Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Best on the LPGA: 3-to-6-Time Winners, June 2012 Edition

With Angela Stanford getting career win #5 in stirring fashion in Singapore, and Brittany Lincicome and Na Yeon Choi already getting great opportunities in playoffs for their 6th, I'm wondering who will be the next player to graduate from Club 36 to the 7-Up Club.  The way Club 36 newbie Stacy Lewis is playing this year, she might have the best shot!  Even though she has the fewest wins and majors of anyone on this list, can you name anyone who's playing better golf than she is on it right now?

Most Likely to Win (Again) in 2012

1. Stacy Lewis (3/0):  Let's face it, she's the hottest player on the LPGA and maybe the hottest golfer on the planet.  She's the closest thing the LPGA has to a straight-up bomber--that is, an Annika- or Lorena-like combination of big distance and high accuracy off the tee--and she's among the best on tour with both her iron play and her putting.  Her only weakness is her focus, but as we saw at Seaview, she has the fire in the belly to hold a round together after she slips out of the zone and still maintain a dominating lead.  Locust Hill will provide a very tough test to her game, but she's among my favorites heading into it.

2. Na Yeon Choi (5/0): She hasn't contended for a long time by her standards, but there's no reason to think the world #2 won't keep putting herself in position to win. Her performance stats are excellent and the only thing holding her back is that she's making slightly fewer birdies than her top competitors.  She looked awesome during the practice round I watched on Tuesday.  I'd just like to see her take a page from Luke Donald and project a little more confidence and better body language on the course from now on.

3. In-Kyung Kim (3/0): Last June, I wrote, "As she keeps putting herself in contention so often, I'm sure she's gaining the experience to start converting more great weeks into wins."  This February, I noted that she needed to play better on Sundays to close the deal.  Not long after that, she did everything but make the tap-in required to clinch the Kraft Nabisco Championship.  She's back from resting a wrist injury, and her final-round 67 at Seaview (tied for the low round of the day) suggests to me she's ready to rumble.  If she can sink a few more birdie putts this week than usual, she could be a contender.

4. Angela Stanford (5/0): Last June, I wrote, "I'm thinking that with her ballstriking coming back online, she has a chance to join the super-elite." She's not there yet--her approach shots and putting need some work--but she's closer than she's been in the last 3 years!

5. Brittany Lincicome (5/1): I'm still waiting for her to go on a real run and put herself in contention over several events in a row. For a bomber, she's quite accurate off the tee, but she needs to be giving herself more and better looks at birdie to take it to the next level.  And she needs to become a more consistent putter to truly join the LPGA's super-elite.  At this point in her career, I wonder if she even has the desire and the temperament to do that.

The Contenders

6. Hee-Won Han (6/0): After suffering through one of the worst stretches of golf in her career over the 1st half of 2011, she contended in Canada, got another top 10 in Taiwan, and found the top 25 in 6 of her last 8 starts. But she started 2012 with an even colder putter on the Asian swing than during that bad spell last season and needed a serious reset when the tour returned to the States.  Lo and behold, she got it.  With a T14 in California, a T18 in Hawaii, and a T5 in New Jersey, her game is on the upswing at just the right time.  If she can heat up her putter in summer's heat, watch out for her over the next few months!

7. Catriona Matthew (4/1): Last June, I wrote, "she's been striking many blows for the moms on tour this season, thanks to some truly impressive ballstriking (she's #2 on tour in GIR to Suzann Pettersen). Any week she gets her putter going is a week she has a great chance to win!" And sure enough, she contended at the Women's British Open and the Mizuno Open and won at Lorena's place.  She's playing pretty solidly this season, although she's coming off her worst finish since her MC at the RR Donnelley.  What she needs is to make more birdie putts--2.90 birdies per round won't get her win #5!

8. Sophie Gustafson (5/0): She contended at the Women's British Open last season, but hasn't done anything all that special since, although she got her 4th top 20 and best finish of 2012 at Seaview, a course that doesn't usually set up well for her power game, so maybe she's returning to form.

