Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Jamie Farr Owens Corning Classic Preview, Predictions, Pairings

The Jamie Farr Owens Corning Classic will be without its 5-time champion, Se Ri Pak, due to injuries both nagging and recent, as well as without the new world #1 Cristie Kerr, #2 Ai Miyazato, #4 Suzann Pettersen, #5 Ya Ni Tseng, #6 Anna Nordqvist, and #7 Karrie Webb, and #9 Michelle Wie, all of whom will be resting and preparing for the U.S. Women's Open. But former #1 and current #3 Ji-Yai Shin will continue her comeback from an emergency appendectomy less than 3 weeks ago with the sherbet that Highland Meadows Country Club will be compared to the majors at Locust Hill and Oakmont that, uh, sandwich it, along with former champions Paula Creamer (herself on the comeback trail from recent wrist/thumb surgery), Laura Davies, Mi Hyun Kim, Eunjung Yi, Brandie Burton, and Meg Mallon, not to mention a group of golfers who have been playing great of late like Song-Hee Kim, Inbee Park, Angela Stanford, Azahara Munoz, and Amy Yang, or who have been coming on recently like In-Kyung Kim, Seon Hwa Lee, Stacy Lewis, Jeong Jang, Meena Lee, and Na On Min, or who will have something to prove like Na Yeon Choi (who missed the 1st cut of her LPGA career last week), Mika Miyazato (who wilted under major pressure and a Cristie Kerr onslaught last weekend), and Morgan Pressel (who lost in a playoff here last year to Yi).

So who in the field will break -20 this week? Here are my entries in this week's PakPicker:

1. Kim Song-Hee
2. Pressel
3. Choi Na Yeon
4. Shin
5. Park Inbee
6. Kim In-Kyung
7. Lewis
8. Creamer
9. Miyazato Mika
10. Lee Seon Hwa
11. Hull
12. Stanford

Alts: Kim Mi Hyun; Yang, Amy; Jang

As for the pairings, I'm most interested in the groups in the late-morning front-side prime-time quadrant:

Start Time: 8:50 AM
In-Kyung Kim
Maria Hjorth
Leta Lindley

Start Time: 9:00 AM
Morgan Pressel
Brandie Burton
Mika Miyazato

Start Time: 9:10 AM
M.J. Hur
Meg Mallon
Na On Min

Start Time: 9:20 AM
Seon Hwa Lee
Ji-Yai Shin
Azahara Munoz

Start Time: 9:30 AM
Mi Hyun Kim
Grace Park
Natalie Gulbis

Well, it would be prime time if the event were being telecast! Anyway, their peers going off the back in the late morning are no slouches, either:

Start Time: 8:50 AM
Alena Sharp
Catriona Matthew
Karen Stupples

Start Time: 9:00 AM
Kristy McPherson
Eun-Hee Ji
Katherine Hull

Start Time: 9:10 AM
Paula Creamer
Inbee Park
Na Yeon Choi

Start Time: 9:20 AM
Angela Stanford
Amy Yang
Jeong Jang

Start Time: 9:30 AM
Sarah Jane Smith
Karine Icher
Sandra Gal

The rookie closest to ROY race leader Azahara Munoz will be going off the back in the early afternoon, in the same quadrant as the defending champion:

Start Time: 12:25 PM
Eunjung Yi
Jee Young Lee
Katie Futcher

Start Time: 12:35 PM
Haeji Kang
Amanda Blumenherst
Ji Young Oh

Start Time: 12:45 PM
Sherri Steinhauer
Janice Moodie
Sun Young Yoo

Start Time: 12:55 PM
Candie Kung
Heather Bowie Young
Hee-Won Han

Start Time: 1:05 PM
Stacy Lewis
Brittany Lincicome
Laura Davies

That leaves the early afternoon front-side quadrant:

Start Time: 12:25 PM
Louise Friberg
Kyeong Bae
Wendy Ward

Start Time: 12:35 PM
Christina Kim
Lorie Kane
Vicky Hurst

Start Time: 12:45 PM
Jimin Kang
Meaghan Francella
Meena Lee

Start Time: 12:55 PM
Hee Young Park
Stacy Prammanasudh
Amy Hung

Start Time: 1:05 PM
Song-Hee Kim
Gwladys Nocera
Momoko Ueda

Other pairings of note include the 1st off the 1st tee:

Start Time: 7:30 AM
Jane Chin
Mikaela Parmlid
Mariajo Uribe

And these off the 10th tee:

Start Time: 7:30 AM
Pernilla Lindberg
Mina Harigae
Audra Burks

Start Time: 1:35 PM
Jane Park
Tamie Durdin
Julieta Granada

Start Time: 2:15 PM
Paola Moreno
Beatriz Recari
*Jessica Korda

I'm also interested in seeing how Futures Tour money-list leader Cindy LaCrosse (#10, 1:25 pm), not to mention former ROY Angela Park (#10, 8:40 am), NYers Moira Dunn (#1, 8:20 am) and Danielle Downey (#10, 8:00 am), and Mallory Blackwelder (#10, 7:40 am), who's playing her 1st LPGA event and has her dad on the bag, all do this week.

Word has it that the Farr will take a year off to avoid conflicting with a men's event, but return with a multi-year contract in 2012. We'll see. But more important, let's see who takes advantage of the absence of many of the LPGA's hottest players!

[Update 1 (5:10 am): David Barrett has a well-informed account of why Americans no longer dominate the LPGA and why some of them may be threats to join Cristie Kerr in the winner's circle soon. Of them, probably Morgan Pressel has the best chance this week, although Stacy Lewis may be due to break through soon. The biggest story for me, though, would be the Pink Panther picking up another Farr title this week. As it would be for onechan!]

[Update 2 (5:15 am): Terrible news for Nicole Castrale. She aggravated a shoulder injury at the LPGA Championship and will require season-ending shoulder surgery.]

[Update 3 (5:36 am): Hey, I finally beat Hound Dog to the punch on our previews!]

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

On Following Mi Hyun Kim, Mina Harigae, and Ai Miyazato

Last Sunday morning at the LPGA Championship, I followed, in turn, Mi Hyun Kim (and Juli Inkster), Mina Harigae (and Stacy Prammanasudh), and Ai Miyazato (and Brittany Lang), for the 1st 4 or 5 holes of their final rounds before I had to leave Locust Hill to pick up the Full Metal Archivist, onechan, and imoto from the hotel to eat lunch (at a great Korean place) and return to the course Sports Zone/Wegmans tent area. I'm happy to report that onechan learned both the dog paddle and a rudimentary backstroke that weekend at the hotel pool, but that's not the subject of this post. No, what I want to get at is how small the differences are between a bad (Harigae), good (Kim), and great (Miyazato) round and to share some insight I gained into Ai-sama's mental approach to the game from what I observed and what I asked her (embarrassingly incoherently) at the media center after her round.

Let me make clear from the start that I didn't see anything all that amazing from anyone in those early holes. I saw a lot of routine pars, some great par saves, several bogeys, and a few good birdie putts. Inkster was the only player under par in the holes I watched; Harigae was the only one over par. Of course, as soon as I left, Ai-sama rattled off birdies on 4 of her remaining 5 holes on the front and Kim birdied 4 of her last 11 holes. But it's not so much the results I want to focus on here as it is on how they came about. There were definitely similarities in the ways the players attacked each of the 1st 4 holes, along with some subtle differences.

I got to the course early enough to watch Mi Hyun Kim, Shanshan Feng, and Chella Choi on the driving range until Kim left for the putting green. Choi was hitting hybrids like a hybrid-hitting machine, but having a little difficulty losing drives to the right every so often. Kim was working up from hybrids to fairway woods to driver. I noticed that her left wrist was lightly wrapped, that she wasn't using a golf glove, and that every so often she's be looking at and touching the tip of her left thumb, like it was bothering her or something. But she was still hitting the ball consistently well. Feng was working on irons. I wasn't as impressed with her swing as I was with Choi's; it seemed to be too compact in a way, as if she wasn't extending her left arm in her initial takeaway as much as I would have expected.

The scene at the 1st tee was pretty cool, although it would have been cooler if the starter hadn't butchered Kim's name ("My Hoon") and had remembered to mention she's an 8-time winner on the LPGA! Miyazato actually took the time in the minute before she was due to hit her drive to hug a male fan she recognized and get introduced to his wife--she was the only player I saw that day who interacted with individual fans right before starting her round. As you may have read in my scouting report of Locust Hill, I expected most players to be able to fly their tee shots on the downhill 1st hole past the corner of the dogleg and give themselves a good look at the green and pin, despite the hole having been lengthened by about 30 yards. But to my surprise, Kim couldn't reach the corner, Harigae and Miyazato were only right at it, and even Inkster and Lang didn't go far past it. So the shorter hitters I was focusing on, who all ended up on the left side of the fairway (or in Harigae's case, the 1st cut of the left rough), faced fairly intimidating 2nd shots with fairway woods from downhill lies, with the left pond definitely in play and perhaps even some overhanging branches from the trees to their left interfering with their lines to the green. It looked to me that each of them attempted the same shot--start the ball at the right bunker and draw it back toward the back-left pin--although in retrospect, it's entirely possible that Kim and Harigae were intentionally laying up short of the right bunker to give themselves a neat little angle on their chips. In any case, that's where they ended up, whereas Miyazato's ball failed to draw and she ended up in the back of the right trap, almost pin high. Kim chipped to about 6 feet and surprisingly missed her par save. Harigae fluffed her pitch a little, ending up about 11 feet short right of the cup and forcing herself to make a tough little comebacker for bogey. Miyazato seemed to leave her shot from the sand behind and to the right of the hole on purpose (unless it just slipped away from her a little), perhaps because it gave her a straighter and flatter par putt. In any case, she sunk the 9-footer. Of everyone, the only player to really attack the 1st was Inkster. She overcooked a hybrid from the right rough and ended up on the back left fringe, a little past pin high, from where she just missed chipping in for birdie. Prammanasudh and Miyazato were the only players to save par. The 1st was definitely playing tough for this group of 6 players.

