Thursday, June 30, 2011

Who Can Challenge Ya Ni? How About Amy Yang?

We've seen that Ya Ni Tseng can be beat when she opens the door: Katherine Hull almost did it in last year's Women's British Open and Stacy Lewis did at the Kraft Nabisco Championship this spring. But who can stay with her when she's on?

It's definitely a short list: Cristie Kerr and Stacy Lewis have the all-around game; Suzanne Pettersen, Karrie Webb, and Angela Stanford have the ballstriking skills; Brittany Lincicome and Michelle Wie have the length; and precision players Ji-Yai Shin, In-Kyung Kim, Na Yeon Choi, Paula Creamer, and Morgan Pressel can go very low when they're hitting on all cylinders. But over 72 holes, I think it's going to be very difficult for anyone else to keep pace with Tseng, unless they step up their games. Who's close to joining the LPGA's super-elite?

Of course I believe Ai Miyazato is very close to getting her game back to that level and Mika Miyazato is just as close to reaching that level for the 1st time. Song-Hee Kim and Sun Young Yoo haven't been playing all that well lately (Kim, in fact, has been playing terribly), but they have the kind of "straight shooter" game--with the length not to be blown away by Tseng and the accuracy to take advantage of her occasional wild drive--that lends itself well to long-term success on the LPGA. And given Inbee Park's consistent excellence on the JLPGA, it's only a matter of time before she brings it on the LPGA. But after following one player for 15 holes on Sunday at the Wegmans LPGA Championship, I believe Amy Yang is the player most likely to join Tseng's lead chase pack very soon. Yang was right in the thick of things at Locust Hill, -6 through 51 holes, but she finished Saturday's round with 3 straight bogeys and never got her putter going Sunday. So, yes, her 74-71 weekend performance was the 3rd-worst in the top 20 (beating only Cindy LaCrosse and Pat Hurst), but the numbers are a little misleading. Here's what I saw and why I think she has the game to take Tseng on.

The 1st thing I liked was that Yang came out with an aggressive game plan Sunday. She was going for every pin she possibly could, no matter how tucked they were, knowing that a great round could put her in the mix for 2nd place.

The next thing I liked was her execution from tee to green. Even though she hit only 7 fairways that day, she was often in the 1st cut of rough and never more than 2 yards or so from the edge of the fairway, with drives that were at least as long as Se Ri Pak was driving the ball the day before. And her irons were sublime (except for a hiccup here or there). The only weakness for her was the short game. Consider the following:

  • 3rd hole: Pin tucked front right, 10 paces from a bunker and 5 from the front edge of the green. Yang lofts a short iron to within 6 feet. Misses birdie.
  • 4th hole: Yang sticks a lob wedge within 5 feet to another tucked pin on elevated green. Misses birdie.
  • 5th hole: Yang sticks a short iron to another tucked pin on an extreme uphill par 3 to about 3 feet. Makes birdie.
  • 6th hole: Yang lands mid-iron in 10-foot-wide neck of fairway just short of green and bounces ball to within 5 feet of front pin. Makes birdie.
  • 7th hole: Yang hits 1st missed iron I've seen, short left, about 35 feet from back right pin. Lags to under 2 feet. Misses tap-in. Bogey.
  • 8th hole: Yang hits 1st missed drive I've seen, in left fairway bunker. Fluffs sand shot only 25 yards, leaves fairway wood short left of green, gets up-and-down after mediocre pitch with clutch 7-footer for par.
  • 9th hole: Goes for front right pin tucked behind bunker. Misses short right, hits bad chip 10 feet by, misses putt. Bogey.
I'll stop there, but it was more of the same on the back. She hit 2 great shots on 10 and came away with nothing, birdied 11, missed yet another short birdie putt on the tough 12th, got a great up-and-down from over the 13th green, bogeyed 14 after pulling her drive left and having to deal with tree trouble, got routine pars on 15 and 16, and 3-putted 18 for a bogey, missing yet another very short putt. And the par-5 17? Well, she smashed her drive to the top of the hill, just off the right edge of the fairway past the fairway buynker guarding the right. Then she had a long discussion with her caddie over whether to lay up with a 4-iron into the flat of the fairway about 25 yards short of the green (her preferred option) or hit a hybrid at the left-center of the green (it was only 210 to the pin, her caddie told her, emphasizing that she ought to be able to put it in the middle or back of the green from where she was). In the end, her caddie won out (just before she readied her address to the ball, he encouraged her not to be scared and to put a free swing on it). She did push the hybrid just a hair and it looked like it might have trouble carrying the bunker guarding the front right of the green. I haven't seen the Golf Channel coverage of the final round yet, so I don't know if they caught this, but from where I was standing (about 195 out in the right rough), I knew immediately it was very close from the strangled excitement of the crowd. Tiffany Joh told me later that the shot hit the pin and almost dropped for double eagle. As it was, Yang's eagle was definitely the highlight of her day. But if she had had a good day with the putter, her 71 could have easily been a 66.

The last thing I liked about Yang was her rhythm and temperament. She's very much on an even keel--the only time I saw her get excited was at the crowd's reaction to her approach on 17--and I never saw her get down after missed putts (the contrast to me is not in my favor; you should have seen the histrionics when I missed 3 birdie putts under 6 feet today and even with 2 made ones from that length plus one 18-footer I still shot a 77!). She kept to her own pace all day, which at first I thought was a little slow (especially her pre-shot routine, which was killing me), but then I came to realize it's a good pace for the slow play of the final day of a major and it's a good way to clear her head after long waits and focus back on what she needs to do. The only thing I think Yang needs to do (besides work like crazy on her short game) is develop more of a killer instinct. I'd like to see her realize how good she is and play with a little more confidence and gusto. I couldn't believe her caddie had to convince her to go for the 17th in 2. The way she'd been striking the ball all day, it should have been a no-brainer.

Looking at Yang's performance stats over the last 3 years, she's consistently driving the ball in the 255-to-260-yard range (which is above average on the LPGA) and from what I saw she can hit it much further when she wants to. Her driving accuracy could stand some improvement, although it's pretty darn good for a near-bomber like she is. She's hitting more greens this year than in previous years, but it's a small difference (just over 70% as compared to just over 69% the previous 2). Just like the round I witnessed, it's clearly her chipping and putting that's holding her back this year. Her 1.82 putts per green in regulation is much worse than her 1.77 PPGIR rate last year, and she isn't getting up-and-down as efficiently as last season, either. From what I saw, I think she's capable of averaging 265 off the tee and hitting 70% of her fairways and 75% of her greens, which would give her a great shot at improving her 3.41 birdies per round rate. She could certainly do better than that any given week, on any kind of course. Yes, her 2 best finishes aren't at the biggest events, but 7th at a Robert Trent Jones course and 6th in Thailand is nothing to sneeze at. And top 20s at the 3 biggest events of the year--the HSBC Women's Champions, Kraft Nabisco Championship, and Wegmans LPGA Championship--show how close she is to breaking through. If she can improve her performance on the weekends in particular, watch out for her at the Broadmoor and Carnoustie. I'd love to see her go head-to-head with Tseng in a major!

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