Saturday, March 17, 2012

RR Donnelley LPGA Founders Cup Friday: Tseng Opens Door, Field Fails to Walk Through

Yani Tseng started yesterday's 2nd round at the RR Donnelley LPGA Founders Cup tied for the lead with Hee Young Park, but struggled to recapture the magic that saw her shoot a 29 on the back 9, instead making 9 straight pars on that same side to start her day.  Even though she birdied 2 of her last 3 holes on the front to get to -9, it was clear that she had been struggling all day, hitting fewer fairways and far fewer greens than in her opening round.  So without a doubt the world #1, playing early in softer conditions in Phoenix, with both momentum on her side and a fantastic chance to demoralize the field, instead opened the door to just about everyone in it.  Only problem was (at least from the field's perspective), nobody stepped through it.

Let's start with Tseng's co-leader after 18 holes, who started on the front in the exact same conditions.  Park drove the ball better on Friday than she did on Thursday, but she was less accurate with her approach shots (hitting 2 fewer greens in regulation) and a lot colder with the flat stick (taking 5 more putts), which led to 5 fewer birdies and 2 more bogeys.  In other words, she could manage only an even-par 72 yesterday, which left her stranded at -7 with 11 more players tied with or ahead of her after the 2nd round than after the 1st.

What about Ji-Yai Shin, who trailed Tseng and Park by a mere single shot after an opening bogey-free 66?  Well, going off near the start of the afternoon wave, she knew that she didn't need to shoot the lights out to take the lead and responded at first with more steady excellence, thanks to birdies on the par-5 2nd and par-4 10th that were part of a bogey-free run which extended to 31 holes before it ended on the par-3 14th.  From one perspective, the fact that she parred out after that just means that she takes another bogey-free run into the weekend.  But from another, it means that she trailed Tseng by a single shot with 8 holes left to play on a side that's supposed to be a lot easier than the front, yet went +1 during that stretch to fall twice as far behind the world #1 as she had been at the start of the day.  When you consider that the course firming up over the course of the afternoon probably contributed to her woes, and that she's going to have to deal with the same phenomenon each of the next 2 rounds (barring weather changes), you have to think that Shin has a huge psychological barrier to overcome as much as any other kind.

Enough of the players who failed to take advantage of the perfect scoring conditions on Friday.  What about those that did?  In what sense could Kristy McPherson (65), In-Kyung Kim (66), Katherine Hull (66), Mika Miyazato (67), Meena Lee (67), and Karin Sjodin (68) be blamed for failing to walk through any doors left open by Tseng?  Well, it's true that McPherson played almost a perfect round, but given how badly she played on Thursday and how inconsistently she's played since elbow surgery before the start of the 2011 season, the odds are against her keeping it up for the next 36 holes.  And even if she does, she still has spotted Tseng 3 shots heading into the weekend.  Hull didn't play as well as McPherson, but she still strung together birdies in bunches at the start and end of her round.  If she can improve her ball-striking and keep her putter as hot as it was on Friday over the weekend, she, too, has an outside chance to close the 3-shot gap on Tseng.  Sjodin's ball-striking has been almost flawless and she finally caught fire late in her round Friday, making 5 birdies in her last 10 holes to pull within 2 of the lead, but the same cautions stand for her as they do for McPherson and Hull.  Similarly, Miyazato's ball-striking continued to be impeccable and she sank more putts Friday than Thursday, extending her own bogey-free streak to 23 holes and counting.  But as well as she played on the tougher front, where she concluded her round by moving from -5 to -8, she couldn't find a birdie in her last 4 holes, 2 of which Tseng was birdieing from the group ahead of her.  If Miyazato can reverse that trend over the weekend while giving up 40+ yards off the tee to her good friend, she really will have earned her 1st LPGA victory.

The story for Lee and Kim, much like it was for Shin, was of afternoon opportunities wasted.  Lee was -5 for the day and -8 for the week with 6 holes left to play on the front, but all she could do was recover from a bogey on the par-3 4th with a birdie on the par-4 8th.  Kim actually held a share of the lead when she made her 4th birdie in a row on the par-4 3rd--the culmination of a 22-hole bogey-free run that saw her move from E to -9--but she proceeded to bogey the very next hole and par out from there.  Ditto for Kim's playing partner Inbee Park, who got it to -4 on her day and -8 for the week after only 7 holes on the back, and she got back there with a birdie on 1 that followed up a bogey on 18, but a walkoff birdie on the 9th failed to offset a terrible double on the 3rd and she ended up 2 shots off the pace at the halfway point.

Now, it's hard to fault Na Yeon Choi, who shot a bogey-free 69 yesterday afternoon to extend her run to 26 holes and counting and move within a shot of her Class of 2008 rival.  But on a day when she bombed the ball by her standards (averaging nearly 270 yards off the tee), she hit fewer greens than, and made half as many birdies as, she did on opening day, and as a result only made up a single shot on Tseng.  That's not the way for the world #2 to make up ground on the world #1.  And, yes, playing in the morning Paula Creamer also bombed the ball and extended a bogey-free run to 24 holes while moving from -1 to -8 and pulling within 1 of the lead, but she finished bogey-par to join the Parks and Shin at -7. 

The 2 players who are probably kicking themselves the least hard after 36 holes are defending champion Karrie Webb and former world #1 Ai Miyazato.  Webb has not been hitting the ball all that awesomely by her Hall of Fame standards, but she's got a 23-hole-and-counting bogey-free run going and birdied 3 of her last 10 holes to pull within 2 of the lead.  Meanwhile, Miyazato birdied 4 of her last 10 holes to pass playing partner Park and pull within 1 shot of Tseng, with whom she (and Shin) had a memorable shootout already in Thailand.  Even though her ball-striking was not nearly as tidy on Friday as it was on Thursday, Ai-sama shot her 2nd-straight 68 and made up 2 shots on Tseng thanks to a hot putter.  If she can drive the ball well over the weekend and keep that putter hot, she's got a decent chance to pick up her 8th career LPGA victory.

Probably the biggest effect of Tseng's 70 is that there are 33 players within 5 shots of her lead heading into the weekend.  Still, that's a lot smaller number than the 53 after the 1st round. While it does include the likes of Stacy Lewis and Hee Kyung Seo at -6, Se Ri Pak, Hee-Won Han, and So Yeon Ryu at -5, and Suzann Pettersen, Anna Nordqvist, and Lexi Thompson at -4, it doesn't include Cristie Kerr, Morgan Pressel, Caroline Hedwall, or Azahara Munoz, who all lost ground to Tseng yesterday.  Nor does it include (obviously) those who missed the cut, like Brittany Lincicome, Angela Stanford, and Amy Yang, who normally would have been expected to contend this week. 

So while I'm sad for Tiffany Joh, who missed the cut by a shot, and Hannah Yun, whose double eagle on the 15th couldn't bring her back near the cut line, feel bad for rookies like Cydney Clanton (70-77), Stephanie Kono (71-76), and Sandra Changkija (70-76) who also missed the cut after good starts, feel good for rookies Lizette Salas (74-69) and Ayaka Kaneko (75-69) who just barely made the cut with great comebacks, am very pleased to see Jane Park (-2) and Jee Young Lee (E) make the cut after so many struggles, and am super-happy for Seon Hwa Lee (-5) and Mina Harigae (-3) who still have a chance to contend, I'm left wondering who in the field is going to step up and really challenge Ya Ni Tseng today.

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