Although the 2nd was theoretically a birdie hole, the front left pin position, right behind the deep trap guarding that side of the green, was not only tough to get to, but presented the players with tricky birdie attempts from just about every angle. The only ones not to give themselves a good look for birdie were Prammanasudh, who flared her tee shot into the right rough and did well to hit the green from there, and Kim, who fluffed her approach shot a bit and ended up on the false front to the right of the trap, from where she easily got up and down. But everyone else was within 20 feet, Harigae about 11 feet above the hole after nearly holing her approach and Miyazato about 12 feet to the right of the cup. And everyone except Inkster found a way to miss her birdie attempt. It looked to me like Ai-sama pulled hers from the start, although she might have been fooled by the way the ball refused to break right from the mound behind the trap. In any case, whereas the sixsome was +3 on the 1st hole, they were -1 on the 2nd, but it felt like being over par to me.

To my surprise, the 3rd hole gave up the most birdies of any that I saw. Except for Inkster, who ticked some leaves on the trees overhanging the right side of the tee boxes and ended up short right in the fairway, and Lang, who pulled her drive into the left rough, everyone was in prime position to attack the back-left pin. The only one of them not to hit a good approach shot, sadly, was Miyazato, who had needed a ruling because she and her caddie were uncertain what to do when her ball had plugged in the fairway. (Since everyone was playing lift, clean, and place, they wanted to clarify whether they could do that as usual or whether they had to first take relief from the plugged lie and then do LCP.) Coincidentally, while waiting for the rules official to arrive, Ai-sama was able to watch Sakura Yokomine's tee shot on #2. After that delay, which gave Lang a chance to walk to the green and survey her putt from the back fringe, Miyazato left her approach shot in the front right corner of the green, about 35 feet from the pin. Whereas Kim sank a 20-footer from almost pin high to the right of the cup and Harigae and Prammanasudh each made great 15-footers from the center of the green, Miyazato knocked her birdie attempt almost off the green, maybe 7 feet past the cup. But she calmly sank the uphiller as if there were no doubt in the world that she was destined to save par. The group ended up -3 on the 3rd. Not bad! At that point, only Lang was over par and Inkster was under par.

On the 3-shot par-5 4th, a pond to the left of the fairway about 220 yards out that I hadn't noticed in my scouting report added an extra wrinkle to the drive. I had been focused on the big trees overhanging the right side of the fairway about 225-265 yards out from the tee, thinking that you could play a small draw to take them out of play. But instead Kim couldn't even reach them with a drive that Inkster outhit with a hybrid, Harigae blocked her drive into the deep right rough underneath them (after being left her 1st 3 drives, although no worse than 1st cut on her 1st 2 holes), and Miyazato played what appeared to be a fade to end up on the right side of the fairway. From there, everyone's strategy diverged. Inkster, Miyazato, and Lang attacked with their 2nd shots, trying to get up the fairway as far as they could and as close to the left rough as they could to get the best angle into the front right pin. Kim and Prammanasudh laid back a bit, just trying stay in the fairway. Harigae looked like she was trying to play a low draw under the trees with a hybrid, but instead hit a grounder and had to punch out to about 190 out. Everyone from farther out kept their approach shots below the pin (and sometimes short of the green, where Inkster's shot from the left rough ended up, as well). Maybe the fact that it started drizzling while Kim and Inkster were teeing off and actually got raining pretty hard for most of the hole had something to do with their inability to hit the green. In any case, the only really good approach shots I saw were from the twosome who started latest. Lang stuck her approach about 8 feet below and to the left of the pin, while Miyazato put hers inside Lang's, about 3 feet to the left of the hole. But whereas Lang's putt was more uphill, Miyazato's was on a sidehill, and after Lang made hers, Ai-sama couldn't follow up on it, missing on the short side. Kim and Inkster just missed chipping in for birdie, Prammanasudh made a routine par, and Harigae saved her bogey, so the group was again a rather disappointing E on the hole.

I was able to stick around for all of Harigae's 5th hole, where she stuck her approach on the uphill par 3 7 feet right of the pin, after just barely carrying the front right bunker, and missed the birdie putt, forcing herself into a little tester to save par (Prammanasudh failed to get up and down from that trap)--and see her drive on the downhill 6th, which again found the left side of the fairway--before heading back toward the 1st tee to catch Ai-sama's pairing. About an hour later, I saw Miyazato hit a great approach shot to #5, but couldn't stick around to watch her putt, as it was time to make my way to the other side of Jefferson Road where my car was parked near the driving range to check out of the hotel (the fact that the walk from tee to green was probably the sharpest grade on the front had absolutely nothing to do with that decision!). But I came away feeling that Miyazato was in total command of her swing, had amazing distance control, and was so due to start making birdies, while it felt like Kim's round could go either way and Harigae was having small problems with both her driver and her putter.

After lunch and some time at the Sports Zone (onechan chose the golf simulator over the bounce house, maze, and climbing tower while I was there [yay!] and was almost impressed when I put my wedge on Pebble's tiny downhill par 3 5 feet from the pin), I made my way back to the 18th just in time to miss Michelle Wie and Haeji Kang finish out their rounds, and was pleasantly surprised to see on the hand-lettered scoreboard that Kim had shot a 69, but disappointed by Inkster's 74, Harigae's 75, and Prammanasudh's 77. I was shocked to see that Miyazato had turned in a 31 on the front, and even happier when I made my way to the 9th-green scoreboard to see that she had gotten to -5 on her day through 14, then -6 through 15. I didn't get to see that she had gotten to -7 through 16 until I had made my way back to the Sports Zone to let the ladies know what Ai-sama was up to and see if they wanted to watch her play 17 and 18. But they were having fun and I didn't want to jinx her, so after the Full Metal Archivist got the girls to the Wegmans tent, I headed to the 18th green, where I was too late to see her finish. Still, I was in time to watch her get interviewed by Rich Lerner live on Golf Channel, to eventually decide to cross the ropes and join the Japanese media interviewing her afterwards (in the sense that I tried to tape the conversation and stay out of the way of the photographers), to find out from Heather Daly-Donofrio that she would be interviewed at the media tent in English, to stupidly leave for it too soon and lose everyone, to wander back to the putting green trying to find them, to find out from a Japanese reporter in line for an autograph from Paula Creamer that she had only shot a 66, to chat with her caddie for a bit, and after all that to return late to the media tent, where her interview was already in process.

And that's when I got to ask Ai-sama my Embarrassing Question that Inadvertently Revealed Something Important about Her Mindset. What was going through my head was something a lot less coherent than this: if I had started my reign as #1 in the world with a 5-bogey 76, fought my way back to +3 to make the cut (but still offset my 5 birdies with 4 bogeys that day), hit the 45-hole mark at +3, and after making 2 birdies in a row to start my Saturday back 9, followed them up with 11 straight pars to remain at +1, I would have been, well, the slightest bit impatient--ok, frustrated and worried--wondering when I would see results from my improved play. So I wanted to know what she was thinking and how she was feeling before she began her birdie barrage. What came out of my mouth was something even less coherent, although somewhat more so than's transcript (my corrections/additions are in [square brackets]):

Q: Ai, when those birdie putts were[n't] dropping earlier in your round what were you thinking?

AI MIYAZATO (via INTERPRETER): Earlier in the round today?

Q: Yes, the second and fourth holes.

AI MIYAZATO: [Um...] [long pause] Did I have birdie putts on the first few holes? Maybe the fourth, [no,] 3. [No,] I think I made a good [par] putt[s, actually,] the first few holes. I had a good opportunity on No. 5, I guess, on the par-5. After that, but I made birdie, and...

(via INTERPRETER) Up until that hole it didn't feel like I had that many chances.

She was genuinely confused enough by my question that some people in the room laughed nervously after that long pause, during which she had been looking at me in a sympathetic but taken aback kind of way. She literally could not remember anything except her par saves from early in her round!

Come to think of it, that's probably one of the keys to her success. Although she missed a birdie chance at 17 and bogeyed 18 for the 4th-straight day, she played her last 27 holes in 8 under par and her last 14 holes in 6 under par. I suppose she's realized that your chances of going on birdie barrages like that are reduced if you remember the putts that got away or worry about when they'll start dropping. She simply knew she was hitting on all cylinders and that the birdies would come. In her interview with the Japanese media, she emphasized how important her par saves on 10 and 11 were, in terms of keeping her momentum going. I guess that's the way she was thinking about those saves on 1 and on 3--they allowed her to extend what would end up being a 26-hole bogey-free run.

When I contrast Miyazato's finish with Harigae's (+2 over her last 13), Inkster's (+3 over her last 14), Prammanasudh's (+5 over her last 13), and Lang's (birdieless 42 on the back after a bogey-free 33 on the front), I'm so impressed by the results of that calmness and that confidence. But when I consider that fellow Okinawan Mika Miyazato was 3 shots behind Cristie Kerr after 47 holes but ended up losing to her by 18, I'm blown away by Ai-sama's resilience, persistence, and patience. (And I'm even more impressed with Kerr's week: she put together bogey-free streaks of 8, 28, and 22 holes on a tough Locust Hill layout when she wasn't even hitting that many fairways--12 fewer than Miyazato in all!)

