Monday, April 30, 2012

Surprises & Disappointments 2012 "Part 1"

Before I get started, I would like to say that in spite of the field missing some key players, this week's Mobile Bay Classic was one of the most exciting of the year. I think we saw how truly deep the talent is on the LPGA Tour.  Congratulations goes out to Stacy Lewis for winning her second LPGA tournament of her career.

What I would like to look at now are the biggest surprises and biggest disappointments of the 2012 season so far. I will be doing this three times this year: now, again in July, and a final time at the end of the season.

Biggest Surprises:

1- So Yeon Ryu - We all expected her to be good in her rookie year, but few expected her to be this good. She has finished in the top 4 four times. She has yet to miss a cut this year. She is quickly on the road to becoming an elite player.

2- Caroline Hedwall - Caroline has teed it up seven times this year,and finished in the top 20 six times. Only Yani Tseng has more top 20 finishes (7). She has yet to miss a cut in her young career, making all 13 cuts. A star in the making.

3- Karin Sjodin - This is Karin's 7th year on tour and she has never really done anything to get excited about. Her two top tens, and three top-twenty finishes, have opened people's eyes. Whether she will maintain this pace, or this is just a hot streak, is hard to answer now. Let's wait and see if she makes this next list in July.

4- Jenny Shin - She has cooled a bit of late, but we must not forget she had three top-ten finishes in her first three starts. I think this girl has a very bright future.

5- Mariajo Uribe - A priority ranking of #134 has limited her starts to just three this year. She has made the most of those starts, with finishes of seventh and twentieth place. A reshuffle of the priority list will be done this week and Mariajo will improve her position, leading to more starts.

6- Sun Young Yoo - The reason I don't have her rated higher on my list is that my expectations for her are very high to begin with. Three top tens, and five top twenties this early in the season, have her in the race for player of the year.

Honorable Mentions - Natalie Gulbis and Jodi Ewart

Biggest Disappointments:

1- Song-Hee Kim - Song-Hee was number one on my list last year. I lowered my expectations this year, but she is still the biggest disappointment. She has made only one cut the entire year, and her best finish is a tie for 52nd place. Her scoring average in 2010 was 70.21; it fell to 72.62 last year and now has fallen to a very unprofessional 75.82 this year. 

 2- Christina Kim - Christina hasn't been just disappointing this year, she has been just plain awful. In eight starts, she has 5 missed cuts. Her best finish this year is 57th, and she sports a 75.18 scoring average. She was also terrible the second half of 2011,  leaving me to wonder if she will ever regain her past form.

3- Michelle Wie - 2012 was supposed to be Michelle's breakout year. With her graduation from college, she is now able to focus completely on golf. Her best finish this year is a tie for 38th, and her putting has been nothing short of disastrous. At 22 years old, you have to believe she will figure it out. In the mean time she is no longer considered an elite golfer.

4- Tiffany Joh - Her successful rookie season led us to expect some good golf from Tiffany this year. That hasn't been the case. In eight tournaments her best finish is a tie for 44th. Were my expectations too high? Hopefully not. There is still plenty of time for her to turn this season around.

5- Mika Miyazato - Didn't expect her to be on this list, but yet here she is. Has not been in contention this year, with her best finish a tie for 21st. She has missed her last three cuts.

6- Maria Hjorth - Like Mika, she has not contended this year either. Her best finish is a tie for 25th. She defended her Mobile Bay title last week by finishing 76th.

Dishonorable Mentions - Grace Park, Ryann O'Toole, Paula Creamer, and Morgan Pressel.

Other Tidbits:

Grace Park has missed the cut in all five tournaments she has played in this season.
Sandra Gal's streak of making 14 consecutive cuts came to an end when she missed the cut at the Mobile Bay Classic.

Categories 15 through 22 on the LPGA priority list will be reshuffled this week; this will mean more starts for players in those categories who have played well this year.

Titleholders Update:
Lexi Thompson, Karrie Webb, and Karine Icher are the latest to qualify. Suzann Pettersen remains the highest-ranked player yet to get in.

Rolex Movers of the Week:
Stacy Lewis moves from #9 to #6, Lexi Thompson moves from #38 to #24, and Natalie Gulbis continues her surge forward with a jump from #90 to #81.

Sybase Championship Update:
The following 2 players qualified by having the lowest scores after the second round of the Mobile Bay Championship, among the ladies not already in the event:

1- Lindsey Wright
2- So Yeon Ryu

The following players have qualified by being the top 12 ladies on this year's money list who weren't already in the event:

1- Jenny Shin -  $193,601
2- Jessica Korda - $174,688
3- Caroline Hedwall - $167,026
4- *Lexi Thompson - $159,059
5- Julieta Granada - $141,627
6- Karin Sjodin - $134,547
7- Eun-Hee Ji - $104,172
8- Natalie Gulbis - $102,880
9- Karine Icher - $95,743
10- Haeji Kang - $95,546
11- Mina Harigae - $90,446
12- Jodi Ewart - $ 82,065

5/1/12 - Update - Se Ri Pak and Juli Inkster are unable to play because of injury. Lexi Thompson, Shanshan Feng, Momoko Ueda, and Paige Mackenzie all qualified but are not playing. Players that have gotten in because of the above are: Amanda Blumenherst, Katherine Hull, Pornanong Phatlum, Jennifer Song, and Mariajo Uribe.
Grace Park and Belen Mozo were sponsor exemptions.

* Lexi Thompson will not be attending the event as she has her school prom.
If they replace her with the next highest person on the money list, that would be Amanda Blumenherst.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

CyberAgent Ladies Overview: Chie Arimura Is Back, Baby!

Chie Arimura won the CyberAgent Ladies in convincing fashion today, leaving yesterday's co-leader Ji-Woo Lee in the dust with a bogey-free 65 that brought her to -15 over 3 rounds and gave her a 5-shot victory over Sakura Yokomine, who fired a 66 of her own that leapfrogged her past Ji-Yai Shin (69) and kept her ahead of a charging Rikako Morita (65). 

