Saturday, February 12, 2011

Can Anyone Take Down Ya Ni Tseng Down Under?

To get a sense of how well Ya Ni Tseng is playing this week in the ANZ RACV Ladies Masters, you might do the usual things like noting that she followed up a 67 and a 66 with a 63 today, that she has a 40 holes (and counting) bogey-free streak going, that she's birdied 11 of the 12 par 5s that she's played thus far, that she's averaging over 270 yards off the tee and finding the fairway over 80% of the time, that she's hitting over 90% of the greens, and that she finally got her putter really going for the 1st time this week in her 3rd round. But it's just as useful to look at her competitors, many of whom are playing fantastic golf.

Take one of my favorite golfers, Tiffany Joh, for instance. She just posted one her best scores as a professional, a 7-birdie 66, to get to -10 overall. She's putting up the kind of ball-striking and putting numbers that, maintained over the course of the season, would put her in the top 10 on the LPGA money list and in the running for Player of the Year. And she's 10 shots behind Ya Ni. I think she needs to break 60 tomorrow to have a hope of winning. Same goes for the similarly heavy hitters tied with her, from Katherine Hull to Sandra Gal to Lee-Anne Pace to Melissa Reid to Amanda Blumenherst to Lexi Thompson.

How about defending champion Karrie Webb? Put it this way: even if she hadn't made any of her 5 bogeys over the 54 holes she's played, she'd still be 4 shots behind Tseng. Maybe if she matches her 61 from last year on Sunday, she has a hope of chasing down Ya Ni. Maybe. One bad day with the putter on Friday and she was left in the dust. Ouch.

And how must Jennifer Rosales be feeling? Once 1 of the best players in the world, injuries and other troubles have brought some serious hard times on the course to her. Even though she's playing very good golf and has made only 3 bogeys all week, she's 8 shots behind Tseng. Same as Christina Kim, Nikki Campbell, Maria Hernandez, Shin Ae Ahn, Reilley Rankin, Hannah Jun, and New Zealand amateur Cecelia Cho. That's good company, but usually averaging a 68 a day puts you in contention.

In fact, there are only 5 players who are fewer than 8 shots off the pace. And 3 of them, like Joh, are rookies on the LPGA this year. Ryann O'Toole, like Joh a UCLA grad and former teammate of Mariajo Uribe, is locked in with her irons this week and has gone 68-66-67. She's only 5 shots off the lead. Meanwhile, USC's Belen Mozo putted the lights out for a bogey-free 64 today and actually lost ground to Tseng--now 7 shots off the pace the world #2 has set. The culprit: a dicey ball-striking day on Friday where she did well to salvage a 71. Speaking of putting the lights out, former teammate Jennifer Song is averaging a scalding 1.63 putts per green in regulation but also finds herself 7 shots back. Who was it who said the college kids are alright? Even if they can't catch Tseng, it'll be fun to see whether UCLA or USC can come out on top this week!

OK, so I've left 2 of the most interesting stories for last. Both are about young golfers who have had a heap of expectations placed on them in their short professional careers. One, South Africa's Ashleigh Simon, has never really come all that close to meeting them, but there she is, "only" 6 shots behind Tseng. If she can keep making birdies tomorrow at the rate she has been over her 1st 54 holes and eliminate the mistakes that have lead to her 7 bogeys this week thus far, she just might have a chance to make things interesting. And Stacy Lewis's odds of stopping the Ya Ni Express are much much better. She's got a bogey-free streak of 54 holes and counting, she's -10 on the par 5s thus far (thanks to an eagle and 8 birdies on 'em!), she's maybe having the best putting week of her life, and she's even averaging over 268 yards off the tee!

And, yes, she's 3 shots behind Tseng after making "only" 5 birdies for her 67 today.

So, yeah, there are a few developing storylines to follow, as Mike Southern noted. Will tomorrow be a victory lap for Tseng or will someone step up and take down the world #2 when she's playing about the best golf of her life?

[Update 1 (10:50 am): Ryan Ballengee notes that with a win, Tseng can take the #1 spot in the Rolex Rankings for the 1st time in her career. Let's see how she responds to that kind of incentive--and extra pressure!]

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