With Inbee Park joining the ranks of the LPGA's 2-time winners thanks to her Evian Masters win, it's high time I updated my June 2012 ranking and offer up my latest best guesses as to who's most likely to enter "Club 36" (3-to-6-time winners on tour)!
Most Likely to Win (Again) in 2012
1. Inbee Park: She's got a solid combination of distance and accuracy off the tee and can bomb it out there when she wants, but given how great a putter she's been her entire career and how well she's been rolling the ball of late, the stat I'm focusing on is her 66% greens in regulation rate. Just think if her iron play were as solid as her driving--she'd certainly be averaging more than 3.875 birdies per round (which is already 3rd on tour, behind only Ya Ni Tseng and Stacy Lewis). In other words, if she improves in just that one area, the rest of the tour had better watch out for her week in and week out!
2. Anna Nordqvist: Hound Dog claims her rookie season in 2009 was the best by anyone in LPGA history who failed to win the Rookie of the Year award and ranks it 8th overall. What really distinguished it from her last 2 seasons was her driving accuracy that year--she declined from hitting about 77% of her fairways as a rookie to under 70% of late. It's a good sign that she's hitting 73% of her fairways so far this season, but her stats on the greens show where she needs to improve, with 1.81 PPGIR and only 3.352 birdies per round. The good news is she has been putting better in June and July than earlier in the season, as her stats in these areas have improved sharply since my last ranking and she's gotten top 10s in 4 of her last 6 starts. If she continues to heat up on the greens, I wouldn't be at all surprised to see her win before summer is over.
3. Sun Young Yoo: After seeming to plateau last year, something in the California air this year must have agreed with the Class of 2006's top late bloomer. After a not-even-close runner-up finish at the Kia to Ya Ni Tseng, she took advantage of In-Kyung Kim's heartbreaking final-hole miss from about a foot and beat her with a birdie in a playoff at the Kraft Nabisco Championship for the 2nd win and 1st major of her career. A straight shooter in the Cristie Kerr/Angela Stanford/Brittany Lang mold, she's doing everything well this year but getting the ball in the hole--if she can improve her 1.84 putts per green in regulation rate, she'll start averaging even more than 3.308 birdies per round and become a more regular visitor to the top of the leaderboard. Unfortunately, she's gone in the opposite direction since last ranking with these stats and her finishes have undergone a similar decline--she's gone from being a regular in the top 20 to falling outside the top 30 her last 2 starts. Still she's been playing better than almost everyone else on this list for most of the season, so I don't see any reason to put her lower in my ranking than this.
4. Morgan Pressel: Until the Sybase, she was on the upswing from a very flat start to 2012 and a huge falloff from her 2011 season, when she was regularly making top 20s and top 10s and had 2 top 3s in majors. Her driving had been the culprit, as one of the most accurate players on tour in a typical year was hitting the fairway off the tee only 65% of the time early in the season. Although she improved it to 71% last ranking, it's since fallen to 68%, due to a combination of emotional scars (from her semi-final match slow play penalty at the Sybase Match Play Championship) and physical ailments (stemming from her practice routine and the rough at the Wegmans LPGA Championship). More ominously, she has 2 WDs and a missed cut in her last 3 starts. I was surprised when I talked with her in Pittsford and in Waterloo in June how low her confidence level was; in retrospect, I can understand why. I'd love to see her turn her season around.
5. Eun-Hee Ji: Last ranking, I concluded, "She could be a real surprise at the Wegmans LPGA Championship." And she was, getting into the final pairing for the final round and finishing T2. Since then, though, she's fallen off a cliff, missing 3 cuts in a row. Even though her putts per green in regulation rate isn't bad at all, she's averaging just over 2.90 birdies per round, which is way below what you need to be doing if you want to be an elite player on the LPGA. Given that her greens in regulation rate has fallen below 70%, I'm guessing it's a combination of her iron play and putting that's been holding her back lately.
6. Meena Lee: She's been driving for show this year on the LPGA, hitting 77% of her fairways, but she couldn't capitalize on her exceptional play in Hawaii and her top 20 at Evian was her 1st since late April in Alabama. Clearly, her putter has cooled off this summer, but with only a 67% greens in regulation rate and declining driving accuracy since my last ranking in early June, I'm guessing that she's off in every area of her game.
7. Momoko Ueda: Her T12 at Evian was her 3rd top 20 of 2012 on the LPGA, she continues to drive the ball well, and she's hitting her irons more solidly (moving her greens in regulation rate up from 62% last ranking to 65% this one) of late, but her putting stats have declined during the same span (from averaging 1.79 PPGIR and 3.33 birdies per round to 1.84 and 3.19). The few times I followed her in Waterloo, I certainly saw her miss her share of makeable birdie chances. So if she can get the ball in the hole just a little faster, I'm thinking we should start seeing her contend more often on the LPGA. I'm hoping she's going to emphasize the LPGA more in the 2nd half of 2012 than she has in her previous 4 seasons as a dual LPGA-JLPGA major. I'm getting the feeling she's very close to putting it all together outside Japan for the 1st time in her career.
Quantum Leap Candidates
8. Katherine Hull: For someone who plays most of the winter at home in Australia, she had a very slow start to the LPGA's 2012 season, with a lone top 20 at the KNC to give some hope, and even after glimmers of brilliance in NJ (with a top 10 at the Sybase when she made the sweet 16 and a runner-up at the ShopRite), she hasn't been able to crack the top 25 ever since. All her key performance stats are just below elite levels, although her 3.22 birdies per round rate isn't half bad given her relative struggles in her other areas.
