Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Best on the LPGA Without a Major: 2012 Kraft Nabisco Championship Edition

All right, it's time to update my predictions for who will break through in 2012 and snag their 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 the KNC

1. Ai Miyazato (7/15):  She's playing great in 2012 and even after 2 missed cuts in majors last year and a history of frustration at the KNC, I'm still thinking she's due.

2. 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), 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 and hasn't looked back ever since.

3. Shanshan Feng (0/2): Yes, her best performances in LPGA majors (a T30 at last year's WBO, a T42 at last year's USWO, a T48 at the '09 USWO, a T50 and a T54 at the last two Wegmans LPGA Championships, and a T55 at last year's KNC) haven't been all that impressive. But she's a classic straight shooter who hits a lot of greens in regulation and hasn't missed the top 5 so far this year.

4. 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 16 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. She proved she can win on a big stage in Singapore this year, but I'd be happier about her chances this week if she hadn't missed the cut right after her big playoff victory.

5. Amy Yang (0/4): She's riding a 7-major top-20 streak and is coming off a 4th-place finish at Carnoustie. I saw firsthand at the Wegmans LPGA Championship that she has a great game for majors, so I wouldn't be at all surprised to see her find her A-game this week. 

6. In-Kyung Kim (3/1): 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.

The Contenders

7. Caroline Hedwall (0/4): Despite her lack of experience in majors, she's got the talent to contend right off the bat.

8. 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).  Seo gave herself a couple of chances to start her sophomore season on the LPGA in style, but couldn't quite close the deal Down Under.  Is this week her time?

9. Lexi Thompson (1/1): Sure, she hasn't yet followed up on her top 10 at the 2010 USWO, 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.

Quantum Leap Candidates

10. Hee Young Park (1/4): She's made the cut in 9 of her last 11 majors, with 4 top 15s in that stretch, including a T11 at the '09 WBO.  She's been wildly uneven this year, but that's The Rocket for ya.  If she can win the Titleholders, she can win a major!

11. Maria Hjorth (5/5): You know, she may not yet be quite back to being the kind of player again who averaged 2 top 10s in majors a year in 2007 and 2008--and I doubt she'll improve on that T2, 4th, 2nd run from the '07 WBO to the '08 LPGA Championship. But just 1 bad round at the Broadmoor interrupted a run in last year's majors that included a top 20 at the KNC, a top 10 at the Wegmans LPGA Championship, and a top 15 at Carnoustie. So even though she's had a slow start to 2012 by her standards, anyone who's won twice in the past couple of seasons is on my radar at Mission Hills.

12. Sun Young Yoo (1/0): She's made the cut in 13 of her last 15 majors, a fitting companion to her late bloom on the LPGA relative to most of her Tseng Dynasty-generation peers. With a T12 at the '09 KNC under her belt, and coming off a T7 at Carnoustie and a runner-up finish last week, this Angela Stanfordesque straight shooter should be on everyone's watch list.

13. Momoko Ueda (2/9): The WBO seems to be her best major and the Mizuno Classic her favorite LPGA event, but she's never missed the cut at Mission Hills and is capable of landing flocks of birdies and eagles seemingly at any time.

14. Brittany Lang (0/0): She's finished inside the top 40 in 10 of her last 16 majors (the only real blemishes being missed cuts at the '08 WBO and the '11 Wegmans LPGA Championship). More important, she finally improved on her T2 finish (with fellow then-amateur Morgan Pressel) in the 2005 USWO that Birdie Kim won with a walkoff slam dunk from the sand when she gutted out a runner-up finish at Carnoustie last year.  Although she hasn't played great yet in 2012, she's definitely back among the LPGA's best.

15. Michelle Wie (2/0): So far, her performance in majors as an LPGA member has been nowhere near her 7 close calls from 2003-2006, including 6 top 5s, 2 of them at Mission Hills.  And so far she's looked rusty at best in 2012.  But those Stanford finals are nothing to sneeze at.  I don't really see her contending so soon after finishing them, but she's still too good to leave off this list.

16. Azahara Munoz (0/1): Her favorite major appears to be the Wegmans LPGA Championship, but she hasn't missed the cut at any of them since joining the LPGA in 2010 and I've been impressed with how solid her start to her junior year on tour has been so far.  Keep an eye on her in majors this year!

17. Sandra Gal (1/0): Yeah, she never cracked the top 30 in a major in her 1st 11 tries, but she got a T15 at last year's KNC, so who knows whether she can turn a decent start to 2012 into a great one this week?

18. Mika Miyazato (0/1): She already has 6 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.  So never mind the fact that she recently followed up a missed cut on the JLPGA with another MC at the Kia.  I have confidence that she'll bounce right back!

Watch Lists

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

Slumping stars: Song-Hee Kim, Seon Hwa Lee, Jee Young Lee, Christina Kim, Vicky Hurst

Rising stars: Beatriz Recari, Mina Harigae, Jennifer Song, Jessica Korda

Possible non-LPGA winners: Ji-Hee Lee, Yukari Baba, Ha-Neul Kim, Ariya Jutanugarn [a]

Monday, March 26, 2012

Kraft Nabisco Championship Preview & Pairings

After a very exciting first five tournaments, the LPGA will be staging its first Major Championship this week. Here are some details:

Course: Mission Hills Country Club, Dinah Shore Tournament Course
Location: Rancho Mirage, California
Defending Champion: Stacy Lewis
Winning Score: 66-69-71-69=275 (-13)

Final Field: 116 players
Par: 72
Yardage: 6702 Yards
Purse: $ 2.0 Million

The Kraft Nabisco Championship had the strongest field of any tournament in 2011. My strength of field rating of 73%, makes it the strongest tournament so far this year. Since it is a major championship, all player of the year points earned will be doubled.

There will be 20 hours of live television coverage. Here is the schedule:

Mar 29 12:00-3:00 PM ET GC
Mar 29 6:30-9:30 PM ET GC
Mar 30 12:00-3:00 PM ET GC
Mar 30 6:30-9:30 PM ET GC
Mar 31 4:30-8:30 PM ET GC
Apr 01 4:30-8:30 PM ET GC

Rolex Ranking Mover of the week:
Jiyai Shin moves from #8 to #6, Sun Young Yoo moves from #45 to #37. Song-Hee Kim, who began last season ranked #9 in the world, has now dropped to #42.

Titleholders Update:
Sun Young Yoo, Jodi Ewart, and Se Ri Pak become the latest to qualify.

Hard to believe stat of the week:
Ai Miyazato's 69.06 scoring average leads the LPGA so far this year. Yani Tseng's 69.15 ranks second. Yani has 3 victories, Ai has none.

Sybase Matchplay Championship Update:
The four highest ranked players on the 2012 money list, that haven't already qualified, will be added to the Sybase field. With 3 more tournaments to play, here are the leading contenders for those four spots:
1- Jenny Shin - $188,834
2- So Yeon Ryu - $174,334
3- Jessica Korda - $165,000
4- Caroline Hedwall - $122,143
5- Julieta Granada - $108,967
6- Mina Harigae - $72,711
7- Amanda Blumenherst - $66,260
8- Jodi Ewart - $65,664

In desperate need of help:
After the first five events of the season, the following four golfers have to be the most disappointing on tour.
1- Song-Hee Kim - 77.11 per round average.
2- Christina Kim - 75.71
3- Michelle Wie - 75.38
4- Tiffany Joh - 75.38

Other Tidbits:
Maria Hjorth missed the Kia Classic cut this past weekend; she had made 27 consecutive cuts. Mika Miyazato also missed the cut after making her last 18.

Shanshan Feng has played 12 rounds of golf on the LPGA this year. She has yet to shoot a round over par. She has finished in the top five in all three events she has played in.