Another key factor in Miyazato's performance was how committed she was to her pre-shot routine. Here the contrast to Harigae is telling. I've already noted how great Harigae's routine is for her full swings. But what became clear during the 5-and-a-half holes I watched of her in actual competition is that she doesn't have as effective or repeatable a pre-shot routine for her putts. In contrast to Kim and Miyazato, whose minds were clearly made up before even approaching the ball to begin taking their stances, Harigae seemed to be still deciding on her ultimate strategy even as she was taking her stance. There was a lot more twitching, setting and resetting of her feet and hands, even stepping saway from a putt from the rookie. Whereas Kim's and Miyazato's routines and rhythms never varied, Harigae's did. Plus, she never seemed as locked in on the speed of the greens as the more experienced professionals. Even when Miyazato rocketed her birdie attempt on 3 down the slope past the hole and almost ended up attempting her par save from the fringe, I got the impression that she had taken a calculated risk in an attempt to jump-start her round.

Finally, I'll reiterate the importance of pacing and rhythm that I noted the 1st time I followed Miyazato a couple of years ago at the Wegmans:

When I asked the FMA later what stood out to her about Ai-chan, what she focused on after her leanness and fitness was her rhythm. She was surprised to hear that Ai-chan had been talking about just that in her interviews the 1st 2 rounds. What I realized was that her emphasis even extended to the way she walked on the course, not just her rhythm on her full swings, pitches, and putts. She has a very long stride for such a short person, sets a brisk but effortless-looking pace, and kept to it on every hole. Even though she was struggling a bit while we watched her, she projects a lot of confidence and determination on the course.

Harigae was paired with a very fast-walking player in Prammanasudh, and she may just have picked up her pace a little, perhaps even unconsciously, in an effort to avoid slowing down the long-legged Okie in Tulsa orange (take that, Rickie Fowler!). It may just be a coincidence, but Harigae's timing on her tee shots was off that Sunday compared to the Monday pro-am when I had followed her. 4 of her 5 drives went left, and the one that went right was clearly an overcompensation, where she was protecting against going left and flirting with the pond. I wonder what the result would be if Harigae were to find her own pace and stick with it all round, every round, like Miyazato clearly does.

What I took away from the little time that I spent Sunday morning with Mi Hyun Kim, Mina Harigae, and Ai Miyazato was how big a difference all these little differences can make. While I was watching her, Kim was unfazed by her opening bogey, getting up-and-down easily when she missed the green and making her only birdie attempt. Even though she wasn't hitting the ball all that great by her standards, she was hanging in there and giving herself chances for good things to happen. Harigae was leaking oil on her tee shots, letting birdie opportunities slip away, and forcing herself to work harder than she needed to when it came to saving pars and bogeys. And despite my worries for her, Miyazato was actually this far away from getting into the zone. I think to a casual observer the differences between their starts wouldn't have been that noticeable. They were generally hitting the ball about as far and to about the same areas, after all. But the cumulative effects of those tiny differences--and what they did with their starts--make a huge difference in terms of strokes taken per round and dollars won per tournament.

[Update 1 (7:56 am): Check out Ruthless Golf for some interesting thoughts on getting out of your own way, something both Kerr and Miyazato did very well last week!]

[Update 2 (6/30/10, 4:46 am): Very kind words from Mike Southern, but one word of warning about trying to implement any of his advice or my speculations. Don't try for the first time on a cool day in a 2-club wind! I couldn't even break 85 on the Easiest Course in the World yesterday, and I never gave up on a single shot. Seems like I was remembering all my good putts on the Locust Hill putting green, which meant that I left a lot of birdie and par putts really short at tECitW. But the greens there were harder and faster than I remembered when it came to accepting approach shots, pitches, and chips, so I was going long all day on those. The wind didn't help with that, either, in my defense. So memories are all well and good, but actually adjusting to the reality of the conditions on the ground is highly recommended, as well!]

Monday, June 28, 2010

LPGA Championship Sunday: How Scary Was Cristie Kerr's Win?

By now, you know the news: Cristie Kerr absolutely dominated the field and the course at the LPGA Championship, garnering her 2nd career major, 14th career victory, and becoming the 1st American ever to sit atop the Rolex Rankings in the process. With an amazing 4 rounds under 70 and a winning total of -19, Kerr made a tough Locust Hill track her own personal playground, finishing 12 shots ahead of Song-Hee Kim to establish the largest margin of victory in a modern LPGA major.

And it's not like people weren't taking runs at Kerr all week. Kim made 8 birdies and an eagle in her last 27 holes, Azahara Munoz went -6 in a bogey-free stretch of 22 holes on Friday and Saturday, and Amy Yang made 8 birdies in a 28-hole stretch on Thursday and Friday. But Kerr posted the lowest score of the day 3 times this week to crush the spirits of everyone trying to keep pace with her. Munoz played her last 23 holes in +4. Yang played her last 36 holes in +4. Jimin Kang played her last 16 holes in +3. But perhaps the most telling example is Mika Miyazato: midway through Saturday's round, she had pulled within 3 shots of the lead, but she played her final 24 holes in +7!

Ai Miyazato, whose 66 yesterday brought her into a tie for 3rd with Ji-Yai Shin, 14 shots off the pace, said it all when asked about Kerr's scoring this week:

I mean almost that's too good, I guess. Me and my caddie was talking about earlier this week winning scores going to be maybe 5- to 8-under or so. So she played really, really good and she had such a solid round on her second round, I guess. But she is just amazing. I played really good, too. But she is just better than me.

Even though Kerr found only 55.4% of her fairways, she hit the green in regulation 80.6% of the time from some very thick and usually wet rough and putted the lights out (taking only 110 strokes in all on the greens, tied with Song-Hee Kim and only 3 more than Ai Miyazato, who hit 16 fewer greens than she did on the week). Imagine how low she could have gone if she had been only slightly more accurate with her driver!

Kerr's victory this week puts me to mind of what turned out to be Annika Sorenstam's last LPGA win at the Michelob Ultra in May 2008. That was very nearly the perfect tournament, but it was also a kind of swan song, as she announced just 2 days later that she would be stepping away from competitive golf. Just as Annika's probable retirement robbed LPGA fans of a showdown between her and the new #1 Lorena Ochoa, so, too, did Ochoa's this season rob us of a showdown between her and her lead chase pack. Well, Kerr isn't going anywhere, Miyazato and Shin aren't backing down, Pettersen and Tseng are still in the hunt, and there are probably a dozen more players with a legitimate shot at the #1 spot before the season is out.

But right now Kerr and Miyazato have put some distance between themselves and the rest of the contenders for the various crowns the LPGA awards. Kerr's win pulls her with $60K of Miyazato on the money list, 17 points in the Player of the Year race, and helps bring her scoring average down to 69.40 (over a third of a stroke lower than her nearest competitor for the Vare Trophy, Song-Hee Kim). We'll have to wait to see them again at the U.S. Women's Open at Oakmont, where each has a great chance to become the 1st player in 2010 to break the $1M barrier. Neither is playing the Se Ri Pak Jamie Farr Owens Corning Classic next week (like Suzann Pettersen, Anna Nordqvist, and Michelle Wie, they're resting and preparing, but Pak, who got clocked on the leg by an approach shot during a practice round at the LPGA Championship, will be missing the tournament she's won 5 times), so there's a big opportunity for Ji-Yai Shin, Ya Ni Tseng, Song-Hee Kim, and Na Yeon Choi to make up some serious ground on them, as well as for Paula Creamer, Angela Stanford, Morgan Pressel, Inbee Park, In-Kyung Kim, Jee Young Lee, Amy Yang, Stacy Lewis, and Seon Hwa Lee to turn up the notch on their seasons. Stay tuned!

[Update 1 (11:18 am): Not only is Kerr #1 in the Rolex Rankings (.12 ahead of Miyazato), she's also #1 in the Golfweek/Sagarin Performance Index (.07 ahead of Ji-Yai Shin)! Here's Hound Dog and Jeff Skinner with more!]

[Update 2 (11:42 am): Here's Ryan Ballengee and Jason Sobel.]

[Update 3 (6/29/10, 10:50 am): Here's a very interesting follow-up from Ryan.]

Saturday, June 26, 2010

LPGA Championship Final Round Pairings

Wow, even if the final result of the LPGA Championship is probably not in that much doubt, the final round pairings combined with the great weather should really bring out the crowds tomorrow. They're finally able to actually go out in pairs--and the tournament organizers couldn't have scripted them better.