The 24-year-old Arimura's 11th career victory was sweet for many reasons:  it marked her 1st sub-70 rounds of a 2012 season she had to start late because of wrist problems; it showed she could outpace the best of the dual LPGA-JLPGA members in the field, as she beat Shin by 6 shots, Inbee Park by 7, and Momoko Ueda by 16; it was a thorough domination of some of the biggest names on the JLPGA, as she beat Yokokine by 5 shots, Sun-Ju Ahn by 7, Mi-Jeong Jeon, Shinobu Moromizato, and Akane Iijima by 10, and Yuri Fudoh and Miki Saiki by 11; and it brought her into the top 10 of the JLPGA money list, within striking distance of #1 Ritsuko Ryu in only half the starts.

Perhaps even more important, Arimura's big win raises questions about her future plans and whether she'll try to join the LPGA in 2013.  I'm sure she'll say she's focusing on this year right now, but let's see how she does in the majors...starting with the Salonpas Cup next week!

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Ji-Yai Shin Gives Herself a 66 for Her 24th Birthday

Ji-Yai Shin is celebrating her 24th birthday today on the JLPGA and she just gave herself a bogey-free 66 for a present.  Imoto, who turned 6 yesterday and is a huge Ji-Yai fan, will be totally psyched.  That sweet weekend I was talking about on her birthday just got even sweeter!  And just wait till I show her the tweet from Mariajo Uribe wishing her a happy birthday.  Wouldn't it be cool for her if Shin and Uribe can pull off the double win?  Not bad for them, either....

[Update 1 (9:44 pm):  Ah, the perils of early posting!  The JLPGA site originally had Shin bogeying her last hole, but they corrected it to a par.  She ended up 2 shots behind Chie Arimura, who shot her 2nd-straight 68, and Ji-Woo Lee, who matched her 66.  Tied with Inbee Park and 2 shots ahead of Yuri Fudoh, Sakura Yokomine, and Sun-Ju Ahn, the golfer-formerly-known-as-"The Final Round Queen" will need to re-earn that title tomorrow to get her 6th career JLPGA victory.]

Friday, April 27, 2012

Fascinating Leaderboards in Mobile and Chiba

With the LPGA in Mobile, Alabama, and the JLPGA in The Full Metal Archivist's home prefecture of Chiba, it's really interesting to see who steps up onto the global stage and takes the spotlight while Ya Ni Tseng, Ai Miyazato, and In-Kyung Kim sit this week out. 

Over in Japan at the CyberAgent Ladies, a showdown is brewing between some of the most compelling stars on tour.  Dual LPGA-JLPGA member Inbee Park is gunning for her 4th career victory in Japan, but she's going to have to face down 17-time winner Mi-Jeong Jeon and 10-time winner Chie Arimura, who both matched her opening 68.  Jeon is 2nd on the money list, while Arimura is looking to make up for a late start to 2012.  And just as other big-name players are looking to rev up their seasons--like Sakura Yokomine (1 back), Yuri Fudoh (2 back), Sun-Ju Ahn (3 back), Ji-Yai Shin (4 back), and Momoko Ueda (4 back)--others are looking to get their careers back on track (namely Erina Hara, who opened with a 69, and Yuki Sakurai, whose 71 was her 1st under-par round on tour since late August 2011).

Lest you think the JLPGA's weekend is in danger of overshadowing the LPGA's, never fear, as Stacy Lewis has opened the Mobile Bay LPGA Classic with a 68 and a 67 to take a 1-shot lead on Karin Sjodin (who fired a 64 today!), So Yeon Ryu (who shot a 67 despite doubling the 2nd), and rookie Sydnee Michaels (who's gone 68-68!), and  a 2-shot lead on Chella Choi (65!), Brittany Lincicome (67), and Mariajo Uribe (69).  Lewis may yet regret the walkoff bogey that ended her 35-hole bogey-free run and dropped her out of double digits over par, as plenty of golfers have a chance to pass her this afternoon, including Lindsey Wright, Haeji Kang, and Kraft Nabisco Championship winner Sun Young Yoo.  Me, I'm super-psyched my junior golf buddy Moira Dunn shot a 67 today to pull within 3 shots of Lewis and that Jee Young Lee (67) and Mina Harigae (68) gave themselves a great shot at coming back to make the cut after terrible opening rounds.  So far, there's not been a lot of noise from Na Yeon Choi (-4), Cristie Kerr (-4 through 12), Suzann Pettersen (-3), Angela Stanford (-3), Shanshan Feng (-3), Azahara Munoz (-3 through 12), Hee Kyung Seo (-2), Paula Creamer (-1), Brittany Lang (-1 through 12), Morgan Pressel (-1 through 10), or Lexi Thompson (-1 through 13), but there's plenty of time for them to make charges.  Meanwhile, Karrie Webb and Tiffany Joh will need to make moves this afternoon just to make the cut, while Sandra Gal and Karen Stupples will need it to rise to +1 for them to be playing on the weekend.

Off to celebrate imoto's 6th birthday!

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Mobile Bay LPGA Classic This and That

Picking up where Tony Jesselli left off, I'll take a couple of minutes to say a few words about the Mobile Bay LPGA Classic, which starts tomorrow in Mobile, Alabama.  First, here are my guesses for this week's PakPicker competition at Seoul

1. Choi Na Yeon
2. Kerr
3. Lang
4. Pettersen
5. Creamer
6. Lewis, Stacy
7. Yoo
8. Feng
9. Stanford
10. Thompson
11. Munoz
12. Ryu

Alts: Webb; Seo; Hedwall

It was hard for me to leave defending champion Maria Hjorth off this list, not to mention Karen Stupples, Katherine Hull, Se Ri Pak [Update (10:13 pm): wait, just read on Seoul that she's out with a dislocated left shoulder after a fall, the clubhouse steps yesterday], and Brittany Lincicome, but I have a feeling that some straight shooters and precision players will sneak by them this week.  (For what it's worth, that is:  I certainly jinxed myself by putting my picks on the blog last week instead of just on the discussion board!)

