Monday, October 18, 2010

The Best on the LPGA: 1-Time Winners, October 2010

1 may be the loneliest number, but I'll bet those on this list of best players on the LPGA with a single tour victory wouldn't prefer to return to my Best Without a Win list. At the same time, those on that list may want to avoid making their 1st win the U.S. Women's Open, the Safeway, the Farr, the State Farm, or any event in Mexico. It's looking like the Corning Classic's demise will spare 1st-time winners that particular jinx, unless LPGA commissioner Michael Whan finds a way to revive it. You'll see what I mean when you check out these profiles of 1-time winners on the LPGA, ranked in part by career achievements and mostly by what I expect from them over the rest of the 2010 season. This is the 1st time I've updated it since May; let's see where Sunday's winner Beatriz Recari ranks.

Most Likely to Win in 2010

1. Inbee Park: She's definitely slogged her way through her U.S. Women's Open jinx (see #28 and #29, below), having played well in Asia at the end of 2009 (T7 in Korea, T5 in Japan, T2 at JLPGA Q-School) and carried it over to a fantastic 2010 on both the JLPGA and LPGA. If all goes well for her, she'll end up on the top 10 on both tours' season-ending money lists.
2. Jee Young Lee: She's coming off her worst year in her 4 as an LPGA member following her non-member win in Korea in 2005, but she finally seemed to be on the comeback trail at its end, finishing 2009 with 3-straight top 20s and ending up #33 on my Best of the LPGA ranking. As I said back in February, "There's only 1 direction she can move in 2010. There's no way a player of her caliber has 2 bad seasons in a row." And lo and behold, she's moved up to #26 in August and is likely to move higher the next time I get around to updating it.

The Contenders

3. Sun Young Yoo: In the preseason, I wrote, "This late-blooming '06er has the game to contend any given week, but hasn't done it as often as she will in 2010. She gets a good number of top 20s (31 in 104 LPGA starts) and has started to get comfortable with her name near the top of the leaderboard (3 top 3s and 13 top 10s at the end of 2009 are big improvements on where she stood at the end of 2008)." Well, now that she's gotten that 1st win at the Sybase Match Play Championship, I'd say the sky's the limit for her. She's got a classic straight shooter game (think Cristie Kerr, Angela Stanford, Brittany Lang, and so on), even though her driving distance is down a little bit this season. All she needs is to improve her putting to graduate from this list.
4. Momoko Ueda: She won the 2007 Mizuno Classic as a JLPGA member and she did it with a bang:

Since then, she's brought her victory total on the JLPGA to 8, but has only cracked the top 10 as an LPGA member 7 times in 50 starts. So why do I rank her so high here? Well, she got 2 of them in the 2nd half of 2009, when the work she'd been putting into her game over the previous season and a half finally started to pay off. Unfortunately, her knee has been bothering her for most of the season and her results have been unimpressive on both the LPGA and JLPGA.
5. M.J. Hur: I never expected her to beat Vicky Hurst, Stacy Lewis, and Shiho Oyama from the class of 2009 to that 1st LPGA victory, but she faced down Suzann Pettersen and Michele Redman in a playoff at the '09 Safeway Classic to do it. Let's see if she can do better in the next few seasons than Soo-Yun Kang did after her lone LPGA win at the Safeway in 2005. With only 1 other top 10 in the 12 events she completed in 2009 (against 10 that she didn't finish), and only 2 top 10s in 19 starts this season, along with unimpressive ball-striking stats, I can't rank her all that highly here. But given how low she went at the ShopRite and how good a putter she is, I can't rank her any lower, either.

