To say that Angela Stanford won the HSBC Women's Champions in wire-to-wire fashion would be to understate the final-round drama level by several orders of magnitude. How exciting was Stanford's 5th career win, the 1st by an American at the event known as Asia's major?
Well, let's see, with nothing but spit and grit, much less her A-game, Stanford weathered a front-side charge by Ya Ni Tseng (a 5-birdie barrage that got her to -11), kept within striking distance of a cool, calm, and clutch Jenny Shin (who got to -12 with her 3rd birdie of the day on the 5th hole and twice got back to that mark thanks to great par saves and never-a-doubt birdies on 9 and 15), endured an hour-and-a-half rain delay called just as she got to the 18th tee 1 shot behind Shin, bounced back from a babied 6-footer for par on the 72nd hole that would have won her the tournament outright after Shin pulled her drive into the jungle and found herself needing to make a tough 4-footer to save a double-bogey that kept her in a playoff at -10 with Stanford, Na Yeon Choi, and Shanshan Feng (who herself had 3-putted the 18th for bogey right before play was halted--her 1st blemish in 30 holes), bounced back from an "I-can't-believe-that-didn't-drop" birdie attempt on the 1st playoff hole where Feng was eliminated by a spin-out, canned a 4-foot downhill par save to deny Shin her 1st career LPGA win right after Choi missed a slightly longer putt on the 2nd playoff hole, then, after Shin missed a 4-footer that also spun out on her, side-doored a 3-footer for the win on the 3rd playoff hole, much to the delight of friends and fellow Texans Stacy Lewis, Kristy McPherson, and Katie Futcher, who doused her with beer in celebration. Yeah, about that exciting.
[catching my breath]
So let's review. The LPGA's 1st event of 2012 saw then-17-year-old Jessica Korda prevail in a 6-way playoff (which would never have been necessary had Tseng been able to avoid a quad and a triple during the week at Royal Melbourne). The tour's 2nd event saw Tseng outgun Ai Miyazato and Ji-Yai Shin over the final few holes in Thailand (after a balky putter earlier on the back allowed them to pull within striking distance of her). And now the tour's 3rd event saw Tseng again start slowly, again pour it on (she was -10 over a 27-hole stretch on the weekend), and again come up just short (after suffering a 38 on the final 9 that included a double on the par-4 10th, a bogey on the par-3 14th, no birdies on the par 5s or the 260-ish-yard-long par-4 16th, and more missed short putts than you could shake a short, flat stick at), opening the door for the world #2 to make up some serious ground on her, for 2 Asian youngsters to get their 1st career LPGA victories, and for a tough-as-nails veteran who can be her own worst enemy when the heat is on.... Yup, it was that kind of Asian swing.
[catching my breath]
So clearly Tseng was the cream of the Asian swing, but it's just as clear that the crop is a lot closer to her than it was last year. Stanford is less than $80K behind her on the money list, Jenny Shin has as many top 10s as her and is 4th on the money list, Ai Miyazato leads the LPGA with a 68.88 scoring average, is 2-for-2 in top 10s, and is 3rd on the money list, Jessica Korda has as many wins as her and is 5th on the money list, Shanshan Feng is 2nd on tour with a 69.50 scoring average and has been under par in each of her 8 2012 rounds, is also 2-for-2 in top 10s, and is 6th on the money list, Stacy Lewis and Ji-Yai Shin already have 2 top 10s and are next on the money list, Na Yeon Choi rounds out the list of players who have already won more than $100K this season, and Amy Yang's scoring average is only .08 behind Tseng's. Yes, Tseng leads the money list and the Player of the Year race, has the most birdies (with 11 more than Ji-Yai Shin) and highest birdie rate (leading Ai Miyazato 4.92 to 4.88) on tour, is tied for the most rounds in the 60s (at 5 with Ai Miyazato and Amy Yang), and will pass Betsy King at #14 on the career money list sometime in March (at this rate). But she's not invincible. If Suzann Pettersen, Cristie Kerr, and Lexi Thompson can cure themselves of that case of one-bad-round-itis, if In-Kyung Kim and Hee Young Park can build on their 1st top 10s of the season, if Brittany Lincicome, Hee Kyung Seo, and So Yeon Ryu can keep putting themselves in contention (each of them, you'll recall had short putts to win the Women's Australian Open), if Paula Creamer returns to action playing like she did late Thursday and early Friday (when she strung together 5 birdies in a row).... Well, you can multiply the ifs to your heart's content, but the bottom line is that the gap Tseng has opened up on the rest of the LPGA is beginning to close. Heck, when the likes of Vicky Hurst, Julieta Granada, Kristy McPherson, Chella Choi, Anna Nordqvist, and Azahara Munoz are regularly hanging around the top 30 and even breaking into the top 10 at times, you know the list of hot golfers that Tseng has to beat each week is getting longer and longer.
[off to find an oxygen tank!]
[Update 1 (2/27/12, 7:46 am): Here's bangkokbobby's take on the final holes and round, with his usual assortment if awesome photos.]