Tony Jesselli's 2012 Player of the Year update:
1-Yani Tseng - 92.96 points
2-Ai Miyazato - 45.08
3-Jiyai Shin - 35.92
4-Shanshan Feng - 34.17
5-Caroline Hedwall - 29.25
6-Angela Stanford - 27.46
7-Jenny Shin - 27.11
8-Na Yeon Choi - 26.21
9-So Yeon Ryu - 26.10
10-Stacy Lewis - 25.34

Update: Here are Thursday's and Friday's Pairings.

Kia Classic Saturday and Sunday: Ya Ni Tseng Wins Going Away

Just like Tiger's win at Arnie's place has everyone wondering about the Masters, Ya Ni Tseng's demolition of La Costa and obliteration of the field at the Kia Classic this past weekend has everyone anticipating her 6th major victory this week at the Kraft Nabisco Championship.  And why not?  Despite being bothered by tendinitis in her right elbow all season, she's already won a shootout, won from behind, and now won by a mile, this time on a course whose tiny greens seemed to favor the LPGA's precision players. 

Even though Tseng missed a bunch of short birdie putts on moving day, she didn't make a bogey all weekend until a meaningless 3-putt on the final hole.  Contrast that with the #2 player on tour, Ai Miyazato, who snagged 5th place with 3 rounds under par and none over par, but who finished 10 shots behind Tseng.  Sure, Miyazato still has the lowest scoring average in 2012, but for how long?  A huge lead on Tseng evaporated to less than a tenth of a stroke at the Kia, thanks to 13 bogeys at La Costa, including 4 in a 9-hole stretch that erased her 4 birdies in a row to start the weekend, which relegated her to a small blip in the world #1's rear-view mirror.  And how about the final-round queen, Ji-Yai Shin, who's next on the money list after her T3 finish?  Well, she made 9 bogeys over the weekend and 6 on Sunday, this despite driving the ball the best of anyone all week, with great accuracy and longer than usual distance for her.  And sure, Sun Young Yoo hung in there despite making 5 bogeys in her final round, snagging just enough birdies to hold onto a solo 2nd-place finish, and Shanshan Feng shot a fine Sunday 67 to move into T3, but basically what they and everyone else were able to do for brief stretches, Tseng was able to do over the course of 72 holes.

So while it's great to see players like Caroline Hedwall, Mina Harigae, Chella Choi, and Jodi Ewart get off to solid starts in 2012, and flashes of brilliance from Hee Kyung Seo, So Yeon Ryu, Jessica Korda, and Jenny Shin, the big question of the year so far is:  where are the rest of Tseng's challengers?  No need to name names--they and we know who they are.  Maybe it'll take the pressure of performing in a major to bring Tseng within striking distance of them.  Maybe....

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Kia Classic Thursday and Friday: Tseng Weathers Pak Attack, Leads by 2

My apologies to the ladies of the LPGA for not blogging their exploits lately.  In fact, I still haven't even watched last Sunday's showdown between Ya Ni Tseng, Ai Miyazato, and Na Yeon Choi.  It's not like I don't know that Ya Ni stormed back on the back 9 to win, although I did try to avoid finding out the results for as long as possible in hopes I'd find time to watch the RR Donnelley's final round....

That resilience Tseng has been showing lately--her ability to slip into "world #1 gear" just when she needs it, even if she was otherwise playing pretty average golf; her ability to hold off top-notch challengers in clutch situations, no matter how well they're playing--was on display the 1st 2 days of the Kia Classic, as well.  So what if Hall of Famer Se Ri Pak dropped a 66 on the field yesterday morning, opening with 6 birdies in her 1st 8 holes?  So what if Tseng stumbled late on the back with a couple of bogeys in a row to fall one behind Pak?  All Ya Ni did was play her last 10 holes bogey-free and make 3 birdies along the way to open up a 2-shot lead on Pak and a 4-shot lead on Ji-Yai Shin, Caroline Hedwall, Alison Walshe (who matched Pak's 66 yesterday!), and Jodi Ewart....

Me, I'm glad to see Ai Miyazato in the top 10, but I'd love to see her go low this weekend and challenge Tseng for the 3rd time this year.  It's nice to see Lexi Thompson hanging in there at E on a course I didn't think would suit her game at all.  But what the heck is up with Stacy Lewis (+1), Na Yeon Choi (+2), Cristie Kerr (+2), Paula Creamer (+3), Morgan Pressel (+3), Anna Nordqvist (+4), In-Kyung Kim (+5), and So Yeon Ryu (+5)?  I would have thought they'd be eating up La Costa!  At least they made the cut, unlike my hometown hero Moira Dunn and a bunch of golfers who I had hoped were starting to struggle through some hard times on the course, from Jee Young Lee to Jane Park to Tiffany Joh to Michelle Wie to Pernilla Lindberg to Mariajo Uribe.  And what happened to Mika Miyazato and Jennifer Song this week?  Ouch!

Can't guarantee how soon I'll find the time to post again!  Sorry!

[Update 1 (7:04 am):  Here's a great long post that recaps the late-2011 and early-2012 heartbreaks for Korean golfers on the LET and LPGA from Happy Fan!]

[Update 2 (7:06 am):  How cool is it that Hannah Yun is paired with Na Yeon Choi today?!]

Monday, March 19, 2012

Kia Classic Preview

At the risk of sounding repetitious, I want to give Yani Tseng a big congratulations for her victory at the RR Donnelly Founders Cup. For most of the weekend it didn't even seem that Yani was playing up to her usual level of golf. The fact that she was still able to win, shows us how great a player she has become.

The tour moves to California this week for the playing of the Kia Classic. The last two ladies to emerge victorious in this event were first time winners. In 2010, Hee Kyeong Seo shocked us all by winning as a non LPGA winner. Last year Sandra Gal made this event her maiden victory.

Here are some details:

Course: La Costa Resort and Spa
Location: Carlsbad, California
Defending Champion: Sandra Gal
Winning Score: 67-68-70 71 +276 (-16)

Final Field: 144 players
Par 72
Yardage: Info not currently available
Purse $ 1.7 Million

This will be the strongest field of the year so far. My strength of field is 68%.
Every LPGA member ranked in the top 45 of the Rolex Rankings will be in attendance.
The only notable LPGA member missing from the field is Momoko Ueda. Returning to the field this week is Jessica Korda, who was a winner in her only start this year.
Mellissa Reid and Ha Neul Kim, have been granted sponsor exemptions.

Here is the television schedule:
March 22 6:30-9:00 PM ET GC
March 23 6:30-9:00 PM ET GC
March 24 6:30-9:00 PM ET GC
March 25 7:00-9:00 PM ET GC

Rolex Movers of the Week:
Ai Miyazato moves from #9 to #7. Caroline Hedwall moves from #32 to #24.

Titleholders Update:
So Yeon Ryu, Hee Young Park, and Caroline Hedwall become the latest to qualify.

Hard to Believe stat of the week:
You would think it impossible to have 16 birdies and only 7 bogeys in a 72 hole tournament and finish 8 over par. That is exactly what Ryann O'Toole did this past weekend. Unfortunately for her she also had 3 double bogeys, and 3 triple bogeys on her scorecard.

Other Tidbits:

Paula Creamer moves to #8 on the career money list, as she passed Beth Daniel.
Here is a look at the career top 10 of all time:

1 Annika Sorenstam $22,573,192.00
2 Karrie Webb $16,587,476.75
3 Lorena Ochoa $14,863,331.00
4 Cristie Kerr $13,607,874.75
5 Juli Inkster $13,394,109.98
6 Se Ri Pak $11,437,047.50
7 Meg Mallon $9,044,059.00
8 Paula Creamer $8,802,101.00
9 Beth Daniel $8,786,562.80
10 Laura Davies $8,737,720.50
Paula, only 25 years old, is the only player on the list under 30.

Sophomore Jinx?
Tiffany Joh who had an excellent rookie season in 2011 when she recorded a per round average of 72.75, has seen that figure balloon to 74.78 this year. Look for her to snap out of it sooner rather than later.