Quantum Leap Candidates

6. Jimin Kang: She's never matched her 1st full season in 2005, when she won the Corning Classic and finished 39th on the money list, but since then she hasn't lost her card and has added to her top 10 total every season (she now has 10). In 2009, she dropped to #74 on my year-end Best of the LPGA ranking, but this year she got everything going but her putter, got a top 10 at the LPGA Championship in Rochester, NY, and qualified for the Asian swing. [Update 10/26/10: Well, well, well, that was a fast win!]
7. Natalie Gulbis: Recurring back problems since her 2007 Evian Masters playoff victory over Jeong Jang have dropped her back where she was in her 1st 3 seasons on the LPGA--a player who makes her share of cuts but has trouble cracking the top 10. In fact, 24 of her top 10s and all 7 of her top 3s came between 2005 and 2007, when she was a regular on the top 20 of the money list. In 2009, she brought her scoring average back in the low 71s and--even though she had to shut things down when her back started acting up again in October and November--still ended up #30 in my final Best of the LPGA ranking. Despite my optimism for her this season, her back problems cropped up again and she just didn't play very good golf once she got off the tee. Let's see if she can turn it around in Malaysia.
8. Shi Hyun Ahn: Like Jee Young Lee and Momoko Ueda, her only LPGA win comes with an asterisk, as she got it as a KLPGA member in 2003, but since then she's played roughly 20 events on the LPGA each year, garnering 27 top 10s in the process. Whereas she was a regular on the top 30 of the money list over her 1st 4 seasons, she's slipped into the 50s the last 2, missing more cuts (10 in 38 starts) and getting fewer top 10s (only 3) than usual. In 2010, she's only gotten 3 top 20s in 13 starts. The main culprit, it seems, was a cold putter, but she did earn enough to qualify for the Asian swing, so she still has time to make this season less disappointing.
9. Meaghan Francella: She shocked the golf world with a win over Annika Sorenstam on the 4th playoff hole at the 2007 MasterCard Classic, but Annika's announcement a little later that season that she had been suffering significant back and neck injuries for some time put a little asterisk by that victory. To make matters worse, Francella had to deal with injury issues of her own over the next season and a half, but the Senior Standout bounced back in 2009 by getting her 5th and 6th top 10s on tour, breaking the 73 barrier in scoring average for the 1st time in her career, and returning to the top 50 of both the money list and my Best of the LPGA ranking. She continued her comeback this season with a top 10 at the LPGA Championship. But her approach shots and expecially her putting held her back the rest of the year. Let's see if she can improve on both in Malaysia.
10. Beatriz Recari: She's only made 5 cuts in 15 starts as a rookie, but her win on Sunday guaranteed she'll be back next year on the LPGA. She's young and healthy, so I won't rank her any lower than this right now, but she needs to hit more greens and putt better if she wants to graduate from this list.

On the Bottom, Looking Up

11. Eunjung Yi: Her playoff victory over Morgan Pressel at the Farr last year remains her only LPGA top 10 since her LPGA career began in 2008. She won Hound Dog's fluke victory of 2009 award, a dubious distinction. The only way things could be worse for her prospects in 2010 would be if her defeat of Pressel had come in a U.S. Women's Open (see Kim, Birdie, below). Seriously, it remains to be seen what she'll do over the next 2 seasons she's guaranteed high priority status on the LPGA. 2010 was pretty blah, although she did make the top 100 on the money list.
12. Leta Lindley: Injuries curtailed her schedule in 2009, not even allowing her to defend her 2008 Corning Classic title. But as that win gives her high-priority status through the 2011 season, she could afford the terrible spring and summer she had and take solace in her ability to break 70 in the fall of this season. She didn't add to her total of 33 career top 10s, but she's got some momentum for next year.
13. Heather Bowie Young: She won at the Farr in 2005 and has collected 26 top 10s since joining the LPGA in 2000. 2010 was her 2nd season in a row without 1, but she did improve from last year (when her made-cut rate plummeted to the lowest of her career) and will have full status in 2011, despite playing in only 16 events, the lowest number of her career.
14. Moira Dunn: Her 2004 win at the Giant Eagle Classic was the high point of an LPGA career that dates back to 1995, but her best season was probably in 2001. My junior golf buddy's been struggling to keep her card the last 5 seasons, so although she couldn't add to her 23 career LPGA top 10s in 2010, staying at #80 on the money list was another battle won in a long pro campaign.
15. Soo-Yun Kang: Her win at the Safeway Classic in 2005 was part of the best season of her career, where she got 6 top 10s and ended up #14 on the money list. But it was also the last season her stroke average dipped under 72. She's still making her share of cuts, but of her 17 career top 10s since she started on the LPGA in 2001, only 2 have come after 2005 and none came this year. She made the top 100 on the money list, though, so she'll be keeping her card for 2011.
16. Louise Friberg: Her come-from-behind rookie win at the MasterCard Classic in 2008 gives her high-priority status in 2010 and 2011, which is a good thing, because she made only 3 cuts in 21 starts in 2009 and 6 of 16 in 2010.
17. Silvia Cavalleri: She's only had 10 top 10s in an career that started back in 1999 and in that span has only cracked the top 50 on the money list once--in 2007, when she won the Corona Championship. She's finished outside the top 100 on the money list the last 2 seasons, and currently sits in the #100 spot on the current money list, as well. Assuming she has her card in 2011, she needs a good season to get off Hound Dog's fluke victories list!
18. Julieta Granada: This Senior Standout has been hanging on to her LPGA card by the skin of her teeth the last 2 seasons, playing well in Q-School both years to improve the priority status she earned from the regular season. HGer 2nd season as a dual LPGA-LET member was about as successful as her 1st, so she'll be back in Q-School again this year. That ADT Championship win at the end of her rookie season and those 10 top 10s in her 1st 2 years on tour are looking more and more like blips than foundations of a great LPGA career, but I can't justify ranking her lower than this just yet.