Consider the following precision player/bomber dynamic duos:

9:52 am: Michelle Wie and Haeji Kang
11:20 am: Morgan Pressel and Ya Ni Tseng
11:28 am: Na On Min and Brittany Lincicome
11:44 am: Suzann Pettersen and Lindsey Wright

There will also be some serious distance differentials in the following pairings:

8:08 am: Juli Inkster and Mi Hyun Kim
9:44 am: Mariajo Uribe and Jeong Jang
10:56 am: Ai Miyazato and Brittany Lang
11:36 am: Stacy Lewis and Seon Hwa Lee
11:52 am: In-Kyung Kim and Inbee Park
12:24 pm: Song-Hee Kim and Ji-Yai Shin
12:40 pm: Cristie Kerr and Jimin Kang

In these pairings, you'll get to see how players of similar length handle Locust Hill:

9:20 am: Mina Harigae and Stacy Prammanasudh
10:16 am: Chie Arimura and Anna Nordqvist
10:40 am: Paula Creamer and Natalie Gulbis
11:12 am: Christina Kim and Sakura Yokomine
12:16 pm: Karrie Webb and Catriona Matthew
12:32 pm: Azahara Munoz and Mika Miyazato

If I can get to the course by 9 am, I can follow Mina and Stacy P for awhile and circle back to the 1st tee in time to pick up Ai-sama and Brittany. If I'm really motivated, I could do 3 rotations on the front before the girls are out of the pool and start with Juli and Peanut.... Decisions, decisions!

[Update 1 (6:37 am): Here are Mike Southern and Jeff Skinner on Kerr's chances of getting her 2nd major and becoming the 1st American to ever reach #1 in the Rolex Rankings.]

LPGA Championship Saturday: Can Cristie Kerr Keep It Going?

This week at the LPGA Championship, Cristie Kerr's driver has not been kind to her, finding the fairway less than 50% of the time through her 1st 43 holes. But it's not been mean to her, either, as she's managed to hit the green in regulation at an astounding 83.7% rate. That's why she's made only 2 bogeys all tournament, with 28 holes between her 1st and her latest. And that's why she's maintaining a 5-shot lead on Mika Miyazato so far today. But take a look at Vicky Hurst's scorecard from yesterday--her errant driver cost her 2 triples in her 1st 3 holes. If someone were to get as hot as Hurst got after that (she made 7 birdies in her last 15 holes) or as hot as Azahara Munoz has been lately (she's -5 over her last 18 holes of bogey-free golf) and Kerr's driver were to get her in some serious trouble, the entire atmosphere of this major could change very quickly. We'll see if it does. Well, those not stuck in Buffalo for another few hours will. Here's hoping our hotel gets Golf Channel! John Goldstein informs me GC is extending their coverage an extra hour: 4-8 pm!

[Update 1 (11:31 am): Gotta head out for violin practice for onechan soon, so I'll turn you over to Beth Ann Baldry's live-tweeting.]

[Update 2 (8:03 pm): Took advantage of the GC coverage at the hotel to avoid the internets today and root for Mika Miyazato. Except for a break at the pool, I saw every shot that mattered since I wrote my last update. Despite a few pulls off the tee, Cristie Kerr extended her lead. Although she couldn't match Morgan Pressel's low round of the day--a 68--she hung in there and made a lot of putts down the stretch when it seemed like the wheels were starting to come off a bit midway through her round. Mikan's double on 18 gave Kerr an 8-stroke cushion. Here's Hound Dog's overview (he must have signed off before Mikan's double was posted). And here's's notes and interviews. Looking for Ai-sama to go low tomorrow. Hope to follow her while the Full Metal Archivist entertains the girls at the pool.]

T-Joh in da Huuuuunt!

Tiffany Joh birdied 6 of her 1st 7 holes after making the turn in the City of Hammond Classic, which helped her to a 69 that put her 2 shots behind leader Lisa Ferrero. Mariajo Uribe, who's so sweet that when I asked if she's a friend of T-Joh's, she automatically assumed I was, too (instead of just being someone who pesters her on the internet), will be happy to see that! As will Jane Park! The sooner T-Joh gets out on the LPGA, the better for all of us. Interesting that the 2-time WAPL champion gets hot just as the WAPL is being played this year....

Anyone Want to Give My Girls a Ride to Buffalo This Morning?

Anyone? See, they have Japanese school from 9-12 and then onechan has a violin lesson at 12:30. But the pairings for the 3rd round of the LPGA Championship have been moved up. And there are some players I'd love to follow, even though they're back in the pack.

Like, say,

Start Time: 7:20 AM
Mina Harigae
Christina Kim
Ai Miyazato

going off the 10th tee. OMG!

Or these folks going off the 1st:

Start Time: 7:00 AM
Brittany Lang
Ya Ni Tseng
Shanshan Feng

Start Time: 7:10 AM
Vicky Hurst
Mariajo Uribe
Paola Moreno

Not to mention the leaders:

Start Time: 8:20 AM
Seon Hwa Lee
Song-Hee Kim
Paula Creamer

Start Time: 8:30 AM
Ji-Yai Shin
In-Kyung Kim
Stacy Lewis

Start Time: 8:40 AM
Na On Min
Michele Redman
Azahara Munoz

Start Time: 8:50 AM
Amy Yang
Brittany Lincicome
Jimin Kang

Start Time: 9:00 AM
Cristie Kerr
Inbee Park
Mika Miyazato

If we're lucky, we might be able to make it to the 18th-hole grandstands to see a little bit of live action tomorrow. But more likely it'll be Sports Zone, driving range, hotel, pool. If I'm lucky, our hotel will get Golf Channel.... I'm assuming they'll show moving day tape-delayed from 4-7 pm as planned, but who knows?

These Girls Rock--and They're Pretty Darn Nice, Too!

Picture this: a six-and-a-half and a four-year-old are at the end of their respective ropes as a dad and his parents are trudging from the Sports Zone back toward the clubhouse in the late afternoon yesterday at the LPGA Championship. A rookie on the driving range who's just shot a 40 on the back 9 at Locust Hill to drop from -2 to +1 for the tournament sees that the younger sister is about to implode (and the dad isn't doing so well carrying her, either), rushes to her caddie, grabs two golf balls, signs them with her Sharpie, and swoops down the hill to the walkway to give them to the pair of girls and talk with them for a couple of minutes. That's Mariajo Uribe for you.

Picture this: a Hall-of-Famer is trudging through the parking lot looking for her courtesy car with her caddy's help, after shooting her 2nd-straight frustrating 72 when she hears a 4-year-old yell her name. She probably doesn't want to do anything more than get back to her hotel, take a shower, and grab some dinner, but she chats with the suddenly tongue-tied girl and her older sister for as long as humanly possible (which turns out to be about 10 seconds longer than I would have tried). That's Karrie Webb for you. (Little could she have known that she's one of the older sister's favorite players!)

I could tell similar stories about Heather Daly-Donofrio of the LPGA communications office (who got her kid fix when she ran into us by the 9th green) and John Goldstein of Golf Channel (who invited the girls into the Golf Channel tv booth but was probably as relieved as I was to find they would rather play in the Sports Zone instead). Or the dad of one of the Korean players I didn't recognize (she was dressed almost all in orange), who gave the girls a banana in the parking lot right after we said goodbye to Webb.

Even at a major, everyone we've met goes out of their way to be nice, from the servers off the 10th tee to the folks in the Wegmans tent. If you've never been to an LPGA event, and if you have kids, I can't recommend it strongly enough. You bump into players and caddies almost everywhere you turn, there's plenty to entertain them besides the golf (which I saw almost none of yesterday, to my initial frustration), and there's always the chance of special moments like these. I'm sure my girls will remember Uribe's act of kindness for a long time. They still talk about the time Morgan Pressel gave onechan a signed ball a couple of years ago at the putting green! Now imoto has one of her own--and that matters a lot to her.

Friday, June 25, 2010

LPGA Championship Friday Morning: We're Back!

Checking in real quick at the medis tent while my parents are watching the girls by the putting green. Would have been here earlier except imoto spilled a bunch of beads right before we were supposed to leave. A half hour later, we hit the road, and 3 fights later, we were in Pittsford. The girls were psyched the lot by the driving range was full, so we had to take the shuttle bus in. Saw JJ, Kimmie, Inbee, Song-Hee, and M.J. as were were looking for my parents. Got a quick update from them: they saw Moira Dunn miss a short putt on one hole, then dump a shot in a pond after a great drive, so they figured they'd better leave and change her luck (she's now +4 with 5 to play). They also saw Mika Miyazato make a birdie and she smiled at them when they clapped for her drive on the 1st tee.

As for the rest of the action on the course, Jimin Kang is making a huge move--she just eagled the par-4 2nd to get to -6 on her day and -4 overall. Ya Ni Tseng has fought back to E after her opening 75. She did 9 shots better on the front today than yesterday! Also -3 so far today are Shanshan Feng (E) and Amy Yang (-2).

More later! We're off to the 18th bleachers to watch Mina Harigae and Sakura Yokomine come in, then have to decide if we're going to walk a few holes with Ai Miyazato's threesome or not....

[Update 1 (6/26/10, 1:52 am): That's a definite not! While I was hanging out with onechan, imoto, and my parents near the putting green, 9th and 18th greens, 10th tee, and particularly the play area Sports Zone (sponsored by the University of Rochester!) at Locust Hill--seeing players like Mina Harigae (74, +2, T36), Sakura Yokomine (73, E, T18), and Teresa Lu (73, -1, T14) finish their rounds (but not Mika Miyazato because imoto was so restless and onechan was so cranky even though they had just eaten), seeing Laura Davies (69, E, T18), Natalie Gulbis (75, +3, T48), Azahara Munoz (69, -3, T6), Juli Inkster (74, +1, T23), Paula Creamer (72, -1, T14), Ji-Yai Shin (70, -2, T10), Ai Miyazato (71, +3, T48), Morgan Pressel (76, +4, T60), and Michelle Wie (74, +2, T36) tee off, and introducing the girls to Vicky Hurst (74, +1, T23; fortunately, she didn't see me go thin-thin-shank-shank-thin-decent at the swing analysis/golf simulation area--I hope!)--Cristie Kerr was opening up a 5-shot lead on Inbee Park and Mika Miyazato on the strength of a 5-birdie closing 32 that gave her a bogey-free 66 on the day and brought her to -10 for the tournament. Even though Kerr is hitting the fairway off the tee just less than half the time, she must be missing in good spots, as she's made only 1 bogey in 36 holes and missed only 5 greens in regulation. She's -2 on the front and -8 on the back and has shot the low score of the day each of the 1st 2 days of the tournament.