As for who I'm rooting for, I'd love to see Jee Young Lee and Song-Hee Kim, who have some good memories here, start getting out of their far-too-long slumps this week.  I'm rooting for Moira Dunn, Mina Harigae, Tiffany Joh, Mariajo Uribe, and Hannah Yun to put together a few good rounds in a row, as well.  But really, there are so many "New Blood" and "Generation Prodigy" players in the field this week, it's hard not to root for them all!  Not to mention Grace Park, Jeong Jang, and Jane Park....

Pretty cool pairings:  good for Granada, getting to play with Gulbis and Thompson; also a good opportunity for Korda to play with Kerr and Munoz; but the one I'd probably be following on Thursday would be Gulyanamitta, Lindberg, and Nomura (making her LPGA debut this season).

I love Robert Trent Jones courses, having grown up on Colgate University's Seven Oaks.  You definitely can score well on them, but you have to be hitting on all cylinders and any little mistake can end up costing you big-time.  Should be a great week!

Monday, April 23, 2012

Mobile Bay Classic Preview and Pairings

A big congratulations goes out to Ai Miyazato who won the Lotte Championship in Hawaii.

Ai, who had failed to close the door in 2 other tournaments this year, was very impressive down the stretch. This was Ai's 8th LPGA victory. She now has the label that Paula Creamer had to wear for years. She is the best player who has not won a major. It will be interesting to see if Ai can follow in Paula's footsteps and make her 9th win her first major championship.

This week the tour moves to Alabama for the playing of the Mobile Bay LPGA Classic. The tournament was formally known as the Avnet LPGA Classic. Here are some of the details:

Course: RTJ Golf Trail, Magnolia Grove, The Crossings
Location: Mobile, Alabama
Defending Champion: Maria Hjorth
Winning Score: 70-74-67-67=278(-10)

Final Field: 144 players
Par: 36/36=72
Yardage: 6521
Purse: $1.25 million

This will be the weakest field of the year so far. My strength of field rating is only 48%. Among the top name players who are skipping this event are: Yani Tseng, Ai Miyazato, Amy Yang, I.K. Kim, Jiyai Shin, Catriona Matthew, Michelle Wie, Mika Miyazato, Inbee Park, and Momoko Ueda. With the number of top-name players missing, several players low on the priority list will be getting their first starts of the year. This will be a very important week for those players, as the priority list reshuffles after this week.

Here is the Television schedule:
Apr 26 - GC 12:30-2:30 PM EST
Apr 27 - GC 12:30-2:30 PM EST
Apr 28 - GC 3:00-6:00 PM EST
Apr 29 - GC 3:00-6:00 PM EST

Here are the Pairings
Other Tidbits:

Stacy Lewis missed the cut this past week. She had made her last 21 cuts.
Song Hee Kim missed the cut once again; she has not made a cut this year.
Lexi Thompson missed the cut this past week; it was her first missed cut as a member of the LPGA.
Mika Miyazato had made 18 consecutive cuts; she now has missed her last three.
Caroline Hedwall has never missed a cut in her LPGA career. She has played 12 events.

Titleholders Update:
Meena Lee, Azahara Munoz, and Cristie Kerr are the latest to qualify. Suzann Pettersen remains the highest-ranked player yet to get in.

Rolex Movers of the Week:
Ai Miyazato moves from #8 to #5 and Azahara Munoz moves from #40 to #31.

Hard-to-believe Stat of the Week:
Yani Tseng is now ranked 118th in driving accuracy on the LPGA tour.

Warming Up:
Azahara Munoz and Suzann Pettersen have 3 consecutive top-15 finishes.

Ice Cold:
Christina Kim missed her 4th cut of the year. Her best finish is a tie for 57th.
Michelle Wie, Ryann O'Toole, Kristy McPherson, Paige Mackenzie, and Jeong Jang have missed their last three cuts.

Sybase Match Play Championship Update:
The Sybase field will be set after the playing of the Mobile Classic this week. This is a limited field of just 64 players. 48 players are already in from last year's priority list. Two sponsor exemptions will be announced. The top 2 players after 2 rounds of the Mobile Classic who aren't already qualified will also be added. The field will get to 64 by adding the top 12 players from this year's money list who haven't yet qualified. This is how the fight for those 12 places are at the moment:

1- So Yeon Ryu - $259,450
2- Jenny Shin - $188,834
3- Jessica Korda - $170,974
4- Caroline Hedwall - $147,619
5- Julieta Granada - $141,627
6- Karen Sjodin - $121,390
7- Eun-Hee Ji - $91,015

The above 7 players are safe. They have done enough to qualify.

8- Mina Harigae - $83,779
9- Jodi Ewart - $82,065
10- Natalie Gulbis - $77,317
11- Haeji Kang - $76,317
12- Amanda Blumenherst - $70,457

The above 5 players may still have to make the cut, and a few more dollars, to clinch the final spots.

13- Katherine Hull - $62,007
14- Jennifer Song - $49,819
15- Jennifer Johnson - $49,819
16- Lindsey Wright - $49,468
17- Kristy McPherson - 48,861
18- Pornanong Phatlum - $47,121
19- Lexi Thompson - $44,712

The above 7 players are on the outside looking in and need a good showing this week to improve their position.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

LPGA Lotte Championship Overview: Ai-sama, Omedetou Gozaimasu!

Sometimes you have to lose the lead to find your putting stroke.  At least that's what happened yesterday to Ai Miyazato on the back 9 at Ko Olina, when she fired 3 birdies in her last 5 holes to move from 1-down to 4-up and nail down her 8th career LPGA victory and 1st of 2012 in the inaugural LPGA Lotte Championship.

