Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Kraft Nabisco Championship Preview, Predictions, Pairings

It's the 40th anniversary of the Kraft Nabisco Championship, the LPGA's 1st major of the year, and between's preview and pre-tournament interviews, fantastic local coverage by Larry Bohannan and company, Steve DiMeglio's profile of Karrie Webb, Beth Ann Baldry's profiles of Ya Ni Tseng and Ji-Yai Shin, Randall Mell's profile of Michelle Wie, and the Seoul and myLPGA fan sites, there's plenty for casual watchers of the LPGA to get up to speed on.

If you want to get a sense of how much the LPGA has changed in the last 4 years, though, take a gander at my preview/predictions posts from 2008, 2009, and 2010. As for the golf course, nothing that's happened in the past 3 competitions leads me to change a word of my 2008 description:

Mission Hills is difficult to master year in and year out. It puts pressure on your judgment and patience, as wind and changing weather conditions have been factors almost every year. It puts a lot of pressure on your ball-striking, with a premium on accurate driving and controlled approach shots. It puts pressure on your short game, with its well-bunkered, hard, undulating, and often tiered greens. And it puts pressure on your nerves and guts, with water in play on the 2nd, 5th, 6th, 14th, and 18th holes and trees lining every fairway.

For more recent assessments, though, I'd check out what the GCSAA is saying:

The only significant change [Mission Hills director of golf course operations David] Johnson made to the course this year is an expansion of a back tee box on No. 11 that will be used during the two days No. 18 plays from a forward tee. When No. 18 moves up to tempt players to go for the green in two strokes, No. 11 will move back 36 yards to maintain the total yardage and discourage players from going for No. 11 in two.

"We had more than three inches of rain in January, and we normally only get 4 inches annually," said Johnson, a 22-year GCSAA member who has been at Mission Hills all 22 years. "So the rough is really, really thick. It should reward those who avoid it and stay on the fairway."

But nobody beats Karrie Webb:

I think I really like the fact that you've got to shape the ball both ways off the tee, and generally this course demands you hit your driver pretty accurately this week. And then by the weekend the greens get firm and fast, so there's a definite plus of distance control with your irons and placing the ball in the right parts of the greens to make some putts....

I think the course subtly changes from year to year. I think this year the way it's set up, they've been pretty generous with their step cuts around the greens. Generally in the past if you were three or four yards long or wide of the greens, you're in pretty heavy rough. And now you've really got to miss it by quite a bit and have it going in with some speed to get into the really deep stuff. I'm not saying that by the weekend if they let it grow it might be--but it's a further distance from the edge of the green than it normally is. So that doesn't make the greens as tiny when they're starting to get firm and fast. So that's just a subtle difference that I've noticed this week. Other than that I think it's going to be nice and hot for us, so that's going to bake the greens, and I'd say by Sunday they're going to be pretty bouncy. So once again, premium on hitting fairways and then hitting some good iron shots.

With such a strong field, it's really tough to predict what's going to happen this week. Jonathan Wall's top 5 picks, Karla Villegas Gama's top 4, and Ruthless Mike's top 3 are all very solid, but for the best take on who's been playing the best golf lately on the LPGA, go to Hound Dog's hot 20 list and Tony Jesselli's ranking of the top 20 on tour, and for the best overview of the KNC's long history, go to Golf Observer. Keeping all that in mind, here are my PakPicker entries at Seoul this week:

1. Shin
2. Tseng
3. Webb
4. Creamer
5. Pettersen
6. Kerr
7. Choi Na Yeon
8. Yang
9. Kim In-Kyung
10. Yoo
11. Wie
12. Lincicome

Alts: Hull, Stanford, Park Inbee

Who will make the champion's leap into Poppy's Pond this year? I hope I'm right that Shin is due, as I'm doing terribly in the PakPicker thus far this year!

Randall Mell has beaten me to the punch with his list of marquee pairings, so I'll just add the following fascinating ones to me:

10th tee, 1:02 pm: Na Yeon Choi and Sun Young Yoo: 2 legitimate contenders to win this thing, I wonder if the soft fairways and their relative lack of success at Mission Hills will sabotage their chances this time around?

1st tee, 1:26 pm: In-Kyung Kim and Shanshan Feng: Another pair who have good chances to win. Even though Inky's giving up a lot of yards off the tee, she's been making birdies at almost twice the rate of Feng and has a scoring average more than 2 shots lower than her thus far this year!