On the Outside, Looking In

19. Marisa Baena: Her LPGA career started in 1999, but after a terrible 2004, it looked like it was in jeopardy. She bounced back in 2005 with a win in the HSBC Women's World Match Play Championship from the 60th seed. Although this season she didn't get her 14th career top 10 and 2nd since 2005, she did make 2 of 4 cuts, so has a little bit of momentum if she decides tio try for Q-School.
20. Kris Tschetter: Her rookie season was 1988, she won the Northgate Computer Classic in 1992. Even though 2002 was her last solid season, her 50 career top 10s show that she's got the talent to bounce back, now that her kids are elementary school age. However, she missed the cut in all 7 starts this season, so she'll have to decide whether to do Q-School in December.
21. Kelli Kuehne: She got a medical exemption for 2010, but didn't come close to returning to her 1999-2004 form, when she won at the Corning Classic at the start of that run and notched 24 of her 26 career top 10s over the course of it. From 2005-2009, though, she hasn't broken the 73 barrier in scoring average in any season and has made only 33 of 86 cuts. And she went 0 for 10 in 2010. Will she try Q-School or hang up her spikes?
22. Young Kim: Last season was the 1st in her 7-year LPGA career that she failed to get a top 10. But after winning medalist honors at JLPGA Q-School last December, she dropped her LPGA membership and now sits at #13 on their money list. Whether she'll return to the LPGA remains to be seen, but provided she does, if anyone on this list is going to break the Corning Classic jinx (see #6 and #12), I would expect her to be the 1st to do it!
23. Nicole Castrale: Unfortunately, 2010 won't go down as the year she bounced back from a very disappointing 2009, when she missed 10 cuts, saw her scoring average approach 72.50, fell outside the top 50 on the money list, and only managed to get her 19th and 20th career top 10s on the LPGA. It'll instead be remembered as the year she had to cut her season short for shoulder surgery. Best wishes to this 2-time Solheim Cupper for a full recovery.
24. Sung Ah Yim: Like Joo Mi Kim, she joined the LPGA in 2005 and got her 1st win in 2006, at the Florida's Natural Charity Classic. But from 2007 to 2009, she neither added to her career total of 8 top 10s nor broke the 74 barrier in scoring average. And in 2010, she didn't get a single LPGA start from #227 on the priority status list. Looks like it's going to be difficult for her to play her way out of the #6 spot on Hound Dog's fluke victories list.
25. Jin Joo Hong: After playing 3 seasons on the KLPGA, she won the jointly sponsored event with the LPGA and switched tours for the next 3 seasons, ending 2009 ranked #10 in her rookie class. Well, she's decided to focus on the KLPGA in 2010.
26. Joo Mi Kim: She came to the LPGA in 2005 with 3 KLPGA victories under her belt and made a lot of cuts in her rookie season, then followed it up with a playoff win at the SBS Open (over Lorena Ochoa and Soo Young Moon) and 4 top 10s in all the next season, where she ended up 27th on the money list. She stayed in the top 50 for the 3rd straight season the following year, but has only played 32 events over the last 3 seasons and hasn't cracked the 73 barrier in scoring average in that span. This year, she's spent the fall on the KLPGA after failing to make an LPGA cut in spring and summer.
27. Kate Golden: Her win at the State Farm Classic in 2001 was part of a run from 2000-2004 when she averaged in the mid 72s in scoring and mid-$200Ks in winnings, but since then she hasn't made more than half her cuts in any season and has only added 1 top 10 to her career total of 14. At #225 on the priority status list in 2010, she got into 2 events and missed the cut in both of them in what might turn out to have been the last year of an LPGA career that started in 1992.
28. Birdie Kim: I had wanted to put her higher on this list, feeling that she had been coming back from the U.S. Women's Open jinx after her stunning 2005 win from the sand over then-amateurs Morgan Pressel and Brittany Lang. But no, she's only made 13 cuts in 33 starts over the last 3 seasons, hasn't added to her career total of 4 top 10s in that span, and has never broken the 73 barrier in scoring average since she started on the LPGA in 2004. Given that she got into only 2 events this season, my guess is that she won't be back for Q-School in December.
29. Hilary Lunke: She may never be knocked from the top spot in Hound Dog's fluke victory list. Thanks to a medical exemption, her 2003 U.S. Women's Open victory gave her the opportunity to play a full schedule in 2010, but she didn't tee it up on tour all season. Assuming she gets another medical exemption for 2011, her 2nd career top 10 can wait on remembering what it's like to make cuts: she's 6 for 36 over the previous 3 seasons.

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