In retrospect, the turning point of the day came with Ai-sama's great bogey save on the par-3 12th, a fantastic up-and-down from the rough after a botched bunker shot from a fried egg lie, which kept her within 1 shot of the charging Meena Lee, who had made 4 birdies in her 1st 7 holes to climb to -10 and gotten back there with a birdie on the 10th.  It was the 1st time Ai-sama had fallen from double digits under par in 13 holes and the 1st time she found herself out of the lead (in a tie for 2nd with 2010 Rookie of the Year and playing partner for all 4 rounds Azahara Munoz) since the end of the 2nd round.  So when she skipped a little wedge well past the pin on the par-5 13th, it seemed her luck was running out.  Shades of her giving up the lead in Phoenix and getting passed by Ya Ni Tseng must have been haunting her.  But she laid them to rest with what must have been a 30-foot downhiller on the 13th that hit the dead center of the back of the cup and went down with authority, followed it up with another long and firmly-struck downhill birdie on the 15th, and capped it all off with a delicate downhill 8-foot birdie on the 17th.  Even though the main weakness in her game had cropped up in the final round--she only hit 9 of 18 greens in regulation--and she definitely opened the door to her lead chase pack, Ai-sama was saved by her putter, as she needed only 24 strokes on the short grass on Saturday and 107 for the week. 

By the time she made a great sandie from behind the green on 18 to finish at -12, Ai-sama's 4-shot win over Lee and Munoz consolidated her position as Tseng's most consistent challenger on the LPGA in 2012.  Sure, she's down 3 wins to 1, 7 top 10s to 5, over $958K to just under $630K in winnings, 118 to 65 points in the Rolex Player of the Year race, 69.54 to 69.75 in scoring average, 15 to 10 rounds in the 60s, and 4.65 to 4.29 birdies per round, but she's 1st in rounds under par and every putting stat on the planet it seems.  With the rest of the challengers to the Tseng dynasty still trying to find their A-games consistently--Cristie Kerr got to -8 with 9 holes to play but bogied 3 in a row to start the back; Ji-Yai Shin got it to -8 on Friday afternoon with 3 birdies in a row but after a double down the stretch that day was never a factor again; Suzann Pettersen moved backwards on Friday's moving day and had to gut out a top 10 with a sweet Saturday 69; Na Yeon Choi couldn't even snag a top-30 finish; In-Kyung Kim WDed with a wrist injury; Stacy Lewis missed the cut; and Paula Creamer couldn't come close to "defending" her 2008 Fields Open title at Ko Olina--it's pretty clear that nobody else not named Ya Ni has come close to matching Ai-sama's play so far in 2012 (even with her terrible Kraft Nabisco Championship results).

With both Ya Ni and Ai-sama sitting out the Mobile Bay LPGA Classic next week, though, and Inky resting her wrist, the spotlight will shift to these players, along with such up-and-comers as 2012 Rookie of the Year race leader So Yeon Ryu (who racked up another top 10 this week), Sun Young Yoo (who played respectably following her KNC win), Shanshan Feng (who didn't), Amy Yang (who struggled), Brittany Lang (who got a top 10), Lexi Thompson (who missed the cut in Hawaii but loves Alabama), and Natalie Gulbis (who's playing her best golf in years).  Me, I'll also be keeping a close eye on Mariajo Uribe, who would have been a factor this week were it not for an opening 77 (she matched Ai-sama's Thursday 65 and closed with the best round of the day on Saturday, a 68), Pernilla Lindberg (who continued to show some signs of life with a 66 and a 68 in her even-numbered rounds), Tiffany Joh (who's been playing terribly but matched Uribe's and Lindberg's Saturday 68s and has good memories of Alabama to boot), Mina Harigae (who interrupted her solid start to the season with a MC), Hannah Yun (who missed the cut badly but has plenty of time to turn her rookie year around), Moira Dunn (who earned her 1st paycheck of 2012), and Jee Young Lee (who was -5 through her 1st 10 holes this week but fell back to her struggling ways the rest of the way).  You know, not to mention always-dangerous vets like Karrie Webb, Angela Stanford, and Karen Stupples, who played good golf this week.

So Ai-sama gets to enjoy her win, Ya Ni gets to rest and recover from 2 disappointing events in a row, and the rest of the LPGA gets to try to steal the spotlight from them next week.  Sweet!

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Gambatte, Ai-sama!

Daisuke Takahashi was finally able to beat Patrick Chan (in an exhibition, but who's counting?), so I'm thinking the stars are aligning for Ai Miyazato to get her 1st win of 2012 at the LPGA Lotte Championship today after twice being unable to hold off Ya Ni Tseng already this year.  She didn't play perfect golf yesterday, but, then, neither did anyone chasing her.  Cristie Kerr and Azahara Munoz showed a lot of grit down the stretch to make up for many mistakes throughout the day, but still are 3 behind Ai-sama, while a host of big names (including the aforementioned world #1) pulled within 4.  At one point everyone who's been #1 in the world of women's golf in the past 2 or 3 seasons was 1-2-3-4.  They're all there in the last 2 groups.  It's feeling a lot like 2010, baby!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Dear Golf Channel

Hey there, Golf Channel!  Lovin' your extra coverage of the LPGA Lotte Championship and of course I'm totally psyched that Ai Miyazato's tied for the lead at the halfway point. 

I couldn't help but notice, though, that it took awhile for the commentators to come up with things to say about Ai-sama.  Maybe tomorrow you might want to have them mention the following things:

  • Ai-sama's 65 today was her 1st sub-70 round in her last 10 starts, a huge slowdown from earlier this season, when she broke 70 in 9 of her 1st 12 starts.  Even so, she's still 2nd in scoring average and 2nd in birdies per round, both to Ya Ni Tseng.
  • Speaking of Tseng, she twice robbed Ai-sama of wins already this season. (Highlights welcome.)
  • Ai-sama didn't finish out of the top 6 in her 1st 4 starts (despite struggling health-wise at times in that run).
  • She just recently broke the $6M barrier in career earnings and is on a wins and winnings pace that's comparable to the likes of Paula Creamer and Suzann Pettersen.
  • Coming from Okinawa, and winning 15 times on the JLPGA, she's pretty used to playing in the wind and definitely used to island golf.