If she can keep this up, it'll go down as one of the best performances in an LPGA major ever. But given Kerr's history at majors last season, it's a little too soon to hand this one to her. 4 players figured out how to go low at Locust Hill: 67s by Amy Yang (who caught Brittany Lincicome at -4), Jimin Kang, Michele Redman, and Na On Min (who all kept within 7 of Kerr) showed everyone else that there are any number of ways to go low at Locust Hill. If Kerr's going to get caught, someone's going to have to do on the weekend what she and this gang of 4 was able to accomplish. But I sincerely doubt that Kerr will come back very far to the field, if at all. The odds of her stalling, however, are way greater than her odds of break 70 all 4 rounds. But if she breaks 70 tomorrow, that probably won't matter.

Even though 8 players broke 70 and 25 went under par in Friday's comparatively benign conditions (it was only 6 and 18, respectively, on Thursday), Locust Hill still had plenty of bite. Check out the scorecard of Karen Stupples, who missed the cut badly, for a representative example. Hitting 67.9% of her fairways and 72.9% of her greens, and averaging 30.5 putts and 3.85 birdies per round coming into this week, her comparable numbers at the LPGA Championship were 60.7%, 55.6%, 32, and 1.0 (she birdied the short 12th hole both days--and that was it!). An even more telling example is Na Yeon Choi, who had never missed a cut in her LPGA career--until this week. This season, her normal numbers coming into the LPGA Championship had been 74.2%, 68.8%, 28.61, and 4.37. At Locust Hill, they were 50%, 66.7%, 32, and 2.5 'Nuff said.]

[Update 2 (2:00 am): Here's Jeff Skinner on Cristie Kerr and with notes and interviews from the 2nd round.]

[Update 3 (2:30 am): Seoul's IceCat has the inside story on Grace Park's WD--her back started acting up again, dammit.]

[Update 4 (11:28 am): Here are Hound Dog and Mike Southern on where things stood at the halfway point.]

What Is It with North American Golf Writers, Anyway?

Lorne Rubenstein has a talent for taking each positive the LPGA Tour has going for it and framing it as a negative. The LPGA is the best tour in women's golf, attracting the top golfers from around the world (except for a few who decide to play only in Japan). It features the closest and toughest competition of any professional tour, with nearly half the field having a legitimate shot at victory every week they play. And five players--Ai Miyazato, Ji-Yai Shin, Ya Ni Tseng, Suzann Pettersen, and Cristie Kerr--have broken away from the lead chase pack and will probably be trading the #1 spot in the world rankings all year and duking it out for Player of the Year. All of them have great personalities, interesting back stories, and devoted fan bases. It's like a season-long pennant race, but where it's hard to root against any team. What's not to love about where the LPGA is now?

According to Rubenstein, lots. What a niche sport like the LPGA needs, in his view, is a dominant superstar whom "the masses" can identify with like Annika or Lorena. And apparently Rubenstein is going to stamp his feet, whine, and pout until Michelle Wie or Paula Creamer fulfills that role.

The bottom line is that somebody has to emerge, and it would be best for the LPGA Tour if that were an American player.

This from a guy who can't even be bothered to spell Miyazato's name correctly. Why does anyone listen to this nonsense? How can "the masses" be expected to identify with the LPGA's new global superstars if golf writers can't be bothered to make the effort to do so themselves? Isn't their job to report on what's actually happening, not what they wish were happening? Shouldn't their writing draw, even compel, interest and attention, no matter who is demonstrating excellence in the sport they're covering?

I've been asking myself these questions for a long time, because obviously Rubenstein isn't alone in thinking and acting this way, so when I recognized USA Today's Steve DiMeglio during the rain delay on Tuesday morning at Locust Hill and realized he was just as trapped in the media tent as I was until the storm ended, I took the opportunity to get his take on these issues. DiMeglio's an absolute pro. His profile of Ai Miyazato is the best single story I have ever seen on her and his take on the best on tour without a major was excellent.

Not only is he deeply knowledgeable and passionate about the LPGA, but he also holds forth on one of the biggest stages in golf writing, so I first wanted to find out how he deals with the pressure to boil down all he knows about the state of the LPGA to the biggest stories, the ones that will get the most people's attention. He replied,

It's been tougher because of the cutback in space, so there's not as much opportunity any more to write as much--PGA Tour or LPGA Tour. I don't think it's rocket science. Obviously the biggest story coming into this week is Ai Miyazato. We'll concentrate on her--I'm writing a big piece on her for Thursday. It's a major championship, that's big. How the course will play--the course part. And if you look at the weather forecast, that's going to play a part. I imagine I'll probably write for Friday's paper about how they deal with the weather delays: the course is going to be wet, the rough is going to be wetter, so....

He was obviously bothered by the space issue, because he interrupted his own train of thought to return to it:

Unfortunately, there isn't more space to write on the LPGA, because they deserve it. If you're a golfer and your handicap is anything higher than a 10, you can learn more from watching women--the best women players in the world--than you can from watching the men--the best men players in the world. The swings out here aren't going 120 and that's what most people who can't break 100 should be doing, slowing their swings down. Plus they're the most successful athletes I've ever been around, they're the most forthcoming, they'll sign more autographs and pictures in one day than most players outside of Phil Mickelson will in a week.

So I asked him what needs to change for the LPGA to get more space and command more attention. His reply was very interesting:

That's a tough one. The only person that moves the needle, unfortunately--not unfortunately because it's her, but because nobody else is doing it--the tour right now could use Michelle Wie to win 5 straight, or 4 out of 5, or at least be in contention in the last group every week. Right or wrong, and I think it's wrong--again, not because of who she is, but because there are other players out here that should be getting the attention, a lot more attention--but right now the LPGA tour could use an extended uptick in the economy and Michelle Wie to win 4 or 5.

I followed up on his own qualifications, admitting that I've been one of many criticizing the overfocus on Wie. He was all over that one:

We get criticized. You know, "Why do you always write Michelle Wie? Why do you always cover her?" Well, whenever we put a story on Michelle Wie on the website, it gets 50 to 100 times more hits than any other story we put on an LPGA player.

I acknowledged that here at Mostly Harmless, the only player who's ever moved the needle more than Wie was Cheyenne Woods, specifically when I was the 1st to make easily searchable the news that she had gotten a sponsor exemption into the Wegmans. DiMeglio pointed out that that was "Because of Woods. Because of Tiger." Our conversation then turned to alternate audiences and media. When I suggested the LPGA should focus its efforts on growing fans among girls, he replied, "TV ratings are driven by adults. And most male adults will only watch Michelle Wie." When I suggested that TV may not be the answer for the LPGA, that streaming video online might make more sense, he pointed to the digital divide and the fact that "nobody reads the internet on Saturdays--our traffic just..." and he made the plane-going-down-in-flames gesture. A la carte cable? "Ain't coming."

In short, DiMeglio is so tied to a system where success is measured by hits and ratings that he can't imagine any other system emerging. Maybe it's just because I taught Amanda Lotz's The Television Will Be Revolutionized so recently that I'm thinking differently. Or maybe it's because my livelihood isn't dependent on my golf writing that I can afford to wait for the records of the LPGA's Young Guns and New Blood generations to speak for themselves.

Because in one sense, Rubenstein and DiMeglio's prescription for the LPGA is dead on. If a dominant American superstar were to emerge on tour this season, the attention she would garner in the United States would have more than a trickle-down effect: once there were a spotlight on the LPGA, then it could be moved around, widened, and so on. Right now the golfy media must feel like they're stumbling around in the dark, hoping to find even a candle. Pros like DiMeglio and Randall Mell will soldier on and do their part to strike up some sparks, while in their weaker moments folks like Rubenstein and Sal Maiorana will vent about how unpleasant it feels to be in the dark.

When I get to Locust Hill later this morning, I want to talk to some of the Japanese media to find out their take on all this, and follow up with DiMeglio and Maiorana. More later!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

LPGA Championship Thursday Afternoon: A Tale of Two Favorites

Cristie Kerr and Ya Ni Tseng entered the LPGA Championship with high hopes and great expectations. And they both came out charging from the early-afternoon back-side prime-time quadrant, each getting to -4 through her 1st 8 holes. But from there their fortunes diverged. Kerr cooled off, but hung in there to match the 68s by co-leaders Seon Hwa Lee and Stacy Lewis from the morning pairings. Tseng, meanwhile, played her last 10 holes in 7 over par, thanks to 4 bogeys in a row midway through the front and a double on the par-5 8th to put an exclamation point and a question mark after her opening 75.

By contrast, the top JLPGAers in the field made strong comebacks in their opening rounds. Sakura Yokomine started on the front and was +3 by the time she reached the 11th tee, but from there made 4 birdies, including a walkoff birdie on the tough 18th, to fire an opening 71. Chie Arimura bogeyed 3 holes in a row early on the front, but made 3 birdies in her last 11 holes to fight back for a 73.