9. Jimin Kang: She got a T5 early in the season but hasn't done much of anything since she had to withdraw from the Kia Classic. Still, she managed a T21 at the U.S. Women's Open and has a history of pulling solid and even spectacular results seemingly out of nowhere (as evidenced by her top-3 finish in Korea late last season), so let's not be counting her out just yet. Given how bad the rest of her performance stats are looking right now, her averaging over 3.10 birdies per round is pretty amazing, which suggests to me she knows how to take advantage of a hot putter. Only question is whether and when it will get hot in the 2nd half of the season.
10. Michelle Wie: OK, her 1st half of 2012 was pretty nightmarish. It's gotten to the point where I'm just happy to see her playing on the weekend, no matter how early her starting times are. Feel free to throw rotten fruits and vegetables at me in comments for putting her odds of winning over the course of the season higher than the rest of the 2-time winners!
11. Jennifer Rosales: She was a top-30 caliber player from 2002-2005, when she notched her 2 wins and 17 of her 20 top 10s, but she hasn't broken into the top 10 since then. Between injuries and bad golf, she's been missing more cuts than she's made, yet still hanging onto her card. The good news is, she got her 2nd top 20 of the season at the Walmart and she's averaging over 3.31 birdies per round. The bad news is, her key ball-striking and putting stats have gone downhill since the last ranking and she didn't make it into either the USWO or the Evian fields. A lot's going to ride on how well she plays in her remaining starts. Let's see how she handles the pressure.
12. Jeong Jang: It's definitely going to take her awhile to get back in the swing of things, now that she's back from maternity leave after taking all of 2011 off. Let's see if infant Seul Samantha allows her mama enough practice time to return to the form that put her regularly in contention before wrist injuries derailed her career. I got to follow both of them for awhile at the Wegmans LPGA Championship, which turned out to be her best finish in the 1st half of the season, a T15. But she's gotta improve on her dismal greens in regulation rate (58%) to have more weeks like that one in the 2nd half of the season.
On the Bottom, Looking Up
13. Karen Stupples: She hasn't really done anything special this season on the LPGA since getting a top 10 at the Lotte in mid-April and she's riding a 3-event missed-cut streak, but she did improve on her opening score at the Evian by 12 shots on Friday and broke 70 for the 6th time this season and 1st time since the 2nd round at the Manulife in late June, so maybe there's reason for optimism in the run-up to the Women's British Open for this veteran and mother of 2.
14. Ji Young Oh: It's looking more and more like my doubts in February 2010--"Somehow I can't believe that this Junior Mint has as promising a future on the LPGA as the other Young Guns on this list...."--were right on target. She had a disastrous 2011 and even though she's straightened out her driver in 2012 and is starting to make cuts again, almost nothing else in her game is very dependable right now. She hasn't made a top 40 all year and hasn't played competitively since the Walmart a month ago, so it's hard to say where she's headed in the 2nd half of the season.
15. Laura Diaz: She'd been a regular in the top 40 and on the Solheim Cup since 2000, and even had 2 consecutive top-10 seasons early last decade, but coming back from the birth of her daughter a couple of years ago has proven quite difficult. From 2009 to 2011, she found every aspect of the game difficult and is now hanging onto her card by the tips of her fingers, at #132 on the Priority Status List thanks to a 1-time career top 40 exemption. About the only good thing you can say about her 2012 is that she's made the cut in 3 of her last 4 starts.
16. Christina Kim: A 67 on Friday at Evian broke her 4-event missed-cut streak, but even though she continues to get the ball in the fairway with great regularity (although she did drop from 78% to 76% now), she's still lost a lot of distance, and her iron play and putting continue to let her down in a big way, so it's way too soon to say she's seeing any light in the tunnel during the worst slump of her career. Regular readers of her blog know that she's been facing down much more than a terrible slump, though, including a serious back injury, depression, and thoughts of suicide the last 2 years. Here's hoping she can rediscover the fun in the game in the 2nd half of the season and use it to keep those negative thoughts in perspective on and off the course.
17. Stacy Prammanasudh: She, too, is stuck in the worst slump of her career, having made 1 cut in 8 starts so far this season, but maybe baby Ryp Walker will start giving her more practice time soon!
18. Janice Moodie: This 3-time Solheim Cupper has never lost her LPGA tour card, even when she gave birth in 2006 and played only 10 events. But she hasn't won since 2002 and has gotten only 5 of her 44 career top 10s in the last 6 seasons, so it's not like being a mom on tour hasn't taken its toll on her game. With a kindergartner and an infant, both boys, to corral, it's no wonder her putter has been suffering this season. What is surprising is that she hasn't made a cut all year since finishing near the bottom of the pack in Australia to kick off the season.
On the Outside, Looking In
19. Carin Koch: She notched 56 LPGA top 10s between 1995 and 2008, but only 2 wins--and at the Corning Classic and in Mexico (2 warning signs from my 1-time winners' ranking). But she moved back to Sweden in 2009 and has played only the 2 dual LPGA-LET events per season ever since. Don't get me wrong--she's often played well on the LET and is currently #18 on their money list--but she's not giving herself many chances to add to her LPGA win total.
20. Gloria Park: She's still playing full-time at home in Korea.