So, yes, please keep talking about Ai-sama as one of the best on tour without a major, but why not get some stories from her on the driving range about some of these topics?

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

LPGA Lotte Championship This and That

Just a quick note to say that yes, I'm alive, and yes, I'm still following women's golf, but no, I don't see any light at the end of the tunnel for this perfect storm of work- and home-related swampitude anytime soon.  Just wanted to note that on the eve of the LPGA's return to action in Hawaii for the LPGA Lotte Championship that Ko Olina most recently hosted the Fields Open from 2006 to 2008 and that reading the Mostly Harmless coverage from back then is really like opening a time capsule.  Take a look at my take on the 2008 results, for instance, or, even worse, my entirely-too-in-jokey 2007 post.  Yeesh!

Anyway, somehow I'm doing all right in Seoul's PakPicker this year (although, truth be told, none of us are really tearing it up thus far), so I figured it's time to summon the Mostly Harmless jinx and put this week's picks on the blog, too!  For what it's worth....

1. Choi Na Yeon
2. Miyazato Ai
3. Shin Ji-Yai
4. Creamer
5. Tseng
6. Lewis
7. Feng
8. Seo Hee Kyung
9. Pettersen
10. Yoo
11. Yang, Amy
12. Kim In-Kyung

Alts: Ryu, Pressel, Hedwall

Apologies in advance to all the players I picked!

Monday, April 16, 2012

LPGA Lotte Championship Preview & Pairings

After a two-week break, the LPGA returns to Hawaii this week with the playing of the LPGA Lotte Championship. Here are some details:

Course: Ko Olina Golf Club
Location: Kapolei, Oahu, Hawaii
Defending Champion: *Inaugural Event
Winning Score: *Inaugural Event

Final Field: 144 players
Par: 72
Yardage: 6,421 Yards
Purse: $1.7 Million

* Although this is the first time this event is being played under its new name, it was last played in 2008 on this course and was called the Fields Open. The Champion that year was Paula Creamer. It was a 54-hole event and the winning score was 66-68-66=200 -16.

A very strong field will be teeing it up in Hawaii, with Catriona Matthew the only star player missing. Two of the sponsors exemptions, Hyun-Hwa Sim (69th) and Shin-Ae Ahn (71st), are among the top 80 players in the world. This tournament will be very unique, as it will begin on Wednesday and finish on Saturday.

Here is the television schedule:
Apr 18 - GC 6:30-8:30 PM EST
Apr 19 - GC 6:30-8:30 PM EST
Apr 20 - GC 6:30-8:30 PM EST
Apr 21 - GC 6:30-9:30 PM EST

Here are the pairings for the first 2 rounds.

Other Tidbits:
Natalie Gulbis, who has struggled with back problems for some time now, seems to be swinging better than she has in a very long time. Her eighth-place finish at the Kraft Nabisco Championship was her best finish in three years.

Sybase Match Play Championship Update:
Tournament officials for the Sybase Match Play Championship have announced changes in the qualifying process for that tournament.

As was the case in previous years, the top 48 players from the 2011 money list automatically qualify. As was the case last year, 2 sponsors exemptions will be named. In previous years, the top 10 players after the 2nd round of the Mobile Bay Classic (formerly known as the Avnet Classic) who hadn't already qualified were added to the field. This year they have dropped that number from ten to just two.

In previous years the top 4 players on the 2012 money list who hadn't already qualified were added to the field. This year they have increased that number from 4 to 12. With just 2 tournaments left to be played before Sybase, here is what the race for those 12 spots looks like:

1- Jenny Shin $188,834
2- So Yeon Ryu $179,942
3- Jessica Korda $165,000
4- Caroline Hedwall $127,751
5- Julieta Granada $121,750
6- Karen Sjodin $107,036

It certainly appears the above 6 players have earned enough and will be there.

7- Mina Harigae $83,779
8- Jodi Ewart $82,065
9- Amanda Blumenherst $70,457
10- Natalie Gulbis $62,963
11- Haeji Kang $59,643
12- Jennifer Song $56,993

The above 6 players may still have work to do to secure the final spots.

13- Jennifer Johnson $49,819
14- Katherine Hull $49,544
15- Kristy McPherson $48,661
16- Pornanong Phatlum $47,121
17- Lexi Thompson $44,712

The above 5 players are on the outside looking in and have 2 tournaments in which to improve their position.

The total field of 64 players remains the same.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

2012 JLPGA Money List: Lots of Competition, No Clear Front-Runner

With her shocking defeat of Ji-Yai Shin at the Studio Alice Ladies Open, making up 5 shots over the final 3 holes on the Final Round Queen, Miki Saiki jumps from #30 into the top 10 of the 2012 JLPGA money list.  Shin debuts at #19, while Chie Arimura, who started her season solidly last week, just barely squeaks into the top 35.