Neither could match Mika Miyazato's 69, however, which put her at T4 with Inbee Park and Lindsey Wright. Mikan hit 15 greens, way above her career norms. Fellow 20-year-old Mina Harigae made a pair of consecutive birdies on the back (her front) and the front (her back) and parred the rest of her holes for a solid 72.

While I'm putting the girls to bed, you can head on over to Hound Dog's place for more on the 1st round of the LPGA's 2nd major of the year. I'll be back!

[Update 1 (6/25/10, 4:39 am): Here's Mike Southern's overview of the 1st round!]

LPGA Championship Thursday Morning: The Eagles Have It!

How tough is Locust Hill playing for the Thursday morning pairings in the LPGA Championship? Well, the only players to have broken 70 (or have a great shot at doing so) had to make an eagle somewhere in their round to get there. With play suspended for the moment, co-leaders in the clubhouse Stacy Lewis and Seon Hwa Lee at -4, theirs came on the par-5 11th and par-4 12th, respectively. For Inbee Park, who trails them by only 1 shot, it came on the par-5 17th. Another commonality among the leaders was how well they played the par 3s, as each of them went -2 on those 4 holes.

But for most of the field, Locust Hill could strike back at a moment's notice--and often did. Birthday girl Juli Inkster and Heather Bowie Young both got to -4 late in their rounds, but each made a pair of bogeys to drop back to -2 (although Inkster has some attackable holes left to play when the storm delay ends). Jeong Jang was -2 on her 1st 9, the back, and playing bogey-free golf through her 1st 10 holes, but had to settle for a birdle-less front and a 71. Na Yeon Choi was -1 with 3 holes left to play, but finished bogey-par-bogey for a 73. And don't even ask about Ai Miyazato--she's hasn't made a birdie all day and is +4 with only a few holes left to play.

Now that the golfers have returned to the course, this is as good a time as any to sign off for the moment. After I pick onechan up from her last day of school, I may be able to get back to not-quite-live-blogging, but we may head out to the Easiest Course in the World for a few holes while the weather is decent here in Dunkirk!

[Update 1 (9:09 pm): Amazingly, onechan chose to hang out with the baby, 1-year-old, and 2-year-old (along with imoto) at day care after school rather than play golf with me. So I headed out alone, played 2 balls, and scraped together a 78 in pretty heavy winds, despite several skulled wedges and a hat trick of 3-putts. So you can bet I would have had trouble breaking 85 at Locust Hill. And that's just with the usual 40-year-old aches and pains. Can you imagine shooting a 71 a few months after wrist surgery? Or a 72 a couple of weeks after an emergency appendectomy? Hats off to Paula Creamer (T11) and Ji-Yai Shin (T20)! They're certainly applying the pressure to Ai Miyazato, who could only manage a 76 today. Her playing partners, Morgan Pressel and Michelle Wie, both hung in there for 72s of their own. At T97, Ai-sama has her work cut out for her to avoid missing her 3rd cut of the season. Not so Juli Inkster (who by the way is now officially twice Ai-sama's age): a birdie at 17 helped offset her 4 late bogeys and salvage a 71 for herself. She's right in the thick of things, despite her stumble down the stretch.]

[Update 2 (6/25/10, 4:36 am): How awesome is Juli Inkster? This awesome:

Q: About this tournament in general, are you thinking of this as a Major? Do you forget sometimes because you have played this course?

JULI INKSTER: I'm trying to think of this tournament as a Major. Because when it's not a Major, I play like crap here. So I am saying this is a new golf course. It's a Major. It's a Major.

I bet you if guys were to look up all of my missed cuts, I would say the most is this tournament bar none. I don't know what it is. I spend 90 percent of my time chipping out under these trees.

I grew up on a golf course just like this. But something about this golf course just gnaws at me, I don't know.

That's pretty awesome!]

[Update 2 (4:53 am): If Amanda Bremer really did walk the course with Ai Miyazato, Morgan Pressel, and Michelle Wie, why so little detail in her story? I could have gotten just as much from checking their scorecards online!]

OK, Stephanie Wei's Media Tent Was Cooler Than Mine

You be the judge. But can Steph honestly say she was the 1st person in the U.S. Open media center on Monday morning that week? 'Cause I was this week. Mostly Harmless for the win!

A Pink Panther Sighting at Locust Hill's Tuesday Pro-Am

I have to admit, I'm shocked that Paula Creamer is coming back so soon after surgery, but she gave herself a chance to win the ShopRite last week and if she can avoid the rough may well do it again this one. I'm even more amazed that Ji-Yai Shin is coming back after an emergency appendectomy only 2 weeks ago. Right now, both are -1 through 3 holes of the LPGA Championship, although neither birdied this hole.

A Hitchhiker's Guide to Locust Hill Country Club

In her op-ed on the future of the LPGA Championship, former Rochester champion Dottie Pepper asserted that "Locust Hill is a fabulous members['] track, but the facilities are challenged and the layout can't be expanded to counter today's power players." As anyone who's followed the PGA Tour in the era of "Tiger-proofing" knows, though, making courses longer simply plays into the hands of the tour's bombers and the big boppers. The last thing the LPGA needs is to homogenize their majors by selecting primarily for power and making length the tour's gold standard.

Having walked Locust Hill inside the ropes on Monday and Tuesday and scouted it for my own purposes (so I can have a clearer mental picture when I'm following the live scoring today, figure out which holes I want to focus on on Friday and Saturday, and be prepared if the club hosts any New York State Golf Association qualifiers down the road), I think I'm in a good position to evaluate what difference the changes to the course have made. At 5'6" and around 150 lbs., I'm not that much bigger or taller than most of the players in the field. Depending on the conditions, my drives usually end up in the in the 235-to-265-yard range; I hit my wedge about 90-100 yards, my 7-iron 145-155, and my 3-hybrid 185-205 (it's new; I'm still figuring it out). If I actually played enough to be accurate, I'd be a precision player in my taxonomy, bordering on a straight shooter, so I'm looking at the course through those kind of eyes. But I did keep an eye out for holes where a bomber could take a risk and gain an advantage on the field.

All in all, without having played the course, I can still give my take on how tough it's going to play. Between the lengthening of the holes, narrowing of the fairways, thickening of the rough, and speeding up of the greens, I'm confident that Locust Hill will provide a fair test and a real challenge to all kinds of golfers. With trees bordering just about every hole, anyone who gets wild with their driver is going to have a very long day. Even the most accurate players off the tee will be challenged to hit more than 75% of the fairways. And since even the narrow 1st cut of rough will grab clubheads, players will find it quite difficult to hit even 67% of the greens. That means everyone is going to be scrambling a good deal. There'll be a lot of knee knockers and testers, whether for birdie or to save par (or worse). With all the elevation changes on the course and undulations on the greens, this course will weigh on everyone. Ad it'll get heavier the longer into the week they go. At the same time, though, the greens are so true that 10 footers will feel like 3 footers to good putters, if the putting green is any indication. When I practiced on it Monday in the vain hope someone would drop out of the pro am to free up a slot just for me (yeah, right!), I was getting annoyed if I missed anything. One cool subtlety was that you could feel the way slight differences in slope affected the speed of putts. It's not enough to think "uphill" or "downhill," but what kind of uphill or downhill. This may be old hat to those who don't play the Easiest Course in the World (which has gotten a little less easy since they narrowed the fairways, lengthened some holes, and even added in a new pond, but that's another story), but it's been a long time since I putted on fantastic greens and I just loved the experience! My favorite part was putting downhill to a cup in the middle of the green right on the edge of an even more downhill slope. It was like like trying to putt right up to the edge of a cliff without falling off it. Heaven! But I digress. My point is that if you can actually find enjoyment in your adventures on Locust Hill's greens and go in with the attitude that you ought to be making everything from everywhere, no matter how far from the cup your previous putt ended up, I imagine you can make a lot of putts. Or at least take a lot. What do I know, right?

Sorry I don't have cool photos to share like Dave Pelz (who noticed the same thing about the #3 tee as I did and wrote it down 1st, dammit). And of course what I was able to see and figure out is probably about 1% of what your average caddie takes note of. So take this for what it's worth--a scouting report from someone who was once a decent amateur.

#1 414-yard Par 4
This is one of the holes that was lengthened in a serious way--by about 30 yards, according to the media guide. The idea was to force most players in the field to think more about the trees on the left of this downhill gentle leftward dogleg and keep their drives on the right side of the fairway. However, the only trees you really have to worry about are only about 225 out, so with the increased elevation of the new tees, even the shortest hitters should be able to fly their drives past the corner to a fairway that's wider than it looks from the tee. Since the pond that guards the green on the left is about 300 out and the fairways will be wet, not even the longest hitters will have to worry about reaching it. Given how small the green is and how surrounded by ponds it is, I'd say it's worthwhile to try to be a little aggressive off the tee and draw your drive as far down the dogleg as you can. The green is guarded by 2 traps and surrounded by mounds (a Locust Hill signature), so approach shots hit to the edges of the green will bounce and roll accordingly. Looks like there might be a little funnel effect to the middle of the front of the green.

#2 337-yard Par 4
The pond to the right of the 1st green and the pond in front of this green frame a kind of island fairway that you want to leave your drive a comfortable distance for your approach shot to this elevated, 2-tiered green. Anything longer than about 250 runs the risk of running through the fairway, but as the fairway is fairly sharply uphill and the green is elevated still further, a good number of players may want to stick with their driver to make sure they get a wedge in their hands on their second shot. I saw Inbee Park fly her drive right to the edge of the fairway. The green is protected by a deep bunker in the front left, but its real defense is a sharp tier that runs kind of diagonally back left to front right across the green. Although the bottom tier is relatively flat, there's a false front between the traps, shots short of the pin will kick forward off the mound at the top of that front left bunker, and the tier is so steep that it's not easy to use it as a backstop. And that's the easier tier to get to. So while this may look like a birdie hole on paper, and there will be plenty of them, the players will really have to work for them and there'll be a number of disasters each day.