9. Maria Hjorth (5/0): She continued to play well over the 2nd half of 2011, but has struggled with her driving and putting so far in 2012.  Locust Hill is not a good antidote for those kinds of problems, but I trust this vet will get back on track soon.

Quantum Leap Candidates

10. Candie Kung (4/0): In the 2nd half of 2011, she put together 3 top 20s in majors in a row, then closed out the season with top 20s in 3 of her last 5 starts, including a Thursday and Friday during which she thrilled the home crowd in Taiwan. But she had a terrible start to 2012 until she went to Brazil, finished 5th in the exhibition, then made it to the finals of the Sybase.  She barely made the cut at Seaview, a course that normally favors her combination of distance and accuracy off the tee, but the culprit was what has been holding her back all year--godawful putting.  Let's see if Locust Hill's smooth and fast greens help her find her stroke.

11. Seon Hwa Lee (4/0): Even with all her struggles the last 3 seasons (during which she's put together only 5 top 10s since the final McDonalds LPGA Championship in '09), she's just too good a golfer for the 1st slump of her LPGA career to last much longer.  But when a T29 at Seaview is her best start of the season, it's hard for me to maintain my optimism.  Horrific iron play and cold putting have held a player who was once one of the tours young phenoms in check this season.

On the Bottom, Looking Up

12. Wendy Ward (4/0): She still hasn't been able to overcome an ice-cold putter (1.92 PPGIR in 2012 so far!), with no 2012 start coming close to her last best finish, a T11 in Taiwan late last season. But really that's been the story of her career since 2006, as she's been bouncing between $200K and $400K in winnings and has failed to get below 1.82 putts per green in regulation over the last 6 seasons. She drove the ball great in 2011 but couldn't do much with it at all. And she's remained a solid ball-striker in 2012. But unless she does something about her putting, her years on the LPGA are numbered.

13. Lorie Kane (4/0): At #105 on the Priority Status List, she'll get to play pretty much all the full-field events she wants to in 2012. She found herself in contention in Australia until blowing up with a final-round 80, so, coupled with some surprisingly strong play on the LET recently, there's some room for optimism for the veteran this season. Her T29 at Seaview was her best finish since the season opener, so the Canadian vet's prospects for keeping her card in 2013 are looking surprisingly strong right now.

14. Pat Hurst (6/1): Her WD in Singapore didn't garner nearly the attention of Paula Creamer's or Song-Hee Kim's, but it's part of a troubling trend since her spring 2009 win, a long stretch marked by the fact that her only top 10s have come during majors ('09 KNC, '11 Wegmans LPGA Championship).  But she's not playing this year like even that is in the cards.  She's lost her distance off the tee without gaining any accuracy and her iron play and putting haven't been good enough to make up for that.

15. Wendy Doolan (3/0): At #101(a) on the reshuffled Priority Status List thanks to a medical exemption, she, too, will get another chance to extend her LPGA career yet further. She missed the cut in the season-opener in Australia, but given that it was her 1st start since May 2010, just teeing it up was a huge victory for this breast cancer survivor. A MC at Seaview last week broke a 3-event made cut run.  Like Ward, her ball-striking is still reliable, but her putting isn't.

16. Grace Park (6/1): At #95 on the reshuffled 2012 Priority Status List, she has gotten into her share of events this season and will continued to do so, but will need to do more than show flashes of her old game if she wants to keep her card in 2013.  Seaview was her 1st stroke-play made cut of the season, but she shot 75-75 on the weekend.  Is this the beginning of the end of her LPGA career?  I sure hope not!

17. Dorothy Delasin (4/0): This 2000 Rookie of the Year had been struggling to keep her card since 2006 and sits at #190 on the reshuffled Priority Status List. She's missed her last 7 cuts in a row dating back to October 2010--and has made only 1 cut in her 33 starts from October 2008 to the present. She's hung on longer than another former ROY, '07er Angela Park, but I have to wonder if we have already seen her last competitive season.  She hasn't teed it up yet this year.

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