1. Ritsuko Ryu ¥21.88M
2. Ji-Hee Lee ¥19.26M
3. Bo-Mee Lee ¥17.33M
4. Mi-Jeong Jeon ¥15.83M
5. Airi Saitoh ¥14.40M
6. Miki Saiki ¥13.39M
7. Soo-Yun Kang ¥12.00M
8. Sun-Ju Ahn ¥11.93M
9. Mayu Hattori ¥10.62M
10. Hiromi Mogi ¥10.09M
11. Akane Iijima ¥8.99M
12. Ayako Uehara ¥8.52M
13. Sakura Yokomine ¥8.33M
14. Yuki Ichinose ¥7.06M
15. Erika Kikuchi ¥6.38M
16. Yuko Mitsuka ¥6.32M
17. Li-Ying Ye ¥6.32M
18. Eun-Bi Jang¥5.42M
19. Ji-Yai Shin ¥5.28M
20. Shinobu Moromizato ¥5.21M
21. Na-Ri Lee¥5.07M
22. Young Kim¥4.60M
23. Teresa Lu ¥4.58M
24. Rui Kitada ¥4.08M
25. So-Hee Kim ¥4.06M
26. Harukyo Nomura ¥3.92M
27. Rikako Morita ¥3.83M
28. Yuri Fudoh ¥3.58M
29. Na-Ri Kim ¥3.58M
30. Mina Nakayama ¥3.34M
31. Erina Hara ¥3.31M
32. Kaori Ohe ¥3.09M
33. Yumiko Yoshida ¥3.06M
34. Chie Arimura ¥3.00M
35. Kumiko Kaneda ¥2.88M

The JLPGA isn't such easy pickings for dual members anymore.  You have to look pretty far down the money list to find some prominent LPGAers:

49. Inbee Park ¥1.90M
66. Shanshan Feng ¥1.04M
72. Momoko Ueda ¥.82M

But it's not just the jetsetters who are having problems breaking into the top 50 on the money list this early in the season.  Regulars like Maiko Wakabayashi, Hyun-Ju Shin, Bo-Bae Song, Ji-Woo Lee, Eun-A Lim, and Ah-Reum Hwang are in the 2nd 50.  It's far too early to push the panic button when all that's needed is a win, top 5, or a couple of top 10s to vault dozens of players, but their absence is one index of how tough the competition on the JLPGA is getting.  Even more telling?  The 1-2 players over the past 2 seasons, Sun-Ju Ahn and Sakura Yokomine, were both passed by Saiki despite their relatively strong finishes last week. 

Let's not exaggerate:  only 8 of the top 50 on the list have sub-72 scoring averages, after all.  But the days of waltzing over to Japan to pick up some easy cash despite being jet-lagged are probably over.  Coming without your B-game most likely means a missed cut (just ask Mika Miyazato) and you'll need your A-game to contend, much less win (just ask Shin).

Monday, April 9, 2012

Studio Alice Ladies Open Overview: Miki Saiki Makes up 5 Shots on Ji-Yai Shin over Last 3 Holes to Capture 4th Career JLPGA Victory

For 52 holes at the Studio Alice Ladies Open, Ji-Yai Shin seemed to be cruising toward her 6th career JLPGA victory and 1st since 2010, but a late charge from playing partner Miki Saiki--2 birdies in her last 3 holes and 3 in her last 10 holes of bogey-free golf--turned up the pressure on the Final Round Queen...and she responded with a double bogey-bogey finish to hand Saiki her 4th victory on tour.

Shin was -9 with 8 holes to play and maintained a 4-shot lead over Saiki with 3 holes to go.  A Saiki birdie on the par-5 16th cut the lead to 3, but even after Shin's double on the 383-yard par-4 17th, which ended a 26-hole bogey-free run extending all the way back to the front 9 on Saturday, she still was clinging to a 1-shot lead.  However, a 2-shot swing on the final hole--a Saiki birdie and a Shin bogey--sealed Shin's fate and vaulted the 27-year-old Saiki back into the top 10 on the JLPGA money list, where she's been a regular over the last 2 seasons.

Defending champion Chie Arimura snagged a top-5 finish in her 2012 JLPGA debut, while Sun-Ju Ahn posted her 2nd-best finish of the season, a solo 4th, right behind amateur standout Mamiko Higa.  A final-round 69 vaulted Sakura Yokomine into the top 10 from the mid-30s, where she was languishing most of the tournament.  Meanwhile, Inbee Park stumbled home with a 75, but stayed tied for 10th thanks to difficult conditions that lead to only 4 players finishing the tournament under par.

Sure, Tiger's and Rory's Masters meltdowns, coupled with Mickelson's and Westwood's inability to chase down Oosthuizen and Watson--and capped off by Bubba's awe-inspiring curveball from the trees on the 2nd playoff hole to secure his 1st major title--will all serve to eclipse Shin's inability to finish off her final round.  But for fans of women's golf, this is yet another sign that Ya Ni Tseng's chief challengers are not quite ready yet to topple the Tseng Dynasty!

[Update 1 (11:52 am):  Check out bangkokbobby's post for great photos and the full leaderboard in English.  I'm still swamped at work and about to head out from my parents' place with the girls to get back to Hamburg, so will provide my money-list update later!]  

Monday, April 2, 2012

Who Will Step Up and Challenge Yani Tseng?

Before I get to the subject matter of this post, let me say how devastated I feel about what happened on the final hole of the Kraft Nabisco Championship. I don't want to take anything away from Sun Young Yoo; she shot a final-round 69 and won a major championship. That said, this tournament will be always be remembered as the one I.K. Kim lost. I don't think I have ever seen anything like that before. I.K. is one of the classiest players on the tour. Let us hope she can get over this quickly, and that it won't have any long term effect on her.

Now about Yani: The LPGA has completed 6 of its 27 official tournaments that will be played this year. Yani has won three of them. Two others she has finished one stroke back--and two strokes back in the other. She has clearly been the dominant golfer on the LPGA tour. In fact no one else is even close. Yani has won nine of the last 20 LPGA tournaments she has played in. The eleven she did not win were won by eleven different ladies. At 23 years old she has already won 15 tournaments. That is 15 more than Annika Sorenstam had at the same age. Annika, generally considered the greatest woman golfer ever, went on to win 72 times.

Yani already has accumulated 23 of the 27 points needed to get into the Hall of Fame. Chances are she will get the other 4 before the year is over. Let us take a look at her career thus far, and compare it to the other star players on the tour.

