Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Best on the LPGA Without a Major: 2011 U.S. Women's Open Edition

All right, with play already under way at the 2011 U.S. Women's Open, it's past time I updated my Kraft Nabisco Championship and Wegmans LPGA Championship takes on the best on the LPGA without a major, ranked this time by their likelihood of breaking through in the biggest tournament in women's golf. The numbers in parentheses following the players' names are for LPGA wins and international wins (but only from the other major tours: JLPGA, KLPGA, LET).

Most Likely to Break Through in 2011

1. Amy Yang (0/3): A T9 at the '08 LPGA Championship had been the only hint she's shown in the majors of her prodigious talent until last season, when she steadily improved from T27 to T14 to a pair of T5s. So far this year, she improved at the KNC to T19 and LPGA Championship to T12, so is she ready to win at the Broadmoor? If she can kick-start her short game!

2. Angela Stanford (4/0): Her best chance to win a major to date was back in the 2003 U.S. Women's Open, but Hilary Lunke answered Stanford's 27-foot birdie with her own walkoff birdie to win the 18-hole playoff instead. Since then, Stanford's had 14 more top-25 finishes in majors, including 2 top 5s at the LPGA Championship (back when it was sponsored by McDonalds) and a T3 at this year's KNC, but has managed only 1 other top 10 at the USWO.  That's really strange when you think about it, given that she's the prototypical straight shooter, with both the length and accuracy to handle Open set-ups.

3. In-Kyung Kim (3/1): In her last 12 majors, her only finishes outside the top 20 have been at exceptionally windy Kraft Nabisco Championships in '09 and '10. Coming into this week with 4 top 10s in majors in her last 5 starts (3 of them top 5s), and playing top-notch golf this past calendar year, she's ready to win a major. Will this be her time to stop knocking on the door and finally bust through it?

4. Na Yeon Choi (4/4): Besides her missed cuts at the '07 U.S. Women's Open and '10 LPGA Championship (still her only MC in her career as an LPGA member), her worst finishes in a major are T40 at the '09 KNC, T49 at the '11 KNC, and T43 at the '11 Wegmans LPGA Championship; otherwise, she has all top 30s, with top 10s in 5 of her last 9 starts, including a silver and a bronze in 2 of her last 4. This season, she's been a little bit Dr. Jekyll and a little bit Mr. Hyde by her standards of consistent excellence (and as you can see, mostly Mr. Hyde the last 2 majors), but I still think she's got to be one of the favorites this week.

5. Mika Miyazato (0/1): She already has 4 top 15s to her credit in LPGA majors in her short professional career, including 2 top 10s in a row (a T7 at this year's KNC and a T8 at the Wegmans LPGA Championship). Plus, she's already won a JLPGA major, getting revenge at the '10 Japan Women's Open for her final-round collapse in the '09 edition.  While I was very high on her chance for a win at the Wegmans, I'm slightly less so at the USWO, simply because the Broadmoor's length and relatively generous fairways for an Open open the door to more top-tier players than did Locust Hill.

6. Maria Hjorth (5/5): She's an explosive, unpredictable golfer with 4 top 10s and 3 MCs at the KNC alone. She may not yet be quite back to being the kind of player again who averaged 2 top 10s in majors a year in 2007 and 2008--and I doubt she'll improve on that T2, 4th, 2nd run from the '07 WBO to the '08 U.S. Women's Open. But when you put together a T2 at the '08 LPGA Championship, a top 20 at this year's KNC, and a top 10 at this year's Wegmans LPGA Championship to go with her 2 wins in the last 8 months, and you take a look at how accurate she if off the tee for a bomber, you have to think she has a good shot to win this week at the Broadmoor.

