So how does Azahara Munoz's controversial win at the Sybase Match Play place her among the LPGA's 1-time winners? Check out this update of my February 2012 list, where I rank the players in part by career achievements and mostly by what I expect from them over the rest of the 2012 season, starting this week at the Wegmans LPGA Championship.
Most Likely to Win (Again) in 2012
1. Azahara Munoz: She's probably the 2nd-hottest player on tour right now, behind Stacy Lewis, who graduated from this list with a bullet this past month (or, rather, with a couple of them!). Her performance stats are excellent, although she'll need to be particularly accurate with her driver this week to contend.
2. So Yeon Ryu: She had great chances to kick off 2012 with back-to-back wins, but couldn't convert either time. She's playing really good golf this year and has given herself other chances to win, but she hasn't yet been able to put to rest the doubts she's raised during her meteoric career over her ability to close the deal. Still, given her combination of accuracy and distance off the tee, I'm thinking my Rookie of the Year pick for 2012 has a great chance to win this week.
3. Hee Kyung Seo: She won as a non-member at the 2010 Kia Classic, easily won the 2011 Rookie of the Year race despite her failure to secure her 1st LPGA major at the U.S. Women's Open (where she lost in a playoff to Ryu), and has already put herself in contention a number of times this year, including at its 1st major. What's not to like about her chances this week? All she needs is a great putting week to give herself a good chance to win.
4. Lexi Thompson: She won once on the LPGA and once on the LET at the end of the 2011 season, but hasn't found the magic yet in 2012. Still, she's on the comeback trail from a mediocre start to the season and is starting to perform well on courses that don't seem to suit her game. She's surprisingly accurate off the tee for a full-fledged bomber, which gives her a great shot at Locust Hill.
5. Inbee Park: Currently 6th on the JLPGA money list with a win and a 70.50 scoring average, she's not hitting her irons as precisely on the LPGA and has been paying for it with merely solid starts this season. It'll be interesting to see if she decides to continue splitting her time between the LPGA and JLPGA roughly evenly like Momoko Ueda or will privilege the LPGA, as Ji-Yai Shin, Ai Miyazato, and Mika Miyazato tend to do. Last year, she seemed to hit a wall on both tours at the end of the season. I'd like to see her focus more on the LPGA and really try to stake a claim as the best golfer in the Class of 2007.
6. Natalie Gulbis: Recurring back problems since her 2007 Evian Masters playoff victory over Jeong Jang have dropped her back where she was in her 1st 3 seasons on the LPGA--a player who makes her share of cuts but has trouble cracking the top 10. In fact, 24 of her top 10s and all 7 of her top 3s came between 2005 and 2007, when she was a regular on the top 20 of the money list. But she's broken into the top 10 in 2 of her last 5 starts and if she can put her disappointing MC at Seaview behind her quickly and keep her drives in the fairway this week, she could be a factor on Sunday.
7. Sandra Gal: She's been playing pretty mediocre golf so far in 2012. Her putter has been the biggest culprit, but she's not hitting that many fairways or greens by elite standards, either. She's hung around and made a lot of cuts, but will need to improve her all-around accuracy if she wants to do better the rest of the season.
Quantum Leap Candidates
8. Julieta Granada: Wow, she picked up 2012 right where she left off in 2011. She's gone from worrying about keeping her LPGA card to fighting for her 2nd LPGA win. Not bad! It's going to take improved iron play and putting to get it. Let's see what she can do this week.
9. Beatriz Recari: As a member of the rising Spanish Armada on the LPGA, she is playing with a lot of precision with every club this year except her putter. Hence her inability to follow up on her season-opening top 10.
10. Jessica Korda: Well, she's reverted to mean after her surprising season-opening win, but if she can get her putter going, her combination of distance and relative accuracy for a bomber off the tee bode well for her future on the LPGA.
11. Nicole Castrale: Her comeback from her 2010 shoulder surgery was derailed last season, so she started this one on another medical exemption, earning enough to move to #115 on the current priority status list. It's looking like everything is pretty much back on-line for her except her putting
12. Mi Jung Hur: Her struggles since getting her 1st LPGA win as a rookie in 2009 are one big reason I'm not jumping on the Korda bandwagon just yet. This may be a make-or-break year for Hur, who went from so-so to worse last season, but still managed to hang onto full membership for this one. So far, her ball-striking has been awful but her scrambling and putting have been wonderful. This year can still go either way for her....