1-Yani Tseng - 15 wins, 102 starts, 14.71 winning percentage.
2-Jiyai Shin - 8 wins, 85 starts, 9.42%
3-Paula Creamer - 9 wins, 162 starts, 5.53%
4-Ai Miyazato - 7 wins, 136 starts, 5.15%
5-Na Yeon Choi - 5 wins, 106 starts, 4.72%
6-Suzann Pettersen - 8 wins, 181 starts, 4.42%
7-Brittany Lincicome - 5 wins, 158 starts, 3.17%
8-I.K. Kim - 3 wins, 125 starts, 2.40%

I was hoping that these figures would show me someone that was ready to start challenging Yani's dominance, but they didn't. Yani's stats are far superior.

I could not include Cristie Kerr or Se Ri Pak because the LPGA website is not accurate on veterans' stats that go back to when they started. It doesn't matter, though.  At their age, although still capable of winning on any given week, they aren't the ladies we should be looking at to challenge Yani's dominance.

My next step was to look at the current highest Rolex-ranked LPGA members with at least one victory, and see exactly how often they are in contention. Here is what I found.

1- Jiyai Shin - 45 top 10s, 85 starts = 52.95%
2- Yani Tseng - 52 of 102 = 50.98%
3- Paula Creamer - 77 of 163 = 47.24%
4- Na Yeon Choi - 50 of 106 = 47.17%
5- Suzann Pettersen - 68 of 181 = 37.57%
6- I.K. Kim - 45-125 = 36.00%
7- Ai Miyazato - 48-136 = 35.30%
8- Stacy Lewis - 24-86 = 27.91%
9- Angela Stanford 63-260 = 24.23%
10-Brittany Lincicome 28-158 = 17.73%

Okay, that Jiyai stat sure surprised me. Now I am thinking there is hope. Paula and Na Yeon are certainly contending most of the time. But can any of these players step up and challenge Yani's position as the number one player in the game? As I think about it more, unless we see a big change in someone's game, the answer right now is no. Here is why:

Jiyai Shin - Is giving away 40 yards off the tee to Yani. How can we realistically expect her to challenge for the top spot when she hasn't won since 2010?

Paula Creamer - This past week at the Kraft Nabisco Championship she only had 3 bogeys and 1 double bogey the entire tournament. The 4 over-par holes were the least in the entire field, yet she finished 20th. Since coming back from thumb surgery that has been the story every week. Unless those putts start to drop on a regular basis, don't look for Paula to threaten Yani's reign.

Na-Yeon Choi - When in contention never seems to have good final rounds. Watching her play under pressure, her face always seems to show a lack of confidence. Must show me more before I can say she is ready to be the one to challenge Yani's reign.

Suzann Pettersen - Now 31 years old she is not as young as these other girls. Her time is now. She sure talks up a big game. When her game catches up to her mouth, I will reconsider her again. Until then she is just another Yani wanna be.

I.K. Kim - If you can't make a 9-inch putt to win a major championship, you're not ready to challenge Yani's dominance.

Ai Miyazato - She is playing much better this year but seems to always come out second best when in a dogfight with Yani. She will have to win her first major championship before I can even consider her.

Stacy Lewis - She beat Yani head-to-head at last year's Kraft Nabisco Championship. But what has she done since? Sure, she has made lots of money, but she doesn't win.

Angela Stanford - Sorry, never was, isn't now, and never will be in Yani's class.

Brittany Lincicome - Sure, she won twice last year, but doesn't even show up most of the time. Has all the tools to be a great player but look at those low percentages. I don't think she cares enough to become the number one player.

Now what? We are back to square one. Can anyone out of that pack challenge Yani? Sure doesn't look that way to me. Not now anyway. Maybe we will have to wait awhile until some of the young future superstars develop. Rookies Lexi Thompson and So Yeon Ryu, amateurs Lydia Ko and Charlie Hull, I sure love their futures. Will one or more of them be the ones to finally give Yani a run for the money? I guess we will have to be a little more patient, and watch this story develop.

In the meantime I think the debate will continue; is Yani's dominance good for the game? As a fan I sure would rather there be a dogfight for the #1 position. It sure makes watching more interesting. On the other hand what Yani is doing is bringing more media attention to a tour that needs all the media attention it can get. What is your opinion? I would sure like to see your comments below.

Other Tidbits:
Na Yeon Choi is ranked #2 in this week's Rolex Rankings. Her rating is 9.17. Yani Tseng is #1 with a rating of 18.64. Marcella Leon is ranked #762 with a rating of 0.01. Na-Yeon Choi is closer to #762, then she is to #1.

Titleholders Update:
This week's qualifiers are I.K. Kim, Hee Kyeong Seo, and Amy Yang.

Rolex Rankings Movers of the Week:
That short missed putt didn't stop I.K. Kim from moving from #12 to #5. Sun Young Yoo moves from #37 to #15. Natalie Gulbis moves from #127 to #89.

Hard to believe fact of the week:
Brittany Lincicome had gone 44 tournaments without missing a cut; she has now missed 2 of her last 3. Mika Miyazato had gone 18 tournaments without missing a single cut; she has now missed 2 in a row.

Louise Friberg had missed 13 consecutive cuts and then decided to retire. She temporarily ended her retirement to play this past week. She missed the cut.

Warming Up:
Se Ri Pak has finished no worse than 25th in her 5 tournaments this year.  Vicky Hurst is off to a good start with finishes of 8th, 18th, and 11th.

Ice Cold:
Tiffany Joh missed her 3rd consecutive cut; her scoring average is 75.50, ranking her 120th of 138 players listed.  Song Hee-Kim has missed yet another cut. She has missed every cut this season. The only tournament she finished was an event without a cut in which she finished 70th in a field of 70 players. Her scoring average of 77.55 is dead last amoung LPGA regulars.

There were 10 holes in one in the entire 2011 season. There have been 6 aces already this year.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Kraft Nabisco Championship Questions

With Karin Sjodin unexpectedly catching Ya Ni Tseng at -9 at the top of the Kraft Nabisco Championship leaderboard after 3 rounds, after the world #1 made more bogeys (4) in her last 12 holes than in her previous 42, can the world #1 shake it off and come through on a major championship Sunday one year after she failed to do so?

