Tuesday, August 6, 2013

What If the KLPGA and JLPGA Were Allowed to Field Teams for the Solheim Cup?

I don't think anyone needed to know that there are only 6 Americans and 3 Europeans in the top 25 of my ranking of the best careers from among those in the LPGA rookie classes of 2005 through 2013 to convince them that the Solheim Cup won't be featuring close to all the world's best female golfers.  After all, we knew over a decades ago that the likes of Karrie Webb, Se Ri Pak, and Grace Park were unable to play in the Solheim Cup when they were regularly duelling with Annika Sorenstam to be the best player in the world of women's golf.

But maybe we can use my ranking in conjunction with the better-known ones out there to play a little game of "what if?"  Today, there are only 5 Americans and 5 Europeans in the top 25 of the current Rolex Rankings, which weights performances on 6 professional tours over the past 2 calendar years, and in the current Golfweek/Sagarin Performance Index, which uses a different method of comparing golfers on 4 tours over the past calendar year.  Let's take a look at the actual teams first.  Generally speaking, if someone is playing the best golf of their career this year, they should be highest-ranked in the GSPI, followed by the RR, and then by the MH.  If they're playing better this year than last but still worse than their career norms, then their GSPI ranking would be higher than their RR ranking but lower than their MH ranking.  If their rookie years were before 2005 or they were never LPGA members, they don't appear in my ranking, so you'll just have to rely on the relation between the GSPI and RR and their most recent performances instead.  I'm listing the players from hottest to coldest, in my judgment, on Team USA and Team Euro.

Team USA [Captain: Meg Mallon]
Stacy Lewis (#3 GSPI, #2 RR, #6 MH)
Paula Creamer (#6 GSPI, #11 RR, #4 MH)
Angela Stanford (#20 GSPI, #16 RR,  n.r. MH)
Lizette Salas (#15 GSPI, #19 RR, #29 MH)
Jessica Korda (#26 GSPI, #28 RR, #31 MH)
Cristie Kerr (#12 GSPI, #12 RR, n.r. MH)
Morgan Pressel (#122 GSPI, #41 RR, #12 MH)
Gerina Piller (#34 GSPI, #57 RR, #47 MH)
Lexi Thompson ( #35 GSPI, #26 RR, #21 MH)
Brittany Lang (#69 GSPI, #50 RR, #27 MH)
Michelle Wie (#109 GSPI, #82 RR, #13 MH)
Brittany Lincicome (#76 GSPI, #38 RR, #10 MH)

I modified the results you'd get from rankings alone by taking into account that Lewis is coming off a win and 3 other top 7s in her last 5 starts, Stanford snapped a 3-event top-5 run with a jet-lag-induced T17 at the WBO, Creamer has finished T13 or better in 7 of her last 9 starts, and Pressel has 6 top-26 finishes in her last 8 starts, including 2 top 5s.

Team Euro [Captain: Liselotte Neumann]
Suzann Pettersen (#9 GSPI, #3 RR, n.r. MH)
Catriona Matthew (#14 GSPI, #8 RR, n.r. MH)
Beatriz Recari (#16 GSPI, #20 RR, #22 MH)
Anna Nordqvist (#18 GSPI, #22 RR, #11 MH)
Karine Icher (#17 GSPI, #24 RR, n.r. MH)
Charley Hull (#77 GSPI, #147 RR, n.r. MH)
Carlota Ciganda (#57 GSPI, #30 RR, #28 MH)
Jodi Ewart Shadoff (#63 GSPI, #45 RR, #39 MH)
Caroline Hedwall ( #30 GSPI, #29 RR, #35 MH)
Azahara Munoz (#36 GSPI, #26 RR, #20 MH)
Guilia Sergas (#92 GSPI, #62 RR, n.r. MH)
Caroline Masson (#147 GSPI, #58 RR, n.r. MH)

I'd say it's a toss-up between the 2 teams, with maybe a slight advantage to Team USA based on recent play and home-country advantage.  But how do you think they would stack up against the following hypothetical teams?

Seoul Sisters [Captain: Se Ri Pak]
Inbee Park (#1 GSPI, #1 RR,  #5 MH)
Na Yeon Choi (#4 GSPI, #4 RR, #3 MH)
So Yeon Ryu ( #5 GSPI, #5 RR, #7 MH)
In-Kyung Kim (#10 GSPI, #9 RR, #9 MH)
Ji-Yai Shin (#11 GSPI, #10 RR, #2 MH)
Hee Young Park (#28 GSPI, #15 RR, #18 MH)
Amy Yang (#22 GSPI, #23 RR, #23 MH)
Mi-Jeong Jeon (#23 GSPI, #25 RR, n.r. MH)
Sun-Ju Ahn (#19 GSPI, #34 RR, n.r. MH)
Hyo-Joo Kim (n.r. GSPI, #32 RR, n.r. MH)
Sun Young Yoo (#43 GSPI, #33 RR, #25 MH)
Ha-Na Jang (n.r. GSPI, #43 RR, n.r. MH)

Assuming 8 picks go to the LPGA and 2 each to the KLPGA and JLPGA, that's the team I'd put together.  But even if some from among the LPGA's Chella Choi, Haeji Kang, Ilhee Lee, and Hee Kyung Seo, the KLPGA's Ha Neul Kim and Soo-Jin Yang, and the JLPGA's Bo-Mee Lee get shuffled in for whatever reason (maybe Pak would want to go with a 7 LPGA/3 KLPGA/2 JLPGA mix?), anybody picked would still be inside the top 50 of the Rolex Rankings!  So obviously the Seoul Sisters are the strongest team on paper, although they might not have dominated as much as expected if Shin, Yang, Jeon, Ahn, and Yoo wouldn't have played better than they have been lately.

