3 at the WBO in succeeding years. It's time for her to win a big one.
2. Na Yeon Choi (3/4): She is ready to go supernova, having finished 1-2-2 her last 3 events since missing the 1st cut of her LPGA career at the LPGA Championship. But more important, she has a fantastic record in the majors. Besides the MC, her worst finish is T40 at the '09 Kraft Nabisco Championship; otherwise, she has all top 30s, with top 10s in 5 of her last 7 starts. Impressive!
3. Song-Hee Kim (0/0): With top 25s in 8 of her last 9 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. She's already got a silver and a bronze in majors this year--will this week be her gold?
4. In-Kyung Kim (2/1): In her last 9 majors, her only finishes outside the top 20 have been at exceptionally windy KNC events the last 2 seasons, but otherwise this year she's been in the top 5 in majors. She's shown she can defeat major-quality fields at Dubai last season. Will this be her week?
5. 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 13 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 the last LPGA major of 2010.
6. Brittany Lang (0/0): She's finished inside the top 40 in 11 of her last 12 majors (the only blemish being a missed cut at the '08 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 '09 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.
7. Amy Yang (0/3): A T9 at the '08 LPGA Championship had been the only hint she's shown in the majors of her prodigious talent until this season, when she's steadily improved from T27 to T14 to T5. Although she doesn't have a good record at the WBO, she's had plenty of LET success and has something to prove after a disappointing performance at Evian. Watch out for her!
8. Vicky Hurst (0/0): This season, she hasn't yet been able to surpass her best finish in a major, which 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.
9. 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. Plus, 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 Opens. So even though she's been playing very inconsistently of late, count her out at your own risk!
10. Michelle Wie (1/0): As much as her rookie season exceeded my expectations, it's well known that her performance in majors as an LPGA member has been nowhere near her 7 close calls from 2003-2006, including 6 top 5s. But all she needs is to get her putter going for 4 rounds in a row and she can still exceed everyone's expectations.
11. Jee Young Lee (1*/2): From the 2nd major of 2006 to the 1st of 2009, her worst finish in a major was a T22. But like Wie, she's been struggling recently in them, although she she sneak a T25 out of Oakmont. Her best finish in a major was a T2 at the '07 WBO, so I'm hoping she gets back on track this week--she hasn't really played well since mid-June.
12. Sophie Gustafson (5/18): Even though she's played about the same high-quality golf (if rather inconsistently so) over the previous 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 had been a T16 at the 2009 LPGA Championship. But even though she's not yet on track this season to follow up on last year's LET money title, she hasn't finished outside the top 25 in a major and already has a top 10 at the KNC. I see a good bounceback at Royal Birkdale from a disappointing week at Evian for her.
13. Kristy McPherson (0/0): Besides a missed cut at the LPGA Championship, her worst finishes in the last 9 majors she's qualified for were T34 at the '09 U.S. Women's Open and '10 KNC; 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. She got another taste of contending at Oakmont--can she close the deal at Royal Birkdale?
14. Stacy Lewis (0/0): Her best finish in a major last season--T9 at the LPGA Championship--her only finish in the top 45 as an LPGA member--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. But this season she hasn't finished outside the top 20 in all her starts in majors and just needs to putt as well as she strikes the ball to improve on that record. Never mind her MC at Evian. She's having a good season and still has time to make it a great one.
15. 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. Her last 2 majors have been T25 at Locust Hill and T14 at Oakmont, so she's headed in the right direction again. Since 2002, she's had 6 top 25s at the WBO, including a T8 at Royal Birkdale in 2005. Her 1st career win came in Europe--why couldn't her 2nd?
Quantum Leap Candidates
16. 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. She's already exceeded that this season with a T19 at the LPGA Championship, but she's got to remember how she was playing between 2006 and 2008 to have a chance of improving on it this week.
17. Momoko Ueda (1*/8): She's replaced her string 10 straight made cuts in LPGA majors dating back to 2007 with a run of 2 straight missed cuts this season. Her knee's hurt and she's been having a frustrating season with her driver and her putter, but few players can go on birdie runs like she can. It's just a question of whether she can play solidly when she's not in the zone.
18. Katherine Hull (1/1): She only has 2 top 20s in majors in her career and didn't play Oakmont or Evian well, but she has the talent to shake it off and do well at Royal Birkdale. Like Ueda, she needs more from her driver and putter.
19. 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 best finish in a major came at the '09 U.S. Women's Open (T9) and her last 2 WBO finishes have been T14 and T11. She's only dropped 1 really low round on the competition all season. But if she can put one together at Royal Birkdale, she's tough enough to stay in the hunt.
20. Sun Young Yoo (1/0): She's made the cut in 7 of her last 10 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 3 seasons. Anyone who can cut through the top players on tour in the Sybase Match Play Championship like [insert metaphor of your choice here] as she did this season certainly has the talent to break through in a major.
21. Christina Kim (2/0): She's coming off a T8 at the U.S. Women's Open and a T3 at last year's WBO, so I'd say she has some momentum on her side, except for that MC last week at Evian. Just gives her more time to prepare, right?
22. 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. She's not yet back to being the kind of player again who averaged 2 top 10s a year in 2007 and 2008--and I doubt she'll improve on that T2, 4th, 2nd run from the '07 WBO to the '08 U.S. Women's Open. But her T11 in last season's WBO shows what she's capable of and she's coming off a solid top 30 at Oakmont.
23. M.J. Hur (1/0): She's due to start making some noise in majors soon, having made 4 of her last 6 cuts in them. But she'll need to improve her ballstriking so she can take better advantage of her excellent putting to do so.
24. 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. I'm not seeing anything that would lead me to believe she's a likely contender at Royal Birkdale, but if she can get a T28 at Oakmont in such a "blah" season for her, I wonder what she's capable of if she starts playing well this week?
25. Mi Hyun Kim (8/11): She's probably the player most overdue for a major, having averaged well over a top 10 per season in them over her 1st 10 on tour. Unfortunately, injuries and motherhood have knocked her off her game in the past 2 seasons. Still, she's among the most accurate drivers on tour and I'm not ready to count her out.
On the Watch List
Azahara Munoz, Shanshan Feng, Mika Miyazato, Stacy Prammanasudh, Amanda Blumenherst