Can another unheralded player like Haeji Kang at -7 get into the final-round mix?  What about comeback kids Eun-Hee Ji at -6 and Katherine Hull and Vicky Hurst at -5?  Have they and Sjodin reached the point where it's about time to go all Icarus on the field, or can they keep rising?

Can the Seoul Sisters at -6--from hole-in-1 girl Na Yeon Choi to 267-yards-off-the-tee Saturday surpriser In-Kyung Kim to 2011 Rookie of the Year Hee Kyung Seo to last week's runner-up Sun Young Yoo--bust a move and snag the 1st Korean win of 2012 on tour?  What about Se Ri Pak at -5 or Amy Yang and Ha-Neul Kim at -4?  Or Ji-Yai Shin, Inbee Park, and Hee Young Park at -3?  I'm not seeing a lot of great play on Mission Hills's back 9 from many of them thus far, but you never know!

What about the LPGA's other big names?  Suzann Pettersen, Azahara Munoz, and Lexi Thompson are 5 back, Paula Creamer, Cristie Kerr, and Angela Stanford are 6, Karrie Webb is 7, and Stacy Lewis and Shanshan Feng are 8 off the pace.  Can we expect any magic from that far back in the pack?

What's up with Ai Miyazato?  All of a sudden, she's been having trouble breaking 70 and moved well back over the last 3 holes on moving day.  Is there something in the California air that doesn't agree with her?  She didn't light it up at the Kia, either....  Anyway, I'll be rooting for some early Sunday fireworks from her, Mina Harigae, and Seon Hwa Lee from the middle of the pack!

Yamaha Ladies Open Overview: Ritsuko Ryu Gets 2nd Career Win

Ritsuko Ryu birdied 3 of her last 4 holes to take the weather-shortened Yamaha Ladies Open today for the 2nd JLPGA victory of her 6-year career.  Just like last August, when she won the Nitori Ladies with a late-Sunday birdie barrage, Ryu zoomed past some talented golfers down the home stretch, beating Hiromi Mogi by 2 shots over the last 4 holes, 1st-round leader Mayu Hattori by 4 over the last 4, and Mi-Jeong Jeon by 5 over the last 9.  In so doing, she kept ahead of fellow Sunday chargers Yuki Ichinose and Li-Ying Ye.

Here's how the leaders and notables finished the 36-hole event:

1st/-3 Ritsuko Ryu (73-68)
T2/-1 Li-Ying Ye (76-67), Yuki Ichinose (75-68), Hiromi Mogi (72-71), Mayu Hattori (69-74)
T6/E Young Kim (75-69), Mi-Jeong Jeon (74-70)
T8/+1 So Hee Kim (73-72), Nikki Campbell (72-73)
T10/+2 Harukyo Nomura (76-70), Hiroko Fukushima (75-71), Erina Hara (74-72), Miki Saiki (73-73), Yuko Fukuda (73-73), Ayako Uehara (72-74), Mihoko Iseri (72-74)

T21/+5 Sakura Yokomine (77-72), Sun-Ju Ahn (76-73), Maiko Wakabayashi (75-74), Bo-Mee Lee (72-77)
T29/+6 Onnarin Sattayabanphot (75-75), Da-Ye Na (75-75)
T31/+7 Na-Ri Kim (78-73), Soo-Yun Kan (77-74), Erika Kikuchi (77-74), Miki Sakai (77-74), Kumiko Kaneda (76-75), Yumiko Yoshida (75-76), Megumi Kido (75-76)
T39/+8 Ji-Woo Lee (76-76), Saiki Fujita (75-77), Teresa Lu (74-78), Lala Anai (74-78), Shinobu Moromizato (73-79)
T47/+9 Rikako Morita (78-75), Kaori Ohe (75-78), Nao Honda [a] (75-78), Eun-Bi Jang (74-79)

MC: Tamie Durdin, Hyun-Ju Shin, Kotono Kozuma, Mika Takushima, Tao-Li Yang, Ming-Yen Chen, Sakurako Mori, Kaori Aoyama

Here's how the 2012 JLPGA money list currently looks:

1. Ritsuko Ryu ¥20.89M
2. Ji-Hee Lee ¥19.26M
3. Bo-Mee Lee ¥16.79M
4. Airi Saitoh ¥14.40M
5. Mi-Jeong Jeon ¥12.83M
6. Soo-Yun Kang ¥12.00M
7. Hiromi Mogi ¥9.55M
8. Mayu Hattori ¥8.82M
9. Ayako Uehara ¥8.52M
10. Akane Iijima ¥8.00M
11. Sun-Ju Ahn ¥7.73M
12. Yuki Ichinose ¥7.06M
13. Yuko Mitsuka ¥6.32M
14. Li-Ying Ye ¥6.32M
15. Sakura Yokomine ¥6.23M
16. Erika Kikuchi ¥6.14M
17. Eun-Bi Jang¥4.88M
18. Young Kim¥4.60M
19. Na-Ri Lee¥4.08M
20. Teresa Lu ¥4.05M
21. Harukyo Nomura ¥3.92M
22. So-Hee Kim ¥3.81M
23. Rui Kitada ¥3.74M
24. Yuri Fudoh ¥3.58M
25. Na-Ri Kim ¥3.58M
26. Mina Nakayama ¥3.34M
27. Rikako Morita ¥2.84M
28. Junko Omote ¥2.75M
29. Kaori Ohe ¥2.68M
30. Miki Saiki ¥2.59M

Next up is the Studio Alice Ladies Open, which Chie Arimura won when it was last played in 2010 and where she will be making her 2012 debut.  It looks like Ji-Yai Shin will be jetting over to Japan to see how her game stacks up against the JLPGA's finest, as well.  Let's see is Sun-Ju Ahn and Sakura Yokomine can finally bring their A-games next week!