13. Jee Young Lee: It looks to me like the '06er got hurt in fall 2010 but whatever the reason she's been in free fall ever since. She's too good not to pull out of it, in my view, and soon, even from #130 on the 2012 Priority Status List. At least her performance stats this year aren't horrible....
14. Shi Hyun Ahn: Like Jee Young Lee, her only LPGA win comes with an asterisk, as she got it as a KLPGA member in 2003, but since then she's played roughly 20 events on the LPGA each year, garnering 27 top 10s in the process, with only 3 of them coming since the end of the 2007 season. Until last year, that is, when she fell off a cliff. It may have been injuries, but maybe it was love. The golfer known as "Cinderella" got married to Argentine-Korean star Mario last November. What that means for her golf career remains to be seen. She's #122 on Priority Status List, so she should be able to play just about whenever she wants to this season. Which, so far, is not at all....
On the Bottom, Looking Up
15. Meaghan Francella: She shocked the golf world with a win over Annika Sorenstam on the 4th playoff hole at the 2007 MasterCard Classic, but Annika's announcement a little later that season that she had been suffering significant back and neck injuries for some time put a little asterisk by that victory. To make matters worse, Francella had to deal with injury issues of her own over the next season and a half, but the '06er bounced back in 2009 by getting her 5th and 6th top 10s on tour, breaking the 73 barrier in scoring average for the 1st time in her career, and returning to the top 50 of both the money list and my Best of the LPGA ranking. She continued her comeback in 2010 with a top 10 at the LPGA Championship and stayed in the top 60 of both the money list and my ranking, despite her approach shots and expecially her putting holding her back. But she fell out of the top 70 last season and will be fighting to keep her card this one from her #99 spot on the Priority Status List. So far this year, she's either been solid or terrible; while she's super-accurate off the tee, her putter has been very temperamental in 2012.
16. Heather Bowie Young: She won at the Farr in 2005 and has collected 26 top 10s since joining the LPGA in 2000. 2011 was her 3rd season in a row without one, however, leading her to seek (and gain) dual LPGA-LET membership at LET Q-School last month. So far, her experiment in dual membership isn't working out so great: she's #108 on the LET money list and although her LPGA performance stats are pretty decent, she's only made a handful of cuts so far.
17. Moira Dunn: Her 2004 win at the Giant Eagle Classic was the high point of an LPGA career that dates back to 1995, but her best season was probably in 2001. My junior golf buddy's been struggling to keep her card each year since the 2006 season, and once again in 2011 she failed to add to her 23 career LPGA top 10s. But whereas she was a regular in the top 80 for most of her career, she dropped all the way down to #105 on the money list last season, so entered this one at #136 on the Priority Status List. With the recent reshuffle, she moved up to #134, but is having a typical spring for an upstate NYer: good driving and not doing much with it.
18. Leta Lindley: Her extreme lack of distance off the tee is putting a lot of pressure on the rest of her game and she hasn't had enough starts in 2012 to get into any kind of rhythm. If she couldn't crack the top 75 at Seaview, she's in trouble for the near future.
19. Silvia Cavalleri: She's only had 10 top 10s in an career that started back in 1999 and in that span has only cracked the top 50 on the money list once--in 2007, when she won the Corona Championship. She had finished outside the top 100 on the money list the previous 3 seasons, and only improved to #96 in 2011. From #121 on the reshuffled Priority Status List, she has as much chance as anyone in this category to escape from Hound Dog's fluke victories list, which may not be saying much. She's only made 1 cut in 2012.
On the Outside, Looking In
20. Soo-Yun Kang: Her win at the Safeway Classic in 2005 was part of the best season of her career, where she got 6 top 10s and ended up #14 on the money list. But it was also the last season her stroke average dipped under 72. Of her 17 career top 10s since she started on the LPGA in 2001, only 2 have come after 2005. Now she's playing full-time on the JLPGA, where she finished #38 on the money list last season and is currently #17.
21. Young Kim: She joined the JLPGA in 2010 and ended up ranked 14th on tour; last season, she fell to 34th on their money list; this one, she's down to #40 Whether she'll return to the LPGA remains to be seen, but provided she does, if anyone on this list is going to follow in Jimin Kang's footsteps in breaking the Corning Classic jinx, I would expect her to be the next to do it!
22. Jin Joo Hong: After playing 3 seasons on the KLPGA, she won the jointly-sponsored event with the LPGA and switched tours for the next 3 seasons, ending 2009 ranked #10 among the '06ers. Since then, she's decided to focus on the KLPGA.