10th tee, 8:20 am: Mika Miyazato and Song-Hee Kim: 2 international players who are really due for a breakthrough win on the LPGA. Why not at a major? Miyazato already has 1 on the JLPGA and Kim's close calls are Pettersenesque.

10th tee, 12:54 pm: Stacy Lewis and Anna Nordqvist: A preview of what I expect will be many Solheim Cup face-offs for many years to come!

10th tee, 8:52 am: Amy Yang and Jee Young Lee: 2 international bombers who were playing great at the end of last season. Only problem for Lee is that she had to call it quits early in 2010, started 2011 late, and hasn't picked up where she left off before what I can only surmise is an injury of some sort. Yang has played well so far this year, but is capable of much better. The more accurate player off the tee, I expect her to do better than Lee this week.

10th tee, 8:28 am: Katherine Hull and Eun-Hee Ji: 2 international golfers who played better Down Under than on the LPGA thus far this season. Time to turn it around this week?

10th tee, 7:40 am: Mi-Jeong Jeon and Chie Arimura: With both Sun-Ju Ahn and Sakura Yokomine declining invitations (despite the fact that it's still unclear when the JLPGA will resume its season), Jeon and Arimura are the 2 JLPGAers most likely to make me regret not picking them. If they're well-rested instead of rusty, watch out for them!

10th tee, 7:24 am: Teresa Lu and Mina Harigae: I wonder if Mina will be asking Teresa about her experiences on the JLPGA.

1st tee, 7:08 am: Paige Mackenzie and Katie Futcher: 2 young Americans who may well be due for quantum leaps. A win from either would be phenomenal, but what I'm thinking is more realistic is a top 25 from one of them.

10th tee, 8:04 am: Brittany Lang and Stacy Prammanasudh: 2 more young Americans whose quantum leaps would be to elevate them near the game's elite. Both are struggling through slumps but have games that should travel well, provided they can handle Mission Hills's greens.

10th tee, 1:42 pm: Melissa Reid and Amanda Blumenherst: 2 young players who have had to deal with the weight of massive expectations on them. Given how well Reid's been playing on the LET lately and how long she's been talking about wanting to compete on the LPGA, I wouldn't be surprised to see her in Q-School this year.

10th tee, 1:34 pm: Natalie Gulbis and Ariya Jutanugarn: Media magnet Gulbis will help the LPGA and KNC organizers showcase the talents of the #1-ranked junior golfer in the United States, according to Golfweek. (#2 Kristen Park is 1st off the back with Maria Hjorth. The #1-ranked women's amateur, Danielle Kang, is buried late off the front with Karin Sjodin.)

There are other kinds of interesting pairings, such as veteran/newbie (including Grace Park/Hee Young Park, Shiho Oyama/Pernilla Lindberg, Candie Kung/Azahara Munoz, Yuri Fudoh/Jane Park, Wendy Ward/Vicky Hurst, and Leta Lindley/Chella Choi), vet/vet (Catriona Matthew/Helen Alfredsson, Se Ri Pak/Gwladys Nocera, Mi Hyun Kim/Maria Hjorth, and Sophie Gustafson/Pat Hurst), and mid-career/mid-career (Kyeong Bae/Shi Hyun Ahn and Inbee Park/Ji Young Oh), but that's enough for now!

[Update 1 (3/31/11, 6:58 am): Here's Happy Fan's overview of Korean golfers' history at the KNC and explanation of why so many of them have struggled in the season's 1st major.]

[Update 2 (7:01 am): Coincidentally, Shane Bacon is high on Americans' chances in LPGA majors this year. At least I think it's a coincidence. He doesn't strike me as a regular at Seoul, for some reason.]

[Update 3 (10:56 am): Emily Kay is high on Cristie Kerr's chances this week.]


Tony Jesselli (Tonyj5) said...

The pairing of Paula Creamer and Michelle Wie is very unusual. That is going to be a huge gallery. Also what a difference a win makes. When was the last time Sandra Gal was paired with someone like Yani Tseng?

Mike said...

While I still like Creamer to win, and while I think Tseng and Webb still have to be taken seriously, I'd add Kerr to that list I made last week. She definitely seems to be "peaking" this week (if there really is such a thing).

I wouldn't write Shin off either. She's in the same boat as Kerr.

The Constructivist said...

I wish I knew what happened to Webb last week! I think Creamer's a great pick, actually. Looks like she and Shin have gotten significantly longer over the off-season--with their accuracy, that's a pretty huge deal.