Tuesday, June 28, 2011

On Morgan Pressel, Mika Miyazato, In-Kyung Kim, Career Trajectories, and Expectations

As you'd expect, final round 71s by Morgan Pressel and Mika Miyazato that put them in 2nd and T8, respectively, at the Wegmans LPGA Championship, as well as In-Kyung Kim's 72, which dropped her to T12, were completely overshadowed by Ya Ni Tseng's historic win and dominating performance. But given that I picked Kim to win, thought Miyazato was playing well enough to win (and predicted a bronze for her), and predicted a top 10 for Pressel, I was curious to hear from them right after their Sunday rounds on what they thought of and how they felt about their weeks.

Pressel was in high spirits, having recovered from a birdieless +2 start over her 1st 11 holes with 3 birdies in her last 7 holes of bogey-free golf, most encouragingly with ones on the tough 12th and 14th. I jokingly asked her, "How does it feel to deny Cristie Kerr her 4th-straight 2nd-place finish?" (or words to that effect--I was a little tongue-tied!). Pressel replied in kind (but much more articulately):

You know, that's what I told her. I said, "At least you didn't finish second four times in a row." She goes, "I would have taken it." I said.... I told her, I said, "I wanted to make that birdie on 17 so that I would save your record of winning by 12 shots."

Considering her account of her comeback to Kerr was interrupted by a fan asking for an autograph (at the "...."), her delivery was excellent. But when I joked that now she knows how Jason Day feels, she replied in a somewhat more serious mode:

I guess. I'll take a second and a third in the first majors. I'm trending upwards, though. The next one's going to be better!

What I take from that brief walk from the putting green to the entrance to the players' locker room is that Pressel had reconciled herself while still out of the course to being unable to put any pressure on Tseng that day. Although she clearly wants her 2nd LPGA major, 3rd worldwide major (she got one on the JLPGA in 2010), and 3rd LPGA win really really badly, she understood this was Ya Ni's week and was already putting her own performance in perspective. Rather than beat herself up for not pulling off a Sunday miracle, Pressel was experienced and self-confident enough to know she had played well enough to win any normal LPGA Championship and was already looking forward to the U.S. Women's Open. Considering that her performance moved her 5 spots up in the latest Rolex Rankings to #12, that she's now #7 on the money list with almost $500K in winnings in only 10 starts, that she's playing very good golf this year, and that she's broken 70 5 times in her last 8 rounds, I'd say she has every right to feel the way she does. She seems to be in a great place where she can maintain very high expectations for herself and recognize how close she is to meeting them without letting the gap get her down.

I'd say about the same is true for Mika Miyazato, but given that she started on the LPGA 3 years after Pressel and is in an entirely different generation as a result, what counts as high expectations is very different for her than for Pressel. Sure, Miyazato also posted a convincing win in a JLPGA major last year and is accustomed to contending just about whenever she competes in Japan, but she knows she's just one of many very talented players without a win or a major on the LPGA (I think she's one of the best, but still...). In addition, after her 12-event top-25 streak on the LPGA that lasted from late last August to early this April came to a grinding halt with a missed cut at the Avnet, a disappointing T22 at the Salonpas Cup the following week on the JLPGA, a 1st-round loss at the Sybase, a weak T42 at the ShopRite, and a halfway-decent T23 at the State Farm, her top 10 at the Kraft Nabisco Championship was something of a distant memory. Still, with the best ball-striking stats of her short LPGA career to her credit in 2011, she knows that all she has to do is get her putter going to start seriously contending on the LPGA (she's averaging 1.84 putts per green in regulation this year, compared to 1.78 last year). And it almost happened last week. Her 6-birdie 68 on moving day shows what she's capable of when she gets on a roll--it was quite an impressive performance, as she didn't birdie a single par-5 that day and even bogeyed the par-5 4th hole!--but the way she hung in there when she couldn't find the flow was even more impressive to me. Even under Sunday pressure, she finally played Locust Hill's par 5s well; with birdies on the 2 easier ones, the 8th and 17th, she brought her total for the week on the par 5s to -1. All in all, Miyazato's T8 performance this week wasn't her best at the Wegmans (she finished T4 there as a rookie in 2009 when it was a standalone LPGA event), but it was her 3rd-straight top 15 at Locust Hill and 2nd-straight top 10 in an LPGA major.

All things considered, then, Mika Miyazato was a pretty satisfied golfer when I talked to her on Sunday after 1st taping 15 minutes of interviews with both tv and print media from Japan. From what the Full Metal Archivist conveyed to me about those interviews, most of what Mikan was doing during them was dealing with the praise and attention that comes from being the low Japanese golfer in the field. It seemed to me as I struggled to understand the questions and answers that Mikan was trying to convey just how challenging the course set-up was. She kept emphasizing how narrow the fairways were, how tough the rough was, how tucked the pins were for the final round, how difficult it was to gauge the speed of the greens all week, how she learned to deal with the frustrations of that kind of golf (the word "gaman"--put up with it/endure patiently/suffer stoically--came up a lot), how she handled the stress of playing in an LPGA major, and how happy she was with her overall performance and final results. Of course she also got questions about the U.S. Women's Open and her decision to donate her winnings in LPGA majors to reconstruction efforts in Japan by the American Red Cross. In addition, the Japanese media were quite familiar with her back story--how her friendship with Ya Ni Tseng was what drew her to start her pro career on the LPGA (rather than, as is usual for promising young Japanese amateurs and pros, to play at least a few years on the JLPGA)--so she fielded a number of questions about Tseng, as well. In a sense, then, Mikan was helping the Japanese media put not only her performance but also the missed cuts by Ai Miyazato and Chie Arimura, the final-round collapse by Momoko Ueda (who dropped from -4 at the end of Saturday to E the next day), and the -19 from Tseng in context for their viewers and readers.