Consistently mediocre; Suzann Pettersen has been just that with her finishes resulting in 22nd, 21st, 25th, and 26th place this year.

Momoko Ueda withdrew after two rounds this past weekend. She was in the top 20 at the time with a 4 under par score. She has now pulled out of the Kia Classic.

Brittany Lincicome missed the cut this past weekend. She had made an LPGA leading 44 consecutive cuts. Karrie Webb now has the longest streak with 28.

Yani Tseng is the only player to finish in the top ten in all four tournaments this year. Ai Miyazato has finished in the top 10 in all three that she has played in. Honorable mention should go to Caroline Hedwall, who has not finished outside the top 12 this year.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

T-Point Ladies Saturday: Will the 2nd Time Be the Charm for Eun-Bi Jang?

Eun-Bi Jang fired a 31 on the front and cruised home for a bogey-free 66 that leapfrogged her from a tie for 26th on Friday to sole possession of the lead in the T-Point Ladies by the end of moving day.  Jang got some help from the 1st-round leaders, as Ayako Uehara faltered with a birdie-less 75, Mayu Hattori suffered a 4-bogey 74, and Kaori Ohe needed a birdie on her final hole to salvage a 72.  With a grand total of 22 golfers within 5 shots of the lead, tomorrow's final round should be a barn-burner. 

Will Jang do better then than the only other time in her JLPGA career that she was in this position, when she lost to a charging Shanshan Feng in the final round of the Meiji Chocolate Cup last August?  Or will Soo-Yun Kang, who eagled her 1st hole on the way to a 67 today that brought her a single shot from the lead, finally get her 1st JLPGA victory?  Or will Ji-Hee Lee (2 shots back; 15 career JLPGA wins) or Mi-Jeong Jeon (3; 17) continue the "Korean Power Wave" that's been sweeping Japan?  Or will a Japanese young gun like Ritsuko Ryu (1 back, 1 win), Ohe (2 back, 0 wins), or Harukyo Nomura (3 back, 1 win) stem the tide?  Or will Teresa Lu (3 back, 0 wins) break through for Taiwan on the JLPGA?  Or will a living legend like Yuri Fudoh or heavy hitter like Sakura Yokomine make a charge from 4 back?  Or will someone else take the T-Point title?

Here's how the leaderboard stands with 18 holes left to be played:

1st/-6 Eun-Bi Jang (72-66)
T2/-5 Soo-Yun Kang (72-67), Ritsuko Ryu (70-69)
T4/-4 Ji-Hee Lee (71-69), Kaori Ohe (68-72)
T6/-3 Ah-Reum Hwang (73-68), Harukyo Nomura (71-70), Mi-Jeong Jeon (70-71), Teresa Lu (69-72)
T10/-2 Yuri Fudoh (73-69), Yuki Ichinose (72-70), Asako Fujimoto (71-71), Sakura Yokomine (70-72), Mayu Hattori (68-74)

T15/-1 Young Kim (73-70), Akane Iijima (73-70), Shinobu Moromizato (71-72), Hiromi Mogi (70-73), Porani Chutichai (69-74), Ayako Uehara (68-75)
T23/E Erina Hara (73-71), Misuzu Narita (73-71), Mina Nakayama (73-71), Maiko Wakabayashi (71-73), Na-Ri Lee (71-73), Junko Omote (70-74), Li-Ying Ye (70-74), Lala Anai (70-74), Mamiko Higa [a] (70-74)
T33/+1 Kotono Kozuma (76-69), Rikako Morita (75-70)
T40/+2 So-Hee Kim (78-68), Yukari Baba (74-72), Rui Kitada (73-73), Saiki Fujita (73-73), Erika Kikuchi (72-74), Miki Sakai (72-74), Tao-Li Yang (72-74)
T49/+3 Esther Lee (73-74), Yumiko Yoshida (71-76), Miyari Honda (70-77)

MC: Na-Ri Kim, Kaori Aoyama, Da-Ye Na, Hsuan-Yu Yao, Saeko Endo, Bo-Mee Lee, Hyun-Ju Shin, Tamie Durdin, Kumiko Kaneda, Onnarin Sattayabanphot, Satsuki Oshiro, Erina Yamato, Sakurako Mori, Megumi Kido, Mie Nakata, Airi Saitoh, Aoi Nagata, Aiko Kaneda, Sae Yamamura

Amazing that Bo-Mee Lee missed the cut the same week Sun-Ju Ahn sits one out.  We should see some big changes to the top of the JLPGA money list after tomorrow's round!

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.

Friday, March 16, 2012

T-Point Ladies Friday: Uehara, Hattori, and Ohe Take the Lead

28-year-old Ayako Uehara is the most veteran player among the trio who lead the T-Point Ladies heading into the weekend, as she has 4 years on Mayu Hattori and 7 on Kaori Ohe.  In fact, only 1 player over 30 broke 70 in the rainy conditions in Kagoshima today.  And with Teresa Lu only 1 shot off the lead, Sakura Yokomine and Mi-Jeong Jeon 2 back, and Ji-Hee Lee and Harukyo Nomura only 3 off the pace, the odds are looking pretty good that someone in their 20s will win the tournament.

Here's how the leaderboard looks after 18 holes have been completed:

T1/-4 Ayako Uehara, Mayu Hattori, Kaori Ohe (68)
T4/-3 Teresa Lu, Yui Kawahara, Porani Chutichai, Nachiyo Ohtani (69)
T8/-2 Sakura Yokomine, Mi-Jeong Jeon, Ritsuko Ryu, Na-Ri Kim, Hiromi Mogi, Junko Omote, Li-Ying Ye, Lala Anai, Miyari Honda, Mamiko Higa [a] (70)

T18/-1 Ji-Hee Lee, Harukyo Nomura, Shinobu Moromizato, Asako Fujimoto, Maiko Wakabayashi, Na-Ri Lee, Yumiko Yoshida (71)
T26/E Soo-Yun Kang, Yuki Ichinose, Erika Kikuchi, Miki Sakai, Eun-Bi Jang, Tao-Li Yang (72)
T38/+1 Yuri Fudoh, Young Kim, Rui Kitada, Saiki Fujita, Akane Iijima, Erina Hara, Ah-Reum Hwang, Misuzu Narita, Mina Nakayama (73)
T52/+2 Yukari Baba, Kaori Aoyama, Da-Ye Na, Hsuan-Yu Yao, Saeko Endo (74)
T67/+3 Bo-Mee Lee, Hyun-Ju Shin, Rikako Morita, Tamie Durdin, Kumiko Kaneda, Onnarin Sattayabanphot, Satsuki Oshiro (75)
T77/+4 Erina Yamato, Sakurako Mori, Kotono Kozuma (76)
T83/+5 Megumi Kido (77)
T87/+6 Mie Nakata, So-Hee Kim, Airi Saitoh, Aoi Nagata, Aiko Kaneda (78)
T97/+7 Sae Yamamura (79)

With Sun-Ju Ahn sitting this one out, after all, and recent winners Lee and Saitoh off to bad starts, the door is wide open for someone else to step up.  Let's see who does it over the next 36 holes!

RR Donnelley LPGA Founders Cup Thursday: Tseng Shoots 29 on Back to Catch Hee Young Park at -7

Yani Tseng put on an exhibition during the back 9 of the 1st round of the RR Donnelley LPGA Founders Cup yesterday to catch Hee Young Park at -7 and take a 1-shot lead on Ji-Yai Shin, a 2-shot lead on Na Yeon Choi, Karen Stupples, Hee Kyung Seo, Pernilla Lindberg, and Christine Song, and a 3-shot lead on a host of golfers that included defending champion Karrie Webb, Cristie Kerr, Ai Miyazato, Stacy Lewis, Azahara Munoz, So Yeon Ryu, and Inbee Park.  With 37 players in the 60s, 84 at par or better, and 54 holes to go, it's way too soon to call this one for the world #1, but when you consider that Tseng missed a short birdie putt on 18 and still went -7 over her last 8 holes, the rest of the field must be feeling the same kind of pressure that Annika Sorenstam and Lorena Ochoa used to put on them to go low, stay low, and never look over their shoulders.

