Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Best on the LPGA Without a Major: 2012 Kraft Nabisco Championship Edition

All right, it's time to update my predictions for who will break through in 2012 and snag their 1st career LPGA major. 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 at the KNC

1. Ai Miyazato (7/15):  She's playing great in 2012 and even after 2 missed cuts in majors last year and a history of frustration at the KNC, I'm still thinking she's due.

2. Na Yeon Choi (5/5): Last year, she suffered her 3rd-ever missed cut in a major at the USWO (to go with her MCs at the '07 USWO and '10 Wegmans LPGA Championship), slogged through her worst 2 non-MC major finishes right before that (T49 at the KNC and T43 at the Wegmans LPGA Championship). But she bounced back with a T7 at Carnoustie and hasn't looked back ever since.

3. Shanshan Feng (0/2): Yes, her best performances in LPGA majors (a T30 at last year's WBO, a T42 at last year's USWO, a T48 at the '09 USWO, a T50 and a T54 at the last two Wegmans LPGA Championships, and a T55 at last year's KNC) haven't been all that impressive. But she's a classic straight shooter who hits a lot of greens in regulation and hasn't missed the top 5 so far this year.

4. Angela Stanford (5/0): 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 16 more top-25 finishes in majors, including 2 top 5s at the LPGA Championship (back when it was sponsored by McDonalds), a T3 at last year's KNC, and a 4th-place finish at last year's USWO. She proved she can win on a big stage in Singapore this year, but I'd be happier about her chances this week if she hadn't missed the cut right after her big playoff victory.

5. Amy Yang (0/4): She's riding a 7-major top-20 streak and is coming off a 4th-place finish at Carnoustie. I saw firsthand at the Wegmans LPGA Championship that she has a great game for majors, so I wouldn't be at all surprised to see her find her A-game this week. 

6. In-Kyung Kim (3/1): Talk about due: she hadn't finished worse than 12th in her last 6 majors until coming to Carnoustie, where she had her worst finish in her last 14 majors besides an exceptionally windy KNC in 2010.  Even with an uneven start to 2012, I have to rank someone with 11 top 20s in that stretch of majors, one who's had plenty of shots at the winner's circle, among the most likely to get there this week.

The Contenders

7. Caroline Hedwall (0/4): Despite her lack of experience in majors, she's got the talent to contend right off the bat.

8. Hee Kyung Seo (1/11): She turned a good rookie season very good at the Broadmoor, where she lost in a playoff to KLPGA rival and friend So Yeon Ryu (who's now an LPGA rookie and one of the favorites this week).  Seo gave herself a couple of chances to start her sophomore season on the LPGA in style, but couldn't quite close the deal Down Under.  Is this week her time?

9. Lexi Thompson (1/1): Sure, she hasn't yet followed up on her top 10 at the 2010 USWO, but cut her some slack, will ya?  She's another one with the talent to contend any time and a surprising amount of experience in majors for someone so young.

Quantum Leap Candidates

10. Hee Young Park (1/4): She's made the cut in 9 of her last 11 majors, with 4 top 15s in that stretch, including a T11 at the '09 WBO.  She's been wildly uneven this year, but that's The Rocket for ya.  If she can win the Titleholders, she can win a major!

11. Maria Hjorth (5/5): You know, 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 LPGA Championship. But just 1 bad round at the Broadmoor interrupted a run in last year's majors that included a top 20 at the KNC, a top 10 at the Wegmans LPGA Championship, and a top 15 at Carnoustie. So even though she's had a slow start to 2012 by her standards, anyone who's won twice in the past couple of seasons is on my radar at Mission Hills.

12. Sun Young Yoo (1/0): She's made the cut in 13 of her last 15 majors, a fitting companion to her late bloom on the LPGA relative to most of her Tseng Dynasty-generation peers. With a T12 at the '09 KNC under her belt, and coming off a T7 at Carnoustie and a runner-up finish last week, this Angela Stanfordesque straight shooter should be on everyone's watch list.

13. Momoko Ueda (2/9): The WBO seems to be her best major and the Mizuno Classic her favorite LPGA event, but she's never missed the cut at Mission Hills and is capable of landing flocks of birdies and eagles seemingly at any time.

14. Brittany Lang (0/0): She's finished inside the top 40 in 10 of her last 16 majors (the only real blemishes being missed cuts at the '08 WBO and the '11 Wegmans LPGA Championship). More important, she finally improved on her T2 finish (with fellow then-amateur Morgan Pressel) in the 2005 USWO that Birdie Kim won with a walkoff slam dunk from the sand when she gutted out a runner-up finish at Carnoustie last year.  Although she hasn't played great yet in 2012, she's definitely back among the LPGA's best.

15. 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.  And so far she's looked rusty at best in 2012.  But those Stanford finals are nothing to sneeze at.  I don't really see her contending so soon after finishing them, but she's still too good to leave off this list.

16. Azahara Munoz (0/1): Her favorite major appears to be the Wegmans LPGA Championship, but she hasn't missed the cut at any of them since joining the LPGA in 2010 and I've been impressed with how solid her start to her junior year on tour has been so far.  Keep an eye on her in majors this year!

17. 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 last year's KNC, so who knows whether she can turn a decent start to 2012 into a great one this week?

18. Mika Miyazato (0/1): She already has 6 top 15s to her credit in LPGA majors in her short professional career, including 3 top 10s in a row last year (a T7 at the KNC, a T8 at the Wegmans LPGA Championship, and a 5th-place finish at the USWO). 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.  So never mind the fact that she recently followed up a missed cut on the JLPGA with another MC at the Kia.  I have confidence that she'll bounce right back!

Watch Lists

Most wins/longest careers without a major: Mi Hyun Kim (8), Hee-Won Han (6), Sophie Gustafson (5), Lorie Kane (4), Wendy Ward (4), Candie Kung (4)

Slumping stars: Song-Hee Kim, Seon Hwa Lee, Jee Young Lee, Christina Kim, Vicky Hurst

Rising stars: Beatriz Recari, Mina Harigae, Jennifer Song, Jessica Korda

Possible non-LPGA winners: Ji-Hee Lee, Yukari Baba, Ha-Neul Kim, Ariya Jutanugarn [a]


Tony Jesselli (Tonyj5) said...

Great post. The only person I disagree on is Hee Young Park. She won the Titleholders last year, and has finishes of 11th, 8th, and 5th this year. I would put her intp contenders, I don't think it would be quite a "quantum Leap" if she was to win.

Mike said...

Last night on the GC preview show, Annika picked Ai Miyazato as a player to watch out for as well.