Now, how about the team from Japan?

Nadeshiko Japan II [Captain: Yuri Fudoh]
Ai Miyazato (#21 GSPI, #13 RR, #8 MH)
Rikako Morita (#27 GSPI, #33 RR, n.r. MH)
Miki Saiki (#32 GSPI, #37 RR, n.r. MH)
Mika Miyazato (#25 GSPI, #17 RR, #14 MH)
Chie Arimura (#44 GSPI, #36 RR, #34 MH)
Mamiko Higa ( #119 GSPI, #44 RR, n.r. MH)
Yumiko Yoshida (#52 GSPI, #66 RR, n.r. MH)
Natsuka Hori (#104 GSPI, #65 RR, n.r. MH)
Sakura Yokomine (#29 GSPI, #51 RR, n.r. MH)
Ayako Uehara (#59 GSPI, #83 RR, #44 MH)
Ritsuko Ryu (#73 GSPI, #69 RR, n.r. MH)
Momoko Ueda (#110 GSPI, #118 RR, #33 MH)

I'm assuming here that Ueda would make the team on a similar rationale as Wie made Team USA, but Shiho Oyama, Hiromi Mogi, Junko Omote, and Yukari Baba are playing better than her right now among the JLPGA's veterans and there are plenty of youngsters, including Kumiko Kaneda, Mayu Hattori, Yuki Ichinose, Maiko Wakabayashi, Asako Fujimoto, Kaori Ohe, Erika Kikuchi, and Harukyo Nomura, who could also take her place--and maybe even Uehara's.  On paper, then, Nadeshiko Japan II would be the weakest team--and momentum would not be on their side, as their biggest names are not playing the same world-class golf as the top players on the other teams right now.

Given that imbalance, I can see a case being made for turning the Seoul Sisters into Team Asia (bringing in Shanshan Feng--and, in the future, assuming she recovers well from shoulder surgery, Ariya Jutanugarn) and turning Nadeshiko Japan II into Team Pacific (bringing in Karrie Webb and Ya Ni Tseng, and giving Candie Kung, Lindsey Wright, Mariajo Uribe, Katherine Hull-Kirk, and Teresa Lu fighting chances to make the team--and, in the future, Lydia Ko).  But I'm not sure trying to dilute Korea-Japan nationalistic tensions by bringing in a China-Taiwan edge to the matches wouldn't actually play worse politically.  And picking captains and teams for both these golfing confederations would certainly be complicated by nationalism that seems somewhat more intense than what must be going on behind closed doors in the LET.  (At least they already have an EU, right?)  I suppose you could keep Japan and Korea as they are and let the ALPG and LAGT create 12-player teams of their own, but they'd clearly be the weakest of the bunch and China would eventually want to break away from the LAGT and create their own team, leaving the rest of Asia in the cold.  Hence, I can't see a viable short-term alternative to teams from the top 2 tours and countries in the world of women's golf who are excluded from the Solheim Cup being drawn into it.  In short, I still like my idea of turning the Solheim Cup into a 4-way match, in even-numbered years having the top-ranked team play the bottom-ranked team and in odd-numbered years having the winners face off and the losers face off (which would establish who plays whom in the next even-numbered year).  It's too late this year, but in 2014 it could be Seoul Sisters vs. Nadeshiko Japan II and Team USA vs. Team Euro!

Well, it could if the LPGA hadn't created the biennial International Crown, which relies on the Rolex Rankings to select 8 4-player national teams for match-play extravaganzas that are guaranteed to take place in 2014 and 2016.  (Click here to download the details--this season determines which countries will compete in its premiere in 2014!)  If it takes off, I don't see where there's room on the schedule to expand the Solheim Cup (as I'm suggesting) or clone it (as Brent Kelley suggested a while ago when he basically called for the Lexus Cup to be revived), much less create a World Cup-style event that feeds into the Olympics, as I proposed in 2009.  I wouldn't mind, because fielding a 4-person team is a much lower barrier to entry for established golfing powers like Sweden, Australia, and England and newer ones like Spain and Thailand.  The top 4 players in most of the top countries are pretty evenly matched and the format is awesome.  So I'm hoping it will take off.

If I had to bet, I'd say that for the rest of this decade we'll see the Solheim Cup joined by the International Crown and the Olympics.  And that's a huge step forward from where we are now.  Not to take anything away from the Solheim Cup, which is a great competition and will only get better as Europe's young stars mature, but professional women's golf has been planetary for decades and it's long past time we have team events that showcase everyone's excellence.

[Update 1 (2:24 am):  Almost done doing laundry and imagine my surprise that Karen Krouse agrees with me that the Solheim Cup needs to enter the 21st century!]

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