Tseng talked in interviews about staying patient on the front when the putts weren't falling, but even more impressive to me than the fact that she went -8 over her last 14 holes of bogey-free golf was the following statement:
I've been working really hard with my strategy, my driver, my tee‑off, because like first couple year when I was on Tour my driving accuracy was low in the rank. So after that I tell myself I want to get my driving accuracy at least top 50 because that way if I hit it more on the fairway I can have better chance to make birdie to hit it on the green.

So this Tour year I've been improving a lot of my driving accuracy today. Some of the holes I just choked down the three‑quarter shot. Some of it was wide hole, I just bumped in there and tried as hard. When you feel that rhythm there, you just hit a good shot, and I didn't worry about too much. So I didn't worry about if I hit it in the rough or I just think about where my ball is going to go. So it's kind of very positive thinking.

If Tseng is able to turn herself into what I call a "straight-up bomber"--that is, someone with great distance and good accuracy off the tee--she's going to become even more dominant than she was last year.  To see what I'm talking about, compare her 1st-round stats to former world #1 and 8-time LPGA winner Ji-Yai Shin.  Shin hit every fairway, but because she averaged only 245 yards off the tee, she hit only 13 greens and needed a hot putter to allow her to shoot her bogey-free 66.  Tseng, meanwhile, hit 11 fairways while averaging over 280 yards off the tee, which enabled her to hit 16 greens and not only give herself loads of birdie chances but also make an eagle on the par-5 15th.  If Tseng continues to hit fairways at that pace all year, she'd probably rank in the top 10 in driving accuracy (going by rankings over the last several seasons, not just last year, when driving accuracy was way up on tour).  What does that mean?  Well, in 2007, Lorena hit only 68.2% of her fairways, but combined with over 270 yards off the tee and some stellar iron play (#1 in greens in regulation) and putting (2nd in putts per green in regulation), she won 8 times and fell just short of $5M in winnings.  That's the kind of year I'm talking about.

OK, enough about how awesome Tseng is and can be.  Overshadowed by her fireworks was a smart little 30 on the back by Jane Park, who only improved 10 strokes from her front-9 score!  It was great to see her playing like she's capable of again.  And I was pleased to see good numbers from others of my faves, like Mika Miyazato and Mina Harigae at -3 and Seon Hwa Lee and In-Kyung Kim joining Park at -2.  Almost makes up for my disappointment with that late double from Tiffany Joh that dropped her to a 74 or the back-9 collapse of Hannah Yun that saw her skyrocket to a 77.  Or my shock that HSBC Women's Champions winner Angela Stanford hit 15 greens but could only manage a 75 on Thursday.  But let's end on a positive note:  it's really neat to see highly-hyped youngsters like Danielle Kang (68), Belen Mozo (68), Lexi Thompson (69), Jennifer Song (69), Caroline Hedwall (70), and Cydney Clanton (70) get off to good starts, more-under-the-radar youngsters who started last season off well like Christine Song (67) and Mindy Kim (68) put themselves in the mix right off the bat this week, and vets like Karen Stupples (67), Karrie Webb (68), Hee-Won Han (69), Pat Hurst (69), Janice Moodie (69), Se Ri Pak (70), Laura Davies (70), and Sophie Gustafson (70) show the kids a thing or two.  But probably the player I'm happiest for right now is Pernilla Lindberg (67), who's struggled mightily in her transition to professional golf but who looks to be turning things around.

OK, who am I kidding?  Yes, I'm totally psyched that Ai Miyazato shot an efficient 68 to put herself right where she needed to be.  Glad she's recovered from her illness that almost forced her to withdraw from the HSBC Women's Champions!  Let's see what she can do today!

[Update 1 (12:22 pm):  Here are bangkokbobby (with loads of pics and youtube clips) and Emily Kay on the 1st round.]

[Update 2 (12:32 pm): Great pre-tournament profile of rookie Lizette Salas by Lisa Mickey in the New York Times!]

Monday, March 12, 2012

RR Donnelley LPGA Founders Cup Preview

After a two-week break, the tour resumes this week with the playing of the RR Donnelley Founders Cup. This will be the fourth official tournament of the year. I don't know what they can possibly do to top the first three. The first tournament of the year saw Jessica Korda win a six-player playoff. The second tournament saw Yani Tseng make a spectacular approach shot on the 72nd hole for a one-shot victory. The third tournament saw Angela Stanford get her first victory since 2009 in a thrilling four-player playoff. What could they possibly have in store for us next?

Here are some details on this week's event:

Course: Wildfire Golf Club - Desert Ridge Resort
Location: Phoenix, AZ
Defending Champion: Karrie Webb
2011 Winning Score: 71-66-67=204 (-12)

Final Field: 132 players
Par: 72
Yardage: 6613 Yards
Purse: 1.5 Million

Here is the television schedule:
March 15: 6:30-8:30 PM ET GC
March 16: 6:30-8:30 PM ET GC
March 17: 4:00-7:00 PM ET GC
March 18: 4:00-7:00 PM ET GC

Many changes have been made since the inaugural tournament last year. In 2011 the tournament was just 54 holes; this year it has expanded to 72. The biggest change is that last year the entire purse of 1 million dollars went to charity, this year the 1.5 million dollar purse will be shared by the players.

A very strong field will be playing this week; 15 of the top 20 players in the world will be teeing it up. The only top named players that are not participating are Michelle Wie, Shanshan Feng, Song-Hee Kim, Jessica Korda, and Haru Nomura.

My strength of field is a very solid 60%, up from 44% last year when it ranked last for the entire season.

A closer look at why the field is so much stronger than last year when there was no purse shows us the following:

I.K. Kim will be playing for the first time, although she can certainly be excused for skipping this event last year. Just a few months before, she had given her entire winning paycheck of $250,000 to charity.

Hee Young Park and Meena Lee did not play last year as they chose to play in Japan instead. They are both playing this week.

The Japanese trio of Ai Miyazato, Mika Miyazato, and Momoko Ueda all skipped the tournament last year and are teeing it up this week. Their absence can surely be excused considering the tragedy that struck their country.

Suzann Pettersen, Maria Hjorth, Anna Nordqvist, and Catriona Matthew all chose not to participate in this most charitable tournament last year. It is amazing what a purse of $1.5 million and a winner's check of $225,000 can do; they all chose to play this year.

Other tidbits:

Lexi Thompson has a new caddie. Greg Johnston who has caddied in the past for such stars as Amy Yang, Lorena Ochoa, Brittany Lincicome, Suzanne Pettersen and Michelle Wie, will now be on her bag. Johnston is most famous for carrying Juli Inkster's bag for 12 years, resulting in 7 major championships. Scott Thompson, Lexi's father, had been carrying her bag. Scott will now caddie for Lexi's brother Nicholas.

There have been a couple of name changes on the LPGA field list this week. M.J. Hur is now listed as Mi Jung Hur. Taylor Leon, who got married last month, is now listed as Taylor Coutu.

Rolex Mover of the Week:
Bo-Mee Lee, winner this past weekend in Japan, moves from #53 to #44.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Yokohama Tire PRGR Ladies Cup Sunday: Seoul Sisters Showdown as Bo-Mee Lee Beats Sun-Ju Ahn in Playoff

23-year-old Bo-Mee Lee split her time between the KLPGA and JLPGA last season, but this year she's focusing mainly on the JLPGA, and going by her playoff defeat of 24-year-old Sun-Ju Ahn at the Yokohama Tire PRGR Ladies Cup today, the 2010 KLPGA Player of the Year is ready to make some noise on the JLPGA in 2012.

