Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Mizuno Classic Preview, Predictions, Pairings

With Ya Ni Tseng having wrapped up victories in all the major LPGA season-long races and taking a well-deserved week off after winning her 10th event on a major women's tour last week, this week's Mizuno Classic is much more significant for the JLPGA and the golfers who are members of both tours than it is for the top women's tour on the planet.  As Hound Dog and Tony Jesselli document, many of the LPGA's top players are joining Tseng in skipping this tournament.  Amy Yang, who won the last KLPGA major of the year last week, is probably the biggest surprise among the many no-shows to me, although I agree with HD that it's odd that Paula Creamer has never played the Mizuno.  That's why I find it strange that's preview, which rightly focuses on '08 and '10 champion Ji-Yai Shin and Mizuno girl Stacy Lewis (along with Ai and Mika Miyazato), never mentions Na Yeon Choi, who's making a strong end-of-season push to follow up last year's #1 ranking in both winnings and scoring average with a #2 ranking this year.  It's no surprise, though, that also failed to focus on what the Mizuno means to the JLPGA's season-long races and to the many dual LPGA-JLPGA members in the field.  So let me try to fill those gaps.

Chie Arimura's win last week means that Sun-Ju Ahn has not yet clinched her 2nd-straight JLPGA money-list title and Player of the Year award.  With Ji-Hee Lee playing steady but not spectacular golf and Sakura Yokomine struggling by her lofty standards, the most likely showdown for this year's top spot will be between Ahn and Arimura.  Ahn, who has 4 wins, 2 runner-ups (both coming in her last 4 starts), 8 top 5s, and 11 top 10s in only 17 JLPGA starts in 2011, is coming off a rest week and looking to improve on her T18 finish here last year (10 shots behind Shin and 1 shot behind Arimura).  Arimura, meanwhile, has 3 wins, a silver, 2 bronzes, 7 top 5s, and 13 top 10s in 21 JLPGA starts--and perhaps even more important has also played great in her LPGA starts this year, with a near-win at the HSBC Women's Champions and a T7 at the Kraft Nabisco Championship (to go with an uncharacteristic missed cut at the Wegmans LPGA Championship and surprising no-shows at the Evian and Ricoh Women's British Open).  However, before last week's win she had endured her longest run without a top 10 finish all year, most likely caused by a wrist injury that lead to her actually having to miss an event. 

So if Arimura doesn't step it up this week, who from the JLPGA is most likely to instead?  Yokomine (who has a gold, a silver, 4 bronzes, 8 top 5s, and 14 top 10s in 24 JLPGA starts but has finished outside the top 20 7 times, is coming off 2 straight starts in which she failed to crack the top 30, and hasn't made the top 10 in the Mizuno in the last 3 years) is actually something of a long shot, despite the fact that she's also coming in rested.  Lee (with a gold, 4 3 silvers, 8 top 5s, and 16 top 10s in 23 JLPGA starts) may seem like a better bet, but her recent record at the Mizuno has been even less impressive than Yokomine's.  So I'd focus on players like Shiho Oyama, who seems finally to have found her game after a long recovery and comeback from elbow surgery (she has a gold, a silver, and a bronze highlighting her ongoing 5-event top-10 streak and is also coming off a week off), Mi-Jeong Jeon (who finished T5 here in 2009 and is riding an 8-event top 20 streak that includes a runner-up finish a few weeks ago), and Yukari Baba (who has a gold, a silver, and a T4 in her last 5 starts and finished T8 here last year).  Everyone else in the top 20 on the money list is either absent (Yuri Fudoh), in a nosedive (Miki Saiki), struggling (Hiromi Mogi, Rui Kitada), inconsistent (Ayako Uehara, Saiki Fujita, ex-LPGAer Na-Ri Kim, and '09 champion Bo-Bae Song), or inexperienced (Ritsuko Ryu, Mayu Hattori, Kumiko Kaneda, and Rikako Morita).  And ex-LPGAers Young Kim, Soo-Yun Kang, and Teresa Lu just haven't had very good 2011s.