The Contenders

7. Brittany Lang (0/0): She's finished inside the top 40 in 9 of her last 14 majors (the only real blemishes being a missed cut at the '08 WBO and the '11 Wegmans LPGA Championship; she just missed top 40s twice last season to go with her 2 top 10s, including her being in contention for awhile at Oakmont). She still hasn't improved on her T2 finish (with fellow then-amateur Morgan Pressel) in the 2005 U.S. Women's Open that Birdie Kim won with a walkoff slam dunk from the sand, but she's long and straight enough to contend in any major and has 3 top 15s in her last 4 majors, including 2 top 10s, heading into the USWO.  Her performance stats are good this year and she had 3 top 15s in a row before she missed the cut at Locust Hill, so let's see if she can get back on track at the Broadmoor.

8. Ai Miyazato (6/15): Although her best major is clearly the Women's British Open, and she's missed 2 cuts in her last 4 starts--including the Wegmans LPGA Championship--she's played well at the USWO, with 2 top 10s since 2006 and no finish worse than T31. Let's see if her putter can finally heat up--it's about time she started proving my pre-season prediction right!

9. Michelle Wie (2/0): So far, her performance in majors as an LPGA member has been nowhere near her 7 close calls from 2003-2006, including 6 top 5s, 2 of them at Mission Hills.  I don't expect her to approach that level at the USWO because of just how wild off the tee she can be, but maybe at Carnoustie....

10. Sun Young Yoo (1/0): She's made the cut in 11 of her last 13 majors, a fitting companion to her late bloom on the LPGA relative to most of her Young Gun-generation peers. Even though her best finish in a major was T12 at last season's KNC, she's been putting up impressive performance stats for several years now, as an Angela Stanfordesque straight shooter. Anyone who can cut through the top players on tour as she did in last year's Sybase Match Play Championship like [insert metaphor of your choice here] certainly has the talent to break through in a major.  Even with a shaky start to 2011, she posted a T20 at the Wegmans LPGA Championship, so maybe she can build on that this week at the Broadmoor.

11. Song-Hee Kim (0/0): With top 25s in 9 of her last 12 majors, she's got the talent and the game to make her 1st LPGA win a major. I'm talking Cristie Kerr-style talent and game, here. But given her weak performance stats thus far in 2011, and 3 missed cuts in a row heading into this week, I'd say I'm being pretty generous putting her this high on this list.

12. Sandra Gal (1/0): Yeah, she never cracked the top 30 in a major in her 1st 11 tries, but she got a T15 at this year's KNC.  Unfortunately, she followed it up with a missed cut at the Wegmans LPGA Championship, her 2nd in a row.  Time for her to prove the start of the season wasn't just a little hot streak.

13. Katherine Hull (2/1): Yes, she only has 3 top 20s in majors in her life, but she's coming off a near-miss against Ya Ni Tseng in last year's Women's British Open and has a T8 at the '09 KNC (her only other career top 10) to build on. Still, she's gotten off to yet another slow LPGA start after building another solid foundation Down Under, barely making the cut at this year's KNC and blowing up on Sunday at the Wegmans LPGA Championship to not even make the top 50.

Quantum Leap Candidates

14. Shanshan Feng (0/0): If her 1st top 50 in 12 starts in majors came this year at Locust Hill (a T50!), why am I even putting her on this list? First, she's a relatively long hitter on the LPGA who hits a lot of greens in regulation; second, she's shown signs of being a very good putter; and third, she has a 3 top 20s and 2 top 10s in her last 5 starts (never mind that missed cut mixed in there).

15. Kristy McPherson (0/0): Her weak performance in '10 majors accounts for most of the winnings deficit compared to her '09 campaign. Even during that cold spell, though, she still snagged a top 20 at Oakmont. I'm hoping she fully recovers from off-season elbow surgery by Solheim Cup time. She can do a lot this week to ensure she makes the team, if her hard work at getting her touch around and on the greens back starts paying off.  2 tops 50s in her last 2 majors may not sound like much, but they're steps in the right direction, at least.  From her performance stats, it's looking like she's getting her ball-striking back.  A lot is going to hinge on how she putts at the Broadmoor.

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