Having dominated the JLPGA the last 2 seasons, Ahn started the final round looking like someone shooting for a Player of the Year hat trick, as she took over the lead from 2nd-round leaders Yuri Fudoh, Mi-Jeong Jeon, and Ayako Uehara at -2 on the strength of 4 birdies (including 3 in a row) over her 1st 7 holes.  But an Ahn bogey on the 363-yard par 4 8th coupled with birdies by Uehara and Lee dropped her back into a 3-way tie for the lead.  Lee kept pouring it on with birdies on the par-5 10th and par-4 12th (to bring her total to 4 in her previous 6 holes), but Uehara kept pace with her from the final group, joining her at -3 with 6 holes to play.  Then it was Uehara's turn to blink, as her bogey on the 365-yard par-4 13th dropped her back into a tie for 2nd with Ahn, who could only manage 1 birdie (on the 296-yard par-4 11th) after her mistake on 8.  But despite cooling off in the middle of her round Ahn kept her cool down the stretch and sank a clutch birdie putt on the 315-yard par-4 16th to join Lee at -3.  When neither Lee nor Uehara could make a birdie down the stretch, it was playoff time for the 2nd week in a row on the JLPGA.  In a classic Seoul Sisters showdown, Lee defeated Ahn with a par on the 2nd playoff hole.

Although there were bright spots for Japanese golfers on the 1-year anniversary of the horrific earthquake and typhoon--Akane Iijima birdied 3 of her last 5 holes to join Jeon and Soo-Yun Kang at E for the week, 21-year-old Mina Nakayama got her 1st career top 10 thanks to a 6-birdie 69, and Sakura Yokomine bounced back from a moving-day nightmare to just miss the top 10--the day belonged to the "Korean power wave" the Japanese media makes such a big deal of, with 26-year-old Na-Ri Kim getting within 2 shots of the lead before falling off the pace with back-to-back bogeys to close out her round, 23-year-old Na-Ri Lee posting her best finish since last October, and 24-year-old Da-Ye Na garnering her 2nd-straight top 20, not to mention the big names at the very top of the leaderboard.

1st/-3 Bo-Mee Lee (73-71-69) [won in playoff]
2nd/-3 Sun-Ju Ahn (73-73-67)
3rd/-2 Ayako Uehara (73-70-71)
T4/E Akane Iijima (73-74-69), Soo-Yun Kang (72-73-71), Mi-Jeong Jeon (69-74-73)
T7/+1 Mina Nakayama (76-72-69), Ritsuko Ryu (75-73-69), Na-Ri Kim (74-73-70)
10th/+2 Yuri Fudoh (68-75-75)

11th/+3 Teresa Lu (77-68-74)
T12/+4 Kumiko Kaneda (75-74-71), Na-Ri Lee (75-74-71), Sakura Yokomine (72-77-71), Saiki Fujita (73-73-74)
T18/+5 Mayu Hattori (74-77-70), Li-Ying Ye (73-78-70), Da-Ye Na (77-73-71)
T22/+6 Aiko Kaneda (75-74-73), Yuki Ichinose (75-73-74), Harukyo Nomura (74-74-74), Hiromi Mogi (73-75-74)
T28/+7 Erina Hara (77-73-73), So-Hee Kim (76-74-73), Hyun-Ju Shin (73-76-74), Asako Fujimoto (77-71-75), Yumiko Yoshida (70-75-78)
T33/+8 Shanshan Feng (76-76-72)
T37/+9 Yukari Baba (76-76-73), Esther Lee (73-77-75), Sae Yamamura (76-73-76), Shinobu Moromizato (73-74-78)
T43/+10 Erika Kikuchi (74-78-74), Rui Kitada (74-77-75), Haruka Kudo (77-74-76), Ji-Hee Lee (76-72-78)
56th/+13 Misuzu Narita (77-75-77)
T58/+15 Kaori Ohe (74-78-79)

Here are the top 20 on the new JLPGA money list:
1. Bo-Mee Lee ¥16.10M
2. Airi Saitoh ¥14.40M
3. Mi-Jeong Jeon, Akane Iijima ¥7.10M
5. Sun-Ju Ahn ¥7.04M
6. Ji-Hee Lee ¥6.60M
7. Yuko Mitsuka ¥6.32M
8. Ayako Uehara ¥5.97M
9. Soo-Yun Kang ¥5.30M
10. Erika Kikuchi ¥5.14M
11. Sakura Yokomine ¥4.27M
12. Rui Kitada ¥3.44M
13. Na-Ri Kim ¥3.05M
14. Ritsuko Ryu ¥2.84M
15. Mina Nakayama ¥2.77M
16. Mayu Hattori ¥2.49M
17. Teresa Lu ¥2.36M
18. Yuri Fudoh ¥2.31M
19. Rikako Morita ¥2.04M
20. Kumiko Kaneda ¥1.88M

Next up is the T-Point Ladies.   Let's see if Ahn and Lee develop an ongoing JLPGA rivalry!

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Yokohama Tire PRGR Ladies Cup Saturday: Ayako Uehara and Mi-Jeong Jeon Catch Yuri Fudoh

As bangkokbobby reported earlier today, Ayako Uehara and Mi-Jeong Jeon caught 1st-round leader of the Yokohama Tire PRGR Ladies Cup Yuri Fudoh at -1, on a day when even an eagle couldn't keep the JLPGA's only Billion Yen Woman from ballooning to a 75, as she offset it with back-to-back bogeys to close out her round.  The round of the day, though, belonged to former LPGAer Teresa Lu, who fired a 68 that included 6 birdies, an eagle, and 4 bogeys and which improved on her 1st-round score by 9 shots, bringing her within 2 shots of the lead.  KLPGA star Bo-Mee Lee birdied 4 holes in a row as she made the turn and parred out over her last 6 holes to stay within 1 of the 3 leaders.  With 2-time player of the year Sun-Ju Ahn only 3 off the pace after birdieing 5 of her last 10 holes today, tomorrow's final round should be amazing.  If you don't mind a spoiler, it's already tomorrow in Japan!

Here's how the top 10 and notables stand after 36 holes:

T1/-1 Ayako Uehara (73-70), Mi-Jeong Jeon (69-74), Yuri Fudoh (68-75)
4th/E Bo-Mee Lee (73-71)
T5/+1 Teresa Lu (77-68), Soo-Yun Kang (72-73), Yumiko Yoshida (70-75)
T8/+2 Shiho Toyonaga (74-72), Sun-Ju Ahn (73-73), Saiki Fujita (73-73), Nana Akahori (71-75)

T12/+3 Na-Ri Kim (74-73), Shinobu Moromizato (73-74), Akane Iijima (73-74)
T17/+4 Asako Fujimoto (77-71), Ji-Hee Lee (76-72), Mina Nakayama (76-72), Ritsuko Ryu (75-73), Yuki Ichinose (75-73), Harukyo Nomura (74-74), Hiromi Mogi (73-75)
T24/+5 Sae Yamamura (76-73), Kumiko Kaneda (75-74), Na-Ri Lee (75-74), Aiko Kaneda (75-74), Hyun-Ju Shin (73-76), Sakura Yokomine (72-77)
T31/+6 Erina Hara (77-73), Da-Ye Na (77-73), So-Hee Kim (76-74), Esther Lee (73-77)
T40/+7 Haruka Kudo (77-74), Mayu Hattori (74-77), Rui Kitada (74-77), Li-Ying Ye (73-78)
T47/+8 Misuzu Narita (77-75), Shanshan Feng (76-76), Yukari Baba (76-76), Kaori Ohe (74-78), Erika Kikuchi (74-78)

MC: Onnarin Sattayabanphot, Tamie Durdin, Satsuki Oshiro, Megumi Kido, Natsuka Hori, Rikako Morita, Kaori Aoyama, Maiko Wakabayashi, Miki Sakai, Kotono Kozuma, Porani Chutichai, Ah-Reum Hwang, Airi Saitoh, Young Kim, Miki Saiki, Eun-Bi Jang, Tao-Li Yang, Megumi Takahashi [a], Ming-Yen Chen, Nikki Campbell, Lala Anai, Hsuan-Yu Yao, Gloria Park

Too bad Yokomine, Feng, and Nomura will start the final round in the middle of the pack.  Let's see if any of them can make a big move on the players going off in the last 3 or 4 threesomes....

