Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Best on the LPGA without a Major: 2012 U.S. Women's Open Edition

All right, it's time to update my predictions for who will join Sun Young Yoo and Shanshan Feng and break through in 2012 for her 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 Blackwolf Run

1. Ai Miyazato (9/17): She's playing great in 2012, coming off a win last week, and has a great game and mental toughness for U.S. Women's Opens, where she's finished T6 twice (in 2009 and 2011) and has made the cut 6 times in a row, never finishing worse than T31.  After coming very close to winning the Wegmans LPGA Championship early last month, I'd say she's due.

2. Mika Miyazato (0/1): Speaking of due, she's coming off 3 straight near-wins on the LPGA, including her closest call yet last week.  She already has 7 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.  She's definitely ready to win.

3. Amy Yang (0/4):  Although her missed cut at the Wegmans LPGA Championship ended an 8-major top-20 streak, I still believe in what I saw from her at the 2011 Wegmans LPGA Championship:  she has a great game for majors, she's capable of going toe-to-toe with Ya Ni Tseng, and she's way overdue for her 1st LPGA win.  With a T5 at Oakmont, a T10 at The Broadmoor, and a final-round 65 last Sunday that earned her a T7 in NW Arkansas, she has every chance to break through this week.  A win at Blackwolf Run, site of Se Ri Pak's epic win, would be particularly meaningful for the player most often mistaken for Se Ri!

4. 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 in yet another LPGA major). Seo seems to have gotten over the disappointment of giving up a late-Sunday lead at the KNC, having given herself several putts to win in Waterloo and going 65-66 last weekend to finish in 6th place in NW Arkansas.  Would love to be the Korean to win at Blackwolf Run after Se Ri Pak.

5. Brittany Lang (1/0): She's finished inside the top 40 in 10 of her last 17 majors (the only real blemishes being missed cuts at the '08 WBO and the '11 Wegmans LPGA Championship). Last time I did this post, I wrote, "she's definitely back among the LPGA's best," and she proved it by defeating Hee Kyung Seo, Inbee Park, and Chella Choi in a playoff in Waterloo for her breakthrough LPGA win.  Even though she couldn't back up her moving-day 63 that got her into contention with a super-low Sunday round, she still finished in the top 10 in NW Arkansas, so she's got serious mo' heading into this week.  And she's got a great record at the USWO, with 5 made cuts in 7 starts, a T5 at Oakmont, and a T2 at Cherry Hills as an amateur in 2005.

6. Azahara Munoz (1/1): Despite missing her 1st cut in an LPGA major as an LPGA member at the Wegmans LPGA Championship, she's bounced back from her early-June nano-slump with a near-win in NW Arkansas, giving her 5 top 4s in her last 7 starts, including her win at the Sybase Match Play Championship. Her best USWO finish is a T19 at Oakmont; I'm thinking she'll do better this week.

The Contenders

7. 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), having 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 last season and followed it up with a T8 at the Kraft Nabisco Championship this season.  Even though she took a DQ at the Wegmans LPGA Championship when she refused to sign her final-round scorecard and has been playing uninspired golf since then, she's got the perfect game for a USWO, with a T2 in 2010, a T9 in 2009, and a T19 in 2008.  So while I'm bumping her down a category because she's not coming into this week with much momentum, I wouldn't put a win past her at Blackwolf Run by any means.

8. In-Kyung Kim (3/1): Here's what I wrote on the eve of her near-miss at this year's KNC: "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."  Given how great her record at the USWO is (5 made cuts in 6 starts, 4 top 10s in a row, 3 top 5s in her last 4 starts), it might be surprising to find her ranked this low, but she's still coming back from a wrist injury and suffered a disappointing missed cut last week in NW Arkansas.

9. Lexi Thompson (1/1): Sure, she hasn't yet followed up on her top 10 at the 2010 USWO in another LPGA major, 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, even though it hasn't all been good in terms of results.  Although she's only made the cut one other time in her 5 USWO starts, how many more golfers in history will be playing in their 6th USWO well before they turn 20?  She's impressed me with the progress she's been making this year.  Let's see how her combination of distance and accuracy stands up to golf's toughest test!

10. 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 17 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 (where she was the 3rd-round leader). She proved she can win on a big stage in Singapore this year, so if her short game cooperates this week, she can be dangerous. Unfortunately, she hasn't played well since making the sweet 16 at the Sybase Match Play Championship and looked low on energy in Waterloo when I followed her group.

Quantum Leap Candidates

11. Sandra Gal (1/0):  She's made the cut in her last 3 USWO starts after missing it in 2006 as an amateur. With 4 top 25s in her last 5 LPGA starts, she seems to be finding her form for the summer.

12. Candie Kung (4/0): She's cooled off a bit after losing in the championship round at the Sybase to Azahara Munoz, but she's got a great USWO record (8 cuts made in a row, a near-win in 2009, a T5 in 2004, a T6 in 2005, and a T13 in 2011) and has broken 70 in 3 of her last 6 rounds, so she's playing well coming into Blackwolf Run and has the mindset to endure the marathon it will be.

13. Momoko Ueda (2/9): The WBO seems to be her best major and the Mizuno Classic her favorite LPGA event, but she's capable of landing flocks of birdies and eagles seemingly at any time and her performance stats are the best they've been in years. Since a disappointing missed cut at the Wegmans LPGA Championship, she's been hitting the ball well and going low when her putter cooperates. If it does at Blackwolf Run, look for her to improve on her career-best USWO finish, a T13 in 2008.

14. Hee Young Park (1/4): She's made the cut in 11 of her last 13 majors, with 5 top 15s in that stretch, including a T11 at the '09 WBO and a T14 in this year's Wegmans LPGA Championship. This year, she's living up to nickname, The Rocket, with plenty of rounds below 70 and above 75. She's made the cut in her last 3 USWOs, although she hasn't yet improved on her T9 in 2009. Maybe this week?

15. Katherine Hull (2/1): She's cooled off a bit since making the sweet 16 at the Sybase and nearly winning the ShopRite, and while her top 20 at this year's KNC was her best finish in a major since her runner-up to Ya Ni Tseng at the 2010 Women's British Open, she's still in a great position to improve on her best USWO finish, a T25 in 2007.

16. Natalie Gulbis (1/1): Don't laugh! She's playing really well this season! And she's got a very good record at USWOs.

17. Katie Futcher (0/0): With 2 made cuts in 3 USWO starts and 4 rounds in the 60s in her last 7, she's got the history and the mo' on her side to at least break into the top 50 in a USWO for the 1st time in her career.

18. Meena Lee (2/4): If she can putt well on Blackwolf Run's huge greens, she's got a good chance to improve on her career-best USWO finish, a T21, last year at The Broadmoor.  She hasn't been playing great of late, but with 5 made cuts in her 6 USWO starts and a near-win in Hawaii this year, I wouldn't count her out.

Watch Lists

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

Slumping stars: Michelle Wie, Song-Hee Kim, Seon Hwa Lee, Christina Kim, Caroline Hedwall

Rising stars: Carlota Ciganda, Beatriz Recari, Jenny Shin, Mina Harigae, Chella Choi, Jennifer Johnson, Jessica Korda, Lizette Salas, Mo Martin, Pornanong Phatlum, Danielle Kang

Possible non-LPGA winners: Sakura Yokomine, Ji-Hee Lee, Melissa Reid, Soo Jin Yang, Lee-Anne Pace, Yukari Baba, Moriya Jutanugarn, Lydia Ko, Kyung Kim, Mina Nakayama

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