#3 380-yard Par 4
The media guide notes that this downhill dogleg right "has been lengthened 21 yards" and recommends a "left-to-right slider" off the tee, but fails to note that this is because of the huge trees overhanging both the old and new tee boxes more than the trap that sits on the left corner of the dogleg right in the 230-250 yard range. As Pelz pointed out, if you tee off from the left side of the new tee box, you can afford to hit a high baby draw. I personally like that shot better than a fade on this hole, because there's room on the right side of the fairway if you block it and if you pull it or snap you can still recover from that, whereas if you try to hit a fade and block it or slice it, you're likely to be smacked down by the trees on the right, or worse, hit the cartpath and bounce OB. But that's probably just me. The key thing to remember is that the fairway is actually much wider than it looks from the tee. Oh, and a bomber may take note that the fairway pinches a bit around 275 out. This green, too, has a false front, traps guarding the front with mounds that kick shots forward, mounds guarding the back, and a front left-to-back right diagonal tier that's much gentler than the one on #2.

#4 532-yard Par 5
This hole has also been lengthened, which brings trees on the right from about 225-265 yards out more into play for most in the field. The fairway's very narrow and pretty flat, perhaps with a slight left to right tilt, but about 310 yards out it begins climbing toward the green, eventually so sharply that most players will have a blind approach shot for their 3rd, with only the pin in view. I didn't get a good look at this green this year, but I do remember Ai Miyazato missing a short birdie attempt here last year. The media guide say it slopes left to right but from my angle it looked like some shots might funnel to the middle of the green and actually stay there.

#5 161-yard Par 3
This is a sharply-elevated par 3 with sunken bunkers to the left and right of the 3-tiered green. It's pretty much a blind shot, and there are shaved areas to the front of the front tier between the 2 traps and behind the middle tier to the right of the left trap, which leads me to believe that it's easy for even slightly misjudged or mishit shots to trickle into them. Pretty diabolical little par 3, it seems to me. Oh, and if you miss way right or long right, your ball will end up in someone's back yard, OB. No pressure.

#6 439-yard Par 4
This one is as downhill as the previous hole-and-a-third were uphill, but since Locust Hill's normally soft fairways were saturated Tuesday and probably took more rain (or are about to) this morning at least (a thunderstorm rolled through Dunkirk around 2 am), players can't expect much of that sweet, sweet roll, so it'll be hard for most to reach the relatively flat area about 280-300 yards off the tee. That's too bad, because there's a pond behind this back-to-front sloping green with a big mound in the back, so you don't want your approach shot going long, but it's pretty easy for it to happen from a downhill lie.

#7 178-yard Par 3
I didn't get a chance to walk this hole this year and last year onechan needed to go to the bathroom right around the time we got here, so all I remember is that it's very uphill, the green is small, the ground was hard around the green, and the grass was thin. Sorry for the verb tense shifts there, but I can't say how the green is.

#8 466-yard Par 5
I've never seen the 2nd half of this hole, because of the whole onechan-bathroom thing last year and the need to get to the media tent for my interview with Mika Miyazato this year. All I can say is that this hole is severely uphill for your drive and twin bunkers pinch the fairway from about 210 to about 235 yards off the tee. Advantage to those who can carry their drivers more than 240 yards uphill and even more of an advantage to those who can get far enough up the left side of the fairway that they don't have a blind shot or have to deal with the overhanging trees on the right. Somehow this plays as the easiest hole on the front, according to the media guide, but you'd better trust your fairway wood, hybrid, or long iron on that blind 2nd shot!

#9 178-yard Par 3
You can't be long on this sharply downhill hole, and I don't just say that because there's something like a little cliff behind this back-to-front sloping green. No, it's because of the bleachers and tv tower only 10 yards down that cliff. Those who try to play it safe still have to avoid deep bunkers on each side of the green guarding the front with mounds that kick shots that just clear them sharply forward, not to mention the false front between them. There's some sort of narrow little top tier, but I can't imagine putting a pin on it; I think its main function is to serve as a backstop/funnel for players who want to spin their shots back to the relatively flattish area right in the middle of the green, where I'd be happy to end up any time. Picking the right club here is obviously of prime importance.

#10 413-yard Par 4
Another big lengthening effort, this time by creating a new, sharply elevated tee 30 yards back, right near the entrance to the clubhouse and behind the walkway all the spectators use to get from the front to the back and players and caddies use to get from the putting and chipping areas to the driving range. So you're always going to have a crowd waiting for you to hit the damn ball, you're always going to have traffic noise from Jefferson Road, and now you're hitting into a downhill, right-to-left sloping fairway that pinches from about 215-230 yards out due to a well-placed trap on the left. The media guide says it's "now in the player's landing area," but I think that's true of only the shortest hitters on tour. In any case, the green is 2-tiered vertically, with the right tier the upper one and deep bunkers guarding the front R and L of each side.

#11 511-yard Par 5
There's a blind tee shot (you can just spot the tops of the bleachers by the green from the tee) and a creek about 310 out, but OB right is much more dangerous and the trees on each side of the fairway seem to funnel in on you but really funnel out. If you hit your drive past about 240, you're going to have a downhill lie on your attempt to reach the green in 2, which isn't necessarily a bad thing b/c you're likely to get some extra roll to compensate for the slight uphill grade to the slightly elevated green. But with traps guarding the false front, a ridge behind the green, and a bump on the left side that looks designed to shoot balls off the green, it might be a smarter play for most in the field to treat this as a 3-shot hole.

#12 361-yard Par 4
It's almost a blind tee shot; you can usually just see the tip of the flag from the tee. With both overhanging trees and OB right pushing you leftwards off the tee, but with some trees on the left interfering with the left side of the elevated, right-to-left sloping green and a huge and deep trap after a creek that runs beneath it, you have to be very accurate with your driver or 3-wood to have a good shot at a pin on this hole. Tee balls between 220-240 and 260-280 will find the flattest parts of the undulating fairway. Balls that land past the trap but on the very front of the green will kick forward, while there seems to be a collection area on the left (a "false side," if you will).

#13 386-yard Par 4
The little creek looks a little farther out there from the elevated tee than it really is--it's only about a 200-yard carry--and the fairway is wide, so players have a big incentive to go after their drives and climb the uphill slope past the creek as far as possible. They'll be hitting into a long, relatively narrow, and sharply-tiered green (kind of like a shelf in the very back of the green). There's a small bunker to the front right of the green that you can't see from the fairway (at least it was a surprise to me when I got far enough up the hill to spot it!) and 2 deep ones on either side more even with the middle-back part of the green.

#14 400-yard Par 4
The narrow fairway slopes right to left at first, but the hole curls slightly to the left at the end, where overhanging pine trees and a creek guard the front of a green with a false front and a collection area in the front left and bunkers on either side guard its middle and back.

#15 150-yard Par 3
I saw Ai Miyazato make a great birdie putt on this big, 2-tiered green. The back tier bulges a little, especially on the left, but there's a relatively flat area in the front left of the green on the lower tier. Expect a lot of birdies when the pin's down there. But with an elevated tee and a relatively open feel around the green compared to most holes at Locust Hill, look for any wind to affect approach shots more here than usual.

#16 341-yard Par 4
The fairway here slopes left to right and is uphill until about 200 yards out, but stays relatively flat until about 270. The green slopes severely back to front, tilts a little left to right, and is protected by 4 bunkers surrounding it and a mound behind it. Odds are you're going to have a downhill putt on this hole.

#17 478-yard Par 5
Mentioned by many players in the media guide as their favorite hole on the course, this is one of the few tee shots where the longer hitters may have a slight advantage. The uphill, left-to-right sloping fairway seems to feed into a bunker on the right side of the fairway that's sitting about 230-250 yards from the back tees. If you can carry it past this trap with a slight draw and keep it on the right side of the fairway (where there's a little more room than you might have expected from the tee), you'll have a great view of the dogleg left, from a flat area that extends from about 220 to 100 yards from the green. There's a little depression between 60 and 100 yards from the green, which I'd try to avoid, but trying to get past it brings the 2 huge, deep, and long traps that guard both sides of the green and extend well in front of it into play. This is the hole I most wanted to play because I wanted to see if I could carry the trap and hit a good fairway wood or hybrid to the green, which is 2-tiered horizontally, with some weird subtleties that I couldn't catch from a distance. You can still make a birdie staying short of the trap, keeping at least 100 yards away from the green, and hitting an accurate wedge or 9-iron, but what's the fun in that?

#18 387-yard Par 4
This looked like the longest par-4 on the course to me from the tee and for a hole where water doesn't really come into play (unless you spray it way right toward the 2nd green), it's probably the most intimidating drive on the course. That's because the narrow fairway seems to go straight up toward the clubhouse and get narrower as it goes. All I know is that the hole doesn't flatten out until you get to the long, narrow green that's guarded by 2 front traps on either side of it. The 1st third of the green seems flatter than the rest, which (you guessed it) slopes from back to front. Now surrounded by grandstands, this green is probably even tougher to hit (at least in your head), because you have to worry about an errant shot ending up someplace weird. I would not wnat to have to par this hole to win the tournament.