Friday, March 9, 2012

Yokohama Tire PRGR Ladies Cup Friday: Yuri Fudoh Takes One-Shot Lead on Mi-Jeong Jeon

From one of the least likely winners in the JLPGA's season opener to two of the most familiar names on tour on top of the leaderboard at the Yokohama Tire PRGR Ladies Cup:  what a difference a week makes! 

Yuri Fudoh at -4, Mi-Jeong Jeon at -3, Yumiko Yoshida at -2, and Nana Akahori at -1 were the only golfers to break par at Tosa Country Club today, due to the combination of cold, wind, and rain that plagued most of the golfers in the field.  Last week's winner Airi Saitoh ballooned to a 79 in the tough conditions, but she wasn't alone, as 16 golfers failed to break 80 and many stars were well over par, including Harukyo Nomura and Mayu Hattori at +2, Ritsuko Ryu, Kumiko Kaneda, and Tamie Durdin at +3, Shanshan Feng (who won last week on the LET), Ji-Hee Lee, and Yukari Baba at +4, Teresa Lu at +5, Rikako Morita at +6, Young Kim and Miki Saiki at +8, Nikki Campbell at +10, and Gloria Park at +11.  Still, with Sakura Yokomine and Soo-Yun Kang only 4 shots behind Fudoh and Sun-Ju Ahn, Bo-Mee Lee, Hyun-Ju Shin, Shinobu Moromizato, Ayako Uehara, and Saiki Fujita among those 5 off the pace, the leaderboard is packed with big names.

Here's how it looks:

1st/-4 Yuri Fudoh (68)
2nd/-3 Mi-Jeong Jeon (69)
3rd/-2 Yumiko Yoshida (70)
4th/-1 Nana Akahori (71)
T5/E Sakura Yokomine, Soo-Yun Kang (72)
T7/+1 Sun-Ju Ahn, Bo-Mee Lee, Hyun-Ju Shin, Shinobu Moromizato, Ayako Uehara, Saiki Fujita, Akane Iijima, Hiromi Mogi, Esther Lee, Li-Ying Ye, Onnarin Sattayabanphot (73)

T22/+2 Harukyo Nomura, Mayu Hattori, Rui Kitada, Na-Ri Kim, Kaori Ohe, Erika Kikuchi (74)
T33/+3 Ritsuko Ryu, Kumiko Kaneda, Tamie Durdin, Na-Ri Lee, Yuki Ichinose, Aiko Kaneda (75)
T45/+4 Shanshan Feng, Ji-Hee Lee, Yukari Baba, So-Hee Kim, Satsuki Oshiro, Megumi Kido, Mina Nakayama, Natsuka Hori, Sae Yamamura (76)
T57/+5 Teresa Lu, Asako Fujimoto, Erina Hara, Misuzu Narita, Haruka Kudo, Da-Ye Na (77)
T70/+6 Rikako Morita, Kaori Aoyama, Maiko Wakabayashi, Miki Sakai, Kotono Kozuma, Porani Chutichai (78)
T80/+7 Ah-Reum Hwang, Airi Saitoh (79)
T89/+8 Young Kim, Miki Saiki, Eun-Bi Jang, Tao-Li Yang, Megumi Takahashi [a] (80)
T97/+9 Ming-Yen Chen (81)
T100/+10 Nikki Campbell, Lala Anai, Hsuan-Yu Yao (82)
T104/+11 Gloria Park (83)
WD Bo-Bae Song ("bad physical condition after 9 holes"), Erina Yamato ("right wrist pain after 13 holes")

On the bright side, Fudoh had the most birdies on the day with 5, Jeon had the only bogey-free round in the field, and Yokomine eagled the 296-yard par-4 11th.  Among the horror stories were a triple on 18 by Shiho Toyonaga that erased her 3 birdies on the back and sent her to a 74, a double on the 18th by Nomura, a pair of triples by Sakai, 9 bogeys and a double by long-absent-from-international-competition Gloria Park, and a bogey-bogey-triple finish by amateur Megumi Takahashi.

Let's hope the weather is better for the weekend!

Song-Hee Kim Out of RR Donnelley Founders Cup

Song-Hee Kim, who withdrew last week in the middle of the third round of the HSBC Women's Champions, is out of the RR Donnelley Founders Cup.

Song-Hee has been struggling mightily with her game this year. She ranks 98th with a 77.57 per round average. Let us hope that she is just taking time off to straighten out her game, and it is not an injury.

Will update if I find out more.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Future Hall of Famers?

As we wait another week for the tour to resume, let's have a little fun.
I think everyone would agree that the talent on the LPGA tour is deeper than anytime in its history. I think there are numerous reasons why that is so.
First, I think the ladies are starting out younger. I also think they are certainly much stronger. That said, I think the influx of international players is the key reason this tour has so much depth. In 2012 the LPGA roster has 128 international players from 27 different countries. South Korea alone has 42 players. They are followed by Sweden (13), Canada (10), Australia (8), Japan and Spain (6). With each tournament played, the LPGA puts on display the brightest stars from all over the world.

What I want to try to answer today is:
Who are the absolute best players?
Who have hit their peaks?
Do we have any future Hall of Famers?

That is what I would like to focus on now, the Hall of Fame.

First, let's look at the requirements:

1- Must have 10 years of service on the LPGA tour.
2- Must have won or been rewarded one of the following: an LPGA major championship, the Vare Trophy (lowest strokes per round average), or Rolex Player of the Year honors.
3- Must have accumulated 27 points, which are awarded as follows - 1 point for each LPGA official tournament win, One extra point if the win was a major championship, and one point for each Vare Trophy or Player of the Year honor earned.

Now let's look at the players still playing regularly, who have already met those requirements.

Karrie Webb - 49 points (37 wins, 7 majors, 3 Vare, 2 POY).
Juli Inkster - 38 points (31 wins, 7 majors, 0 Vare, 0 POY).
Se Ri Pak - 31 points (25 wins, 5 majors, 1 Vare, 0 POY).

That is a very short list. I want to mention that Lorena Ochoa has accumulated more than enough points (37), but retired before putting in the 10 years. I am sure the powers at be will vote her in, in the very near future.

Now for the fun part: I am going to play odds maker and try to handicap 16 of the current star players on tour that I think have any chance of qualifying some day.

The Sure Shot

1- Yani Tseng (13 wins, 5 majors, 1 Vare, 2 POY) Odds 1-5
I used to argue that 27 points was too hard to achieve. I thought it should be lowered. Yani threw that argument out the window, when she accumulated 11 points last year alone. At the age of 23, Yani already has 21 points. Open up the doors, Yani is taking the fast track.

Well On Their Way

2- Jiyai Shin - (8 wins, 1 major) Odds 2-1
2010 was an off year, by her high standards. She has looked very good so far this year. We tend to forget she is still only 23. Already a major winner, look for Jiyai to be amongst the best for years to come.

3- Paula Creamer - (9 wins, 1 major) Odds 11-5
Wrist surgery delayed her climb a bit, but she fulfilled the major championship requirement by winning the U.S. Open at Oakmont in 2010. She proved herself healthy last year with 4 top 3 finishes. Still very young at 25 years old, Pauls is well on her way with 10 points.