That sense of perspective comes from a golfer who knows she could have done better but was happy with another good week in Rochester. When I asked her what she likes about Locust Hill, she replied,

This golf course, fairways very narrow and the greens small. Very difficult situation, but [and here she shifted to Japanese, so I'm paraphrasing the FMA's translation] it suits my game and I like that style of golf.

When I asked her if she feels Locust Hill prepares her well for the Broadmoor in 2 weeks, she answered:

Yes, absolutely. That course, the holes and the rough is very long, and if I miss the fairway, very difficult second shot. I played there last week and the greens very big. I need still to practice my short game.

So the need to keep the ball in the fairway, hit good shots from the rough, and play good recovery shots around the greens at Locust Hill all prepare her well for the challenges posed by the Broadmoor, but clearly she's expecting to have difficulty reaching some par 4s in regulation if she misses the fairways, so she's anticipating that she'll need a very sharp 50 yards and in wedge game to score well on that much longer course.

I was curious if she felt any added pressure down the stretch on Sunday, knowing that the size of her donation for Japan reconstruction efforts would be affected by her score, but she replied, "No, no pressure. I just wanted to play well today." In response to my final question about whether she sees herself doing in the future what Tseng was doing that week, she expressed the hope that she'd be playing soon with Ya Ni on a weekend, although she acknowledged that Ya Ni was "very strong" right now.

Even more important than her exact words was the tone of her interviews with the Japanese media and me. She was much more relaxed than last year; even if she hadn't reached the polish of an Ai Miyazato just yet, she was much more comfortable in the limelight and pleased at how close she had come to meeting her expectations for the week. She's clearly a young player who's coming into her own.

The contrast between Pressel and Miyazato's moods, on the one hand, and Kim's, on the other, was stark. Inky had battled her way to -6 with 7 holes left to play, despite a balky driver that led to 7 missed fairways out of 14 in all that day. But she bogeyed 12, 14, and 15 and needed a birdie on 17 to snag a T12. That finish, as good as it was, broke a streak of 4-straight top 10s in LPGA majors. So even though she extended her top-25 run on the LPGA to 12 events (and counting) dating back to the end of last October, her results this week were disappointing for a player who's had 1 win, 1 runner-up, 4 bronzes, 10 top 5s, and 15 top 10s since last year's LPGA Championship--and only 2 of those 21 starts outside the top 25. And it was clear from the way she answered my question about how her last year had been on the course since she had last been to Locust Hill. In a noncommittal tone of voice, she replied,

It's been good. I've been playing well, you know. Just, uh.... There's a lot of good finishes. I'm looking forward to playing in the next couple of weeks.

I wonder where that train of thought she decided not to share was taking her! She was similarly unimpressed with her results this week:

Um...I mean, it's gotten better, actually, on the weekend. Just started off kind of shaky, but I'm hitting the ball much better. I just have a few mistakes out there. But, you know, it happens.

She got interested in a question about adjusting to the changing course conditions after all the rain in the middle of the week:

I think it actually helped a lot of players, the soft conditions. The greens were I think a little slower, a few times, and downhill so fast, you know what I mean? So it was hard to adjust to the speed of the greens.

Kim joined the LPGA 1 year after Pressel did, and her results and expectations have kept rising ever since. I don't know if it was the frustration at her start or finish to the week that was driving her to be so hard on her performance and results, or if it was also the number of close calls she's had in the last calendar year, but whatever it was, Inky was not at all satisfied with her play and not at all hesitant to say so. Whether she can put that frustration to good use in the coming weeks remains to be seen, but I think it speaks volumes to her situation as someone fighting to join the LPGA's super-elite. She's just about a point behind Na Yeon Choi on the Rolex Rankings and, at #1 in the Golfweek/Sagarin Performance Index, barely ahead of Suzann Pettersen, Choi, Cristie Kerr, Tseng, and Ji-Yai Shin (they're all within a quarter-point of her!), so she knows that her finish this week doesn't help her cause all that much, and certainly not as much as it could have.

So it's no wonder that Miyazato, who's moved up to #24 in the RR and #23 in the GSPI, would be happy with a result that ends a rough patch in May and early June for her, whereas Kim would be angsting over mightabeens and Pressel would be licking her lips for the next major. The trick for Miyazato will be to keep raising her expectations and preparing herself to keep meeting them, while for Kim and Pressel it will be figuring out what it takes to keep up with theirs. Keep an eye on these players the next few weeks. While the length of the Broadmoor will likely present them with some problems, Evian and Carnoustie had better watch out!


Glen said...

Awesome article! Thanks!

The Constructivist said...

My pleasure, Glen!