So that's my scouting report. Frankly, I have no idea what I'd shoot at Locust Hill, given how rarely I'm playing and how volatile my scoring has been. (I sandwiched my best score in 6 years--a 73--between my 2 worst scores in that same time span. And, no, I'm not telling what they were. And that was on the Easiest Course in the World, which now plays to a par-37 on the front, which is the only side left after some kind of dispute with the people who were leasing most of the back to them. Long story, and I don't know the half of it. All I know is that my days of striving to break 70 there are probably over.) If I were in mid-season form, I'd be licking my lips, but honestly I'd be happy just to break 80 there under LPGA Championship conditions--and shocked if I broke 75. And that's assuming I hit my driver as straight as I usually do. If I had problems there or with my chipping or putting, or let myself get frustrated or rattled after making a big number, breaking 90 would be a challenge.

That said, although the changes to Locust Hill could lengthen it to as much as 6500 yards, it still has the feel of a short course to me. I would argue that its elevation changes and slopes will present even more of a problem than the deep, wet rough. They'll really test your ability to club yourself and shape/control your shots. If the winner goes under -12 I'll be super-impressed, but I'd be somewhat surprised if we don't have anyone getting into double digits under par. The greens would have been much more intimidating if they were firmer, but from the weather forecast today and the weekend, along with the water they've already taken, I expect them to stay pretty soft all tournament. If players are getting a lot of 10-20 footers, a few people each day will find themselves making more than their share of them, due to how true the greens are. That's why I think breaking 70 twice and keeping it close to 70 the other 2 times should put you in the hunt at Locust Hill.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A Tale of Two Twenty-Year-Olds: Mina Harigae and Mika Miyazato

Over the last few years, I've been keeping my eye on Mina Harigae and Mika Miyazato, both of whom were top junior and amateur golfers in their respective countries (the U.S. and Japan) and are now relatively new professionals at age 20 on the LPGA Tour. Harigae rocked the Futures Tour last year, while Miyazato had a solid rookie season on the LPGA. I've enjoyed reading their respective rookie blogs (here are all Miyazato's posts from last season and Harigae's first from this one) and following their experiments in social media, so one of my top priorities when I visited Locust Hill as an accredited member of the golfy media on Monday and Tuesday was to snag interviews with each one of them. I followed Harigae on the back during the Monday pro-am and interviewed her off the 9th green after her group finished, while Mike Scanlan of the LPGA hooked me up with Miyazato's interpreter/manager, Kie Ito, who set up an interview (during a thunderstorm, as it turned out) on Tuesday morning in the media tent. If I had been really prepared, I would have made sure to ask similar questions to each player, but there were commonalities between what they told me, so I'll focus on those here.

Both 20-year-olds have their sights set firmly on the LPGA. One of my 1st questions to Mika was about her decision to bypass the JLPGA and head straight to the LPGA's Q-School in 2008. She told me that having played with Ya Ni Tseng in the Junior World Championship in 2006 (she was too modest to mention she won with a -16 total, beating Tseng by 3 shots!) and seen what kind of success her friend had in her rookie season, it's been her own dream to play here also. She's proud that she's come from her small island of Okinawa to this big place and appreciates the warmth that galleries in the U.S. have shown her. She doesn't know, however, if other young Japanese players will aim for the LPGA and wasn't sure why comparatively few have tried (at least relative to the dozens of Korean golfers who have followed in Se Ri Pak's footsteps). To my knowledge, she's the 1st-ever female Japanese golfer to begin her professional career on the LPGA. Unlike Ai Miyazato, Momoko Ueda, Ji-Yai Shin, Inbee Park, Young Kim, Seon Hwa Lee, and Teresa Lu, she isn't even maintaining dual membership on both tours. Mina, too, doesn't want to play full-time or even part-time on the JLPGA. While she may play a couple of events in Japan a year, she doesn't plan to shoot for dual membership, reasoning that "this is where you have to make it big." A California girl through and through, she hasn't been to Japan since she was 13 and understands more Japanese than she can speak, so there doesn't seem to be much of a cultural or linguistic gravitational "pull" toward the JLPGA. So whether the path is via Miyazato's global mindset or Harigae's American one, the end goal is clear for both 20-year-olds: make their marks on the LPGA.

As you might expect, both had interesting perspectives on life on tour, as well. Both had big adjustments to make from what they were accustomed to. For Mika, of course, it meant learning how to navigate in a new country, language, and culture, but both players spoke to on-course differences, as well, particularly in layouts and setups. Mina noted that the quality of the competition and the courses was a huge step up from the Futures Tour and amateur golf. With the greens being much firmer than she was used to, she quickly realized that "you can't just go at everything" on the LPGA and have to think your way around the course much more. Similarly, Mika pointed to the greater length and difficulty of many LPGA courses.

Neither player is satisfied with her progress to date. Harigae has made only 2 cuts in 5 starts and has yet to crack the top 50 this season. Her transition to the LPGA, she said,

Hasn't been quite as smooth as I wanted it to be. All these girls can play. It was a lot harder than I expected. I think it's a good thing, you know? It just shows that these players are really good...they really are the best in the world.

Whereas Miyazato has missed only 1 cut in 9 starts this season, she's cracked the top 20 only once. Having been the 54-hole leader in the '09 Japan Women's Open until enduring a Dustin-Johnson-at-Pebble-like final round and finished T11 at the Women's British Open that season, she has high expectations and seems disappointed that even though she's more familiar with the tournaments and travel routines on the LPGA, she's not on pace yet to improve on her rookie season's results.

Each player is focusing on a different aspect of her short game right now to get her season going. For Miyazato, who finished T4 at last year's Wegmans event at Locust Hill, but who hadn't yet been out on the course this year at the time of our interview, her top priority was her chipping. She hit about 69% of her greens in regulation at Locust Hill, which meant she had to play recovery shots around the greens 22 times that week. And she knows with the course lengthened and the rough up, it's going to be much tougher to hit greens, even for someone who's been hitting the fairway off the tee almost 76% of the time and averaging almost 250 yards off the tee. So clearly her strategy has to do with taking as much pressure off her putter as possible (although she did keep her cards close to her chest during the interview itself).

Harigae, by contrast, thinks the best way to get her season on the right track is by focusing on the flat stick. She thought this week might end up being a "putting contest," plus she's looking ahead to the rest of the season and the fight to keep her card and get into the Rookie of the Year race. As she told me,

A lot of it has to do with confidence. You know, getting off to a tough start is a little hard to come back from, but my game is there. It's all in my head. I just need to believe in myself more.... I think everyone has some sort of things that they have to fight. Right now [for her] it's putting. My ball-striking is generally pretty good. A lot of it has to do with putting and having confidence with those short putts.

She's being modest about her ball-striking, hitting the fairway just over 76% of the time and averaging almost 241 yards off the tee. Although her GIR percentage, like Miyazato's, is low for a precision player (both are hovering around 65%), I would say that from what I observed of Mika last year at the Wegmans and Mina in the Monday pro-am this year, both have great swings. (I particularly like Mina's pre-shot routine, where she first aligns her club to her target, balancing the end of the grip on one hand as she does so, then aligns her body to the club as she takes her grip and stance, readies herself, and uses a small knee bend to trigger her backswing.) Harigae's swing is maybe a little smoother and rhythmic than Miyazato's--I saw her rush her downswing only once off the tee and once from the rough all 9 holes I watched--but both keep the ball in play and put themselves in good positions to attack pins. Given the similarities in their ball-striking, it's striking that Harigae is taking more putts per green in regulation than Miyazato (1.83 to 1.80) and is averaging more putts per round (30.6 to 29.5), as well. That combination of stats suggests that she's absolutely right to be focusing on her putting. That, and the fact that the few times her team missed a green on the back nine, she nearly chipped in every time.

My sense is that both players have the games and attitudes for long-term LPGA success. By my count, Harigae was easily flying her tee shots 240 yards and ending up in the 245-260 range on Locust Hill's soft fairways. She's not at all concerned about distance, saying,

I think more distance will come as I get older. Getting stronger, keep working out. I'm not going to change my swing. I'm already plenty long.... In general I don't feel that long players have an advantage, because you have to keep it in the fairway. Unless they're hitting it straight, they don't have that huge of an advantage.

It's refreshing to hear a 20-year-old be that confident in her game and her future. I think so many great players ran into trouble when Annika upgraded her distance and messed up their swings or their bodies trying to keep up with or catch up to her. The point is to learn how to play your own game to the best of your ability, not someone else's. I think Miyazato, who counts both Tseng and Ji-Yai Shin as her closest friends on tour (she calls Shin "onechan" [big sister] and "sempai" [kind of like leader-mentor, used as a term of respect for someone a little older than you whom you look up to and who takes care of you]), understands this, as well. Tseng is a bomber while Shin is a precision player. Miyazato's game is much closer to Shin's than Tseng's. She knows what it takes to close the gap yet further, what it's like to deal with nerves on the final day of a major, and that no matter what you do travel across the U.S. and around the world will always be "taihen" (difficult/challenging).

Of course, compared to where Ai Miyazato was at age 20, both Harigae and Miyazato are unpolished, both on and off the course. (It didn't help that I was absolutely no polish as an interviewer, either!) But, then, neither of them have had quite the level of early success--and media attention--as Ai-sama. I'm confident that 5 years from now, when they're the age Ai-sama is now, we'll have moved from seeing them as diamonds in the rough to gems of the LPGA.