4- Ai Miyazato - ( 7 wins, 0 majors) Odds 13-5
I think she is certainly as good as the two players I ranked above her. I have to rank her lower though, because she is older than both of them and has less points. The other blemish on her record (compared to Creamer and Shin), is that she has yet to win a major. I think that major is coming soon. She will need a couple of more years like 2010, which she is surely capable of.

5- Na Yeon Choi (5 wins, 0 majors, 1 Vare) Odds 3-1
To get into the Hall of Fame, she is going to have to turn more of those top 10's into victories. Won the Vare trophy in 2010, so we know she has the talent. Her Sunday rounds seem to lack confidence. At 24 years old, I see lots of wins in her future.

Running Out of Time

6- Cristie Kerr (14 wins, 2 majors) Odds 4-1
Several times she has come so close to winning the Vare Trophy and Player of the Year award, but has never won either. That may cost her dearly. She has accumulated 16 points, but at age 34 and 11 points short, it will be an uphill battle. Generally considered the best putter on tour, she will have to maintain that status to have any chance.

7- Laura Davies (20 wins, 4 majors, 1 POY) Odds 5-1
She belongs in the Hall of Fame. I think I read somewhere, where she has won another 50 tournaments overseas. Unfortunately she is still 2 points short. At age 48, chances are she isn't going to win again on the LPGA. She hasn't been on the leader board in quite some time, but stranger things have happened. Like Lorena, she will be voted in someday.

8- Suzann Pettersen (8 wins, 1 major) Odds 6-1
Why is it that when I think of the elite players on the tour, I always think of her very quickly? Why is she in this category? Because even though she is in her prime at age 31, she is running out of time. Unbelievably, she only has accumulated 9 points in her career. When I looked it up, I thought surely that had to be a mistake. It wasn't. She needs to start winning quickly. Two wins last year give her some hope.

They Need to Show Us More

9- I.K. Kim (3 wins, 0 majors) Odds 8-1
I am not sure yet how big a star she will be. Like Na Yeon Choi, she has to turn some of her many top 10's into wins. Seems to disappear on Sundays. At 23 years old she certainly has time on her side.

10- Brittany Lincicome (5 wins, 1 major) Odds 8-1
Brittany finally lived up to expectations in 2011 by winning twice. Nicknamed "Bam Bam" for her long hitting abilities, Brittany is still young enough at 26 to win regularly for years to come. Whether she will stay on the tour long enough is another question. Rumor has it she will only play another couple of years and then retire to her boat and fish. If she plays longer than that, she could beat these odds.

11- Stacy Lewis (1 win, 1 major) Odds 10-1
We knew when she came out of college that she had the potential to be a big star. She finally started living up to her potential last year, when she made her first victory a major. She seems to be in contention to win almost every week. A very emotional player, that seems to be her downfall. She has the tendency to turn bogies into triple bogeys with regularity. One bad hole leads to several bad holes. Stacy is one of those players who could step up and challenge Yani. Until she gets those emotions in check, it's not going to happen.

12- Michelle Wie (2 wins, 0 majors) Odds 10-1
Sometimes I wonder why I continue to put her on this list. The word "underachiever" is surely tossed around whenever discussing her. She has not won since 2010 and her short game is nothing short of a disaster. She seems to be going in the wrong direction. I am still going to give her the benefit of doubt, one more time. She will be graduating any time now, so sharing time with studies will no longer be an excuse. Still, if she ever puts it together, she could move up quickly. Her talent has never been questioned, but does she have the desire? Still only 22, I think this year will tell us alot.

13- Hee Kyung Seo (1 win, 0 majors) )Odds 15-1
A very talented and charismatic lady. The only reason I don't rank her higher is that she started on the LPGA very late, by today's standards. At 25, many of the girls listed above have many more points at a younger age. Hall or fame or not, she will be interesting to watch for years to come.

Okay, those are the players I think have at least a reasonable chance of qualifying for the Hall of Fame. Now I'm going to push this just a little bit further. The LPGA has 3 players who still are "babies" on the tour, but I think that they are so exceptionally talented that I have to put them on this list. Yes I know it's a bit premature, but since this is for fun, I'm going to do it anyway.

The Super Stars of the Future

1- Lexi Thompson (1 win) Odds 5-1
Has their ever been a golfer of any gender, this good, this young? Last year at 16, she won on both the LPGA and LET tours. The sky's the limit.

2- So Yeon Ryu (1 win, 1 major) Odds 6-1
Want to get yourself noticed? Try winning as a non LPGA member, and make that win the U.S. Open. That is what Seo Yeon did last year. Already got into a playoff in one of the 2 tournaments she has played this year in her rookie season. Now if I can only stop mixing her up with Hee Kyeong Seo. At 21, she is going to be a superstar.

3- Jessica Korda (1 win) Odds 12-1
Did not have a very good rookie year last year. She made us all forget that by winning the Australian Open in her only appearance so far this year. Was it a fluke? I don't think so. Greatness is in her bloodline. At 18 years young, more wins will follow.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Daikin Orchid Ladies Saturday and Sunday: Airi Saitoh Wins JLPGA Season Opener in 3-Way Playoff

It's not so often a complete unknown contends on the JLPGA, much less wins a 3-way playoff against much more accomplished players after giving away a 2-shot overnight lead in the Daikin Orchid Ladies with a double bogey to start her Sunday and giving away another 2-shot lead with 2 holes to go to end it with back-to-back bogeys.  But that's just what 22-year-old Airi Saitoh did today at Ryukyu Country Club in Okinawa. 

Saitoh twice graduated from the JLPGA's developmental tour, the Step-Up Tour, to play 3 JLPGA events in 2010 and 4 in 2011, but never finished under par in a single round and never cracked the top 30.  So what was she doing shooting a 30 on the back on moving day to nail down a bogey-free 64 and leave the likes of Inbee Park and Yukari Baba in the dust?  What was she doing bouncing back from her opening blunder on Sunday with 15 holes of bogey-free golf punctuated by 4 birdies, just as playing partner Inbee Park was going 11 holes before she made her 1st (and only) birdie of the day?  What was she doing as former-wunderkind-turned-comeback-kid Yuko Mitsuka was dropping a 7-birdie 66 on her from way back in the pack to become the 1st player in the field to stay at double digits under par for the week?  Only getting back to -10 with her 2nd birdie of the day, on the 515-yard par-5 7th, and continuing to extend her new bogey-free run as she made the turn.  What was she doing as Ji-Hee Lee made her 5th birdie on the back alone on the long par-3 16th to get to -11?  Just birdieing the 507-yard par-5 11th and 159-yard par-3 13th to retake the lead.  What was she doing hanging on to get into the playoff as fellow youngster and playing partner Erika Kikuchi suffered a final-9 38 to miss it by a shot?  And what was she doing winning the playoff against 4-time-winner Mitsuka and 15-time-winner Lee?  Just by matching Mitsuka's opening playoff birdie and benefitting from a missed par save by Mitsuka on the 2nd playoff hole!

Now the only question that remains for me is whether the 22-year-old 1st-time winner is related in any way to JLPGA veteran Yuko Saitoh, who's, er, old enough to be her mother (but is not).  While we all ponder that question, here are the top 10 and notables' scores!