23. Joo Mi Kim: She came to the LPGA in 2005 with 3 KLPGA victories under her belt and made a lot of cuts in her rookie season, then followed it up with a playoff win at the SBS Open (over Lorena Ochoa and Soo Young Moon) and 4 top 10s in all the next season, where she ended up 27th on the money list. She stayed in the top 50 for the 3rd-straight season the following year, but saw her starts go down and her scoring average go up over the next 3 seasons. Since the fall of 2010, she's been focusing her efforts on the KLPGA.
Over and Out
24. Eunjung Yi: Her playoff victory over Morgan Pressel at the Farr in 2009 remains her only LPGA top 10 since her LPGA career began in 2008. She won Hound Dog's fluke victory of the year award that year, a dubious distinction. The only way things could be worse for her prospects in 2012 would be if her defeat of Pressel had come in a U.S. Women's Open (see Kim, Birdie, below). She got some starts early in the season on a medical exemption, but missed the cut every time, so with the reshuffle is now #242 on the priority status list.
25. Birdie Kim: I had wanted to put her higher on this list, feeling that she had been coming back from the U.S. Women's Open jinx after her stunning 2005 win from the sand over then-amateurs Morgan Pressel and Brittany Lang. But no, she's only made 6 cuts in her last 27 starts dating back to 2009, hasn't added to her career total of 4 top 10s in that span, and has never broken the 73 barrier in scoring average since she started on the LPGA in 2004. Now she finds herself at #230 on the reshuffled Priority Status List for the 2012 season.
26. Kris Tschetter: Her rookie season was 1988; she won the Northgate Computer Classic in 1992. Even though 2002 was her last solid season, her 50 career top 10s show that she's got the talent to bounce back, now that her kids are older. She wrote a moving account of her friendship with Ben Hogan in 2010, but missed the cut in all 3 of her starts in 2011. At #213 on the reshuffled Priority Status List, though, she might get into some events this season.
27. Kelli Kuehne: She got a medical exemption in 2010, but didn't come close to returning to her 1999-2004 form, when she won at the Corning Classic at the start of that run and notched 24 of her 26 career top 10s over the course of it. From 2005-2009, though, she hasn't broken the 73 barrier in scoring average in any season and has made only 33 of 86 cuts. And she went 0 for 10 in 2010 and didn't play in 2011. She's #216 on the reshuffled Priority Status List, but I have to wonder if she's going to play at all in 2012.
28. Kate Golden: Her win at the State Farm Classic in 2001 was part of a run from 2000-2004 when she averaged in the mid 72s in scoring and mid-$200Ks in winnings, but since then she hasn't made more than half her cuts in any season and has only added 1 top 10 to her career total of 14. In 2010, she got into 2 events and missed the cut in both of them in what may well turn out to have been the last year of an LPGA career that started in 1992. She's still listed at #223 on the reshuffled Priority Status List, for what that's worth, but she had similar status last year and didn't play at all.
29. Marisa Baena: Her LPGA career started in 1999, but after a terrible 2004, it looked like it was in jeopardy. She bounced back in 2005 with a win in the HSBC Women's World Match Play Championship from the 60th seed. Although she failed to get her 14th career top 10 and 2nd since 2005 the last season she teed it up on tour, she finds herself at #217 on the reshuffled Priority Status List, even though she hasn't played in the last few years.
30. Louise Friberg: Her dramatic come-from-behind rookie win at the MasterCard Classic in 2008 was the high point of what turned out to be a short career in competitive golf. She did get into 1 event this season from #241 on the reshuffled Priority Status List, but I'm pretty sure she's not planning to make a habit of it..
31. Sung Ah Yim: Like Joo Mi Kim, she joined the LPGA in 2005 and got her 1st win in 2006, at the Florida's Natural Charity Classic. But from 2007 to 2009, she neither added to her career total of 8 top 10s nor broke the 74 barrier in scoring average. And in 2010, she didn't get a single LPGA start from #227 on the priority status list. With no LPGA status in 2012 for the 2nd year in a row, she won't be getting any chances to play her way out of the #6 spot on Hound Dog's fluke victories list.
32. Hilary Lunke: She may never be knocked from the top spot in Hound Dog's fluke victory list. She's now listed at #236 on the reshuffled Priority Status List, but hasn't teed it up since late August 2008.