Which is my cue to finally bring up Shanshan Feng.  I held off on mentioning the #10 player on the money list, the winner of the Meiji and Miyagi events this year, the runner-up in the Konica Minolta Cup (a JLPGA major), and a T3 finisher last week because she belongs in a discussion of the dual LPGA-JLPGA members in the Mizuno field.  While her rookie season on the JLPGA hasn't been quite as impressive as Inbee Park's last year (she had 2 wins and 6 runner-up finishes in 14 starts), a Feng win here would certainly make me rethink that judgment.  Park, meanwhile, has done little to follow up her season-opening win on the JLPGA, but even in the midst of a mini-sophomore jinx, it's hard not to be high on someone who finished T8 and T5 at the Mizuno the last 2 years.  The crazy thing is, however, that the rest of the dual members are actually fighting to keep their JLPGA cards.  2007 Mizuno champion Momoko Ueda has 4 top 10s in 12 JLPGA starts this year, but she's missed the cut a shocking 5 times and failed to crack the top 40 twice, so she's actually lucky to be #44 on the money list right now (the top 50 keep their cards; the rest go to the final stage of Q-School to compete against the qualifiers from this week's 2nd stage).  Even 2-time Mizuno champion Ji-Yai Shin has been struggling on the JLPGA for the 1st time in her career--not only is she #54 on the money list, but she also needs a win this week to qualify for the season-ending Ricoh Cup and get the 7th start she needs to meet the tour's minimum appearance requirement.  Ai Miyazato is in the exact same boat, except she's even lower on the money list (at #69), while even if Meena Lee (#103) were to win, she definitely hasn't played enough on tour to keep her card without going back to Q-School.  And Harukyo Nomura, who's fighting to finish high enough on both tours' money lists to keep her dual membership in 2012 (she's #94 on the LPGA and #73 on the JLPGA), didn't even qualify for the Mizuno.  That leaves Hee Young Park, who's #91 on the money list in 6 starts.  Can the 2010 Q-School champion make enough money in her 7th start of 2011 to avoid a return to Q-School?

Here's my best guess as to how things will shake out this week for my entry in the PakPicker competition at Seoul

1. Miyazato Mika
2. Choi Na Yeon
3. Arimura
4. Oyama
5. Feng
6. Park Hee Young
7. Shin Ji-Yai
8. Miyazato Ai
9. Park Inbee
10. Lewis
11. Ahn
12. Jeon

Alts:  Munoz; Kim In-Kyung; Baba

The pairings for Friday's opening round are already out.  Here's a baker's dozen of the ones I'm most excited about:

1st tee, 9:50 am: Na Yeon Choi, Ai Miyazato, Chie Arimura
1st tee, 9:30 am: Karrie Webb, Mika Miyazato, Hee Kyung Seo
1st tee, 10:00 am: Ji-Yai Shin, Sun-Ju Ahn, Azahara Munoz
10th tee, 9:20 am: Hee Young Park, Candie Kung, Tiffany Joh
1st tee, 9:40 am: Stacy Lewis, Sakura Yokomine, Beatriz Recari
10th tee, 9:40 am: Mi Hyun Kim, Hee-Won Han, Meena Lee
1st tee, 9:20 am: Inbee Park, Eun-Hee Ji, Ryann O'Toole
10th tee, 9:30 am: Shanshan Feng, Catriona Matthew, Chella Choi
10th tee, 10:00 am: In-Kyung Kim, Jimin Kang, Mindy Kim
10th tee, 8:30 am: Mi-Jeong Jeon, Yukari Baba, Miki Saiki
10th tee, 8:50 am: Na-Ri Kim, Pornanong Phatlum, Cindy LaCrosse
1st tee, 9:10 am: Momoko Ueda, Mayu Hattori, Paige Mackenzie
10th tee, 9:50 am: Song-Hee Kim, Vicky Hurst, Amy Hung

I'm sadly not surprised that Golf Channel couldn't afford to buy TV rights from the JLPGA and Japanese TV.  I'm too busy at work to try to find an online feed, but I will go back to doing round-by-round reports as early as possible.  Stay tuned!

[Update 1 (5:42 am):  Here's a photo of Tiger with Miho Koga, Shinobu Moromizato, and Rui Kitada at their charity outing yesterday.  And here's Ward Clayton's latest Stats and Stuff post from]

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