1st/-10 Airi Saitoh (70-64-72) [won in playoff]
T2/-10 Yuko Mitsuka (73-68-66), Ji-Hee Lee (71-67-67)
4/-9 Erika Kikuchi (70-67-70)
T5/-8 Mi-Jeong Jeon (70-73-65), Sakura Yokomine (71-69-68), Akane Iijima (73-65-70), Rui Kitada (69-69-70)
T9/-7 Mayu Hattori (71-71-67), Rikako Morita (74-67-68), Bo-Mee Lee (70-72-68)

T12/-6 Soo-Yun Kang (71-73-66), Miki Saiki (72-68-70), Megumi Kido (70-70-70), Yukari Baba (68-69-73)
T16/-5 Teresa Lu (72-70-69), Da-Ye Na (71-70-70), Inbee Park (69-67-75), Mamiko Higa [a] (72-67-72), Shinobu Moromizato (68-71-72)
T23/-4 Yuri Fudoh (73-71-68), Yuki Ichinose (72-71-69), Harukyo Nomura (74-68-70), So-Hee Kim (68-74-70)
T29/-3 Na-Ri Kim (68-75-70), Yui Kawahara (68-73-72)
T31/-2 Momoko Ueda (71-73-70), Asako Fujimoto (74-69-71), Miki Uehara (72-71-71), Onnarin Sattayabanphot (68-73-73), Kaori Aoyama (69-73-74)
T36/-1 Young Kim (74-70-71), Esther Lee (74-69-72), Saiki Fujita (71-71-73)
T40/E Ritsuko Ryu (74-70-72), Hsuan-Yu Yao (70-72-74), Bo-Bae Song (69-72-75) 
T46/+1 Ayako Uehara (72-71-74), Nikki Campbell (70-74-73), Mina Nakayama (72-72-73)
49th/+2 Yumiko Yoshida (70-73-75)
T52/+5 Ji-Woo Lee (73-71-77)

MC: Sun-Ju Ahn, Mika Miyazato, Hyun-Ju Shin, Hiromi Mogi, Kumiko Kaneda, Maiko Wakabayashi, Na-Ri Lee, Erina Hara, Ah-Reum Hwang, Kaori Ohe, Hiromi Takesue, Lala Anai, Asuka Tsujimura, Porani Chutichai, Sakurako Mori, Satsuki Oshiro, Aiko Kaneda, Ayaka Kaneda, Ming-Yen Chen, Mizusu Narita, Sae Yamamura, Kotono Kozuma, Minami Oshiro [a], Chiharu Oshiro [a]

You needed to be at least E to be playing on Sunday and amazingly Sun-Ju Ahn, the JLPGA money-list leader for the last 2 years and 6th-ranked player in the world of women's golf, found herself on the wrong side of the cut line.  At least she was in good company!  But now she has some catch-up to play on the leaders of the 2012 JLPGA money list:

1. Airi Saitoh ¥14.4M
2. Ji-Hee Lee, Yuko Mitsuka ¥6.32
4. Erika Kikuchi ¥4.8M
5. Sakura Yokomine, Mi-Jeong Jeon, Akane Iijima, Rui Kitada ¥3.10M
9. Bo-Mee Lee, Mayu Hattori, Rikako Morita ¥1.70M

Next up is the Yokohama Tire PRGR Ladies Cup, which Yun-Jye Wei will defend, fresh off a final-round disaster in the LET's World Nations Cup in Hainan, China, which Shanshan Feng won.  Feng will be trying to make it 2 worldwide wins in a row next week in Yokohama.  Stay tuned!

Friday, March 2, 2012

Daikin Orchid Ladies Friday: Logjam at the Top after Ji-Yai Shin Withdraws

Yukari Baba, Shinobu Moromizato, Na-Ri Kim, So-Hee Kim, Onnarin Sattayabanphot, and Yui Kawahara are your co-leaders at -4 after the 1st round of the JLPGA's season opener, the Daikin Orchid Ladies, but the biggest story coming out of Okinawa today is that Ji-Yai Shin had to withdraw after 8 holes due to wrist pain

There are still plenty of big international names in the hunt, such as Inbee Park at -3, Mi-Jeong Jeon and Bo-Mee Lee at -2, Sakura Yokomine, Ji-Hee Lee, and Momoko Ueda at -1, Sun-Ju Ahn, Miki Saiki, and Teresa Lu at E, and Yuri Fudoh, Mika Miyazato, and Yuko Mitsuka at +1, but the loss of the #7 player in the Rolex Rankings threatens to overshadow the action on the course.  Baba, Sattayabanphot, So-Hee Kim, Bo-Bae Song, Jeon, and Yuko Saitoh were the only players to make their way around Ryukyu Golf Club without a bogey, while Kaori Aoyama made the most birdies (8, but she's not leading because she had fewer pars than bogeys on the day!).

Here's a quick run-down of the scores from the top 10 and notables:

T1/-4 Yukari Baba, Shinobu Moromizato, Na-Ri Kim, So-Hee Kim, Onnarin Sattayabanphot, and Yui Kawahara (68)
T7/-3 Inbee Park, Bo-Bae Song, Rui Kitada, Kaori Aoyama (69)

T11/-2 Mi-Jeong Jeon, Bo-Mee Lee, Hiromi Mogi, Kumiko Kaneda, Yumiko Yoshida, Erika Kikuchi, Megumi Kido, Mizusu Narita, Hsuan-Yu Yao (70)
T25/-1 Sakura Yokomine, Ji-Hee Lee, Momoko Ueda, Soo-Yun Kang, Saiki Fujita, Mayu Hattori, Nikki Campbell, Kaori Ohe, Da-Ye Na (71)
T37/E Sun-Ju Ahn, Miki Saiki, Teresa Lu, Ayako Uehara, Hyun-Ju Shin, Na-Ri Lee, Yuki Ichinose, Mina Nakayama, Miki Uehara, Sae Yamamura, Mamiko Higa [a] (72)
T53/+1 Yuri Fudoh, Mika Miyazato, Yuko Mitsuka, Akane Iijima, Ji-Woo Lee, Kotono Kozuma (73)
T64/+2 Young Kim, Harukyo Nomura, Rikako Morita, Ritsuko Ryu, Asako Fujimoto, Esther Lee, Lala Anai, Asuka Tsujimura, Aiko Kaneda, Ming-Yen Chen, Minami Oshiro [a], Chiharu Oshiro [a] (74)
T84/+3 Erina Hara, Ah-Reum Hwang (75)
T88/+4 Porani Chutichai, Ayaka Kaneda (76)
T97/+5 Satsuki Oshiro (77)
T101/+6 Hiromi Takesue, Sakurako Mori (78)
T103/+7 Maiko Wakabayashi (79)

That's a lot of Kanedas and Oshiros in the field.  Wonder if they're related to each other?

Notable by their absence were Ai Miyazato (#9 in the latest Rolex Rankings), Shanshan Feng (#12), Chie Arimura (#15), Shiho Oyama (#36), Li-Ying Ye (#88), Tamie Durdin (#133), Mie Nakata (#143), Yun-Jye Wei (#236), Mika Takushima (#252), and Tao-Li Yang (#406).  Feng and Yi are rocking the LET's World Ladies Championship, at -6 and -4 respectively after the 1st round, while Wei shot a solid 72 and Yang struggled to a 75 there.  But it appears that Miyazato, Arimura, and Oyama will be delaying their JLPGA debuts.  Google translate isn't really helping me understand Arimura's latest blog post, but my best guess is that she doesn't feel that she's completed her off-season training (plus she may be dealing with nagging injuries and a little burnout).  Although she looked great with Miyazato, Ahn, and Saiki in the latest Tour Stage commercial, it doesn't look like she's entered in next week's event, either, so I'm wondering what's up with her.  Oyama's blog is similarly difficult to translate, but it's possible she or someone from her team may simply have forgotten to submit an entry form...?  Since she's not entered in next week's Yokohama Tire PRGR Ladies Cup, either, there may be more to the story, however.  Miyazato was never planning to enter the JLPGA season opener, but she just revealed on her blog that she had a high fever the night before the final round of the HSBC Women's Champions.  Although she felt better in the morning and was able to play well, she had a relapse--complete with fever, chills, and low blood pressure--soon after it.  Either because of her illness or in reaction to her medication, she even fainted in her hotel bathroom the day she was supposed to fly to Los Angeles!  She did eventually make it back there and is glad to have some time to rest before the LPGA starts up again. 

What Shin and Miyazato are going through shows just how tough the life of a world-class professional golfer can be.  Best wishes for quick recoveries to both!