Saturday, August 16, 2014

Wegmans LPGA Championship Special Report: On Chie Arimura, Ayako Uehara, and Harukyo Nomura

As I mentioned in my Friday Wegmans LPGA Championship post, I followed Chie Arimura for 9 holes yesterday and planned to follow her for 6 holes and Ayako Uehara for 6 holes today (after following Lizette Salas for the 1st 6 holes of the day).  Instead, I decided for follow Arimura for the front 9, Uehara for the back 9, and Harukyo Nomura for the back 9 (it just turned out that she was making the turn as Uehara and Katy Harris were finishing their rounds).  So with rain approaching Rochester and Golf Channel coverage in the media center, I decided to write this special report up while the leaders are out on the course.  If it clears up in time for me to follow Jane Park and Lexi Thompson for the back 9, I will!

Let me start with brief bios of each player.  Arimura is clearly the most accomplished of the bunch, having won on the JLPGA 13 times and getting her 1st major title in 2012 at the Konica Minolta Cup.  She finished 3rd on the JLPGA money list 3 times between 2009 and 2012 (and 6th the other time), but has struggled on the LPGA with consistency, although she does have 3 career top 10s so far.  Uehara doesn't have quite the resume of Arimura despite having joined the JLPGA back in 2003.  Although she has only 3 career victories there, she finished in the top 26 on the tour's money list for 6-straight seasons before she decided to try to qualify for the LPGA in 2012 Q-School--where she finished 1 shot behind Moriya Jutanugarn and Rebecca Lee-Bentham and 4 shots ahead of Arimura.  And even though she has only 1 LPGA top 10, she's missed the cut only 5 times in her 33 starts as an LPGA member.  Nomura, meanwhile, won on the JLPGA as a non-member in 2011 (the same year she debuted on the LPGA) and finished 29th on the 2013 JLPGA money list but was 1 of 2 golfers in a 4-way playoff at 2013 Q-School to make it onto the LPGA with full status, so she has decided to make it her home tour again this year after not exactly setting it on fire in 2011 or 2012.  2014 has been much better to her, however, as she's just outside the top 30 on the money list, 20th in driving distance, and 3rd in putts per green in regulation.  As a result, she's #12 on my list of the 22 best female golfers in the world under age 22.

Next I'll make some general observations about their games, based on what I saw yesterday and today.

Arimura is a very efficient player in every aspect of her game, from the way she moves around the course to her pre-shot routine to her swing to her putting stroke.  She's short but powerfully built, and she takes advantage of her strength and flexibility with a wide stance that you'd think would make it hard for her to make a complete turn, but she does so with ease.  Picture a wider triangle formed by her legs and a narrower inverted triangle formed by her shoulders and arms that she maintains pretty much throughout her swing.  When I watched her play, she went into lockdown mode after a crazy double on the par-3 13th put her right on the cut line.  And she executed it beautifully, hitting fairway after fairway and green after green.  Her putting was very conservative both days I watched her.  I think she got a 1st putt past the hole maybe twice.  I don't know if she was respecting the speed of the greens too much or if it was a conscious strategy to make her pars as stress-free as possible, but either way she never took a real run at a birdie putt in the 18 holes I watched.  Where she was aggressive with was her chipping and pitching, which didn't always serve her well.  At the same time, she seemed to have the most creativity with her approach shots of all the players I've followed this week.  She and her caddy have definitely done their homework, as she used the contours and backstops to her advantage several times.  That helps explains why she's hit 38 greens to Nomura's 36 and Uehara's 30 thus far today.

Uehara is a much more aggressive and high-energy player.  She walks as fast as anyone I've ever followed on either tour, swinging her arms in textbook fashion as she zooms along.  Her swing's tempo is faster than Arimura's, too; in fact, she takes such a big cut at the ball that her right knee is in danger of buckling outwards when her hands reach their apex.  If Arimura has more of an Ai Miyazato-type swing, then Uehara's is closer to Sakura Yokomine's (although she doesn't go nearly as far past parallel as Sakura does!).  And yet she's not nearly as long as Arimura off the tee (once again, the holes they measure understate the difference in driving distance, both this week and for the season; Arimura was more like 10 yards longer off the tee than her, not the 3.3 their stats say).  As a result, she was often hitting fairway woods when Arimura was hitting hybrids.  On the other hand, she's a much more aggressive putter than Arimura, which sometimes got her in trouble on Monroe Golf Club's slick greens.

Nomura is a totally different type of golfer than Arimura and Uehara, who are both definitely precision players (Uehara was #11 in driving accuracy coming into this week), hitting 88% of their fairways off the tee thus far this week.  Even though Nomura's even smaller than they are, she has a much more powerful game.  She's got the potential to be a straight-up bomber like Ya Ni Tseng was back when she was dominating women's golf.  In fact, you might call her "Mini-Ya Ni" if you watched her play!  She doesn't rely for her power as much on upper-body rotation as on upper-body strength.  She has a very armsy backswing, but once she bends her knees to start her downswing and pushes her body up as she hits the ball, her club falls right in the slot and the ball just explodes off the club.  The move depends on timing, so she's not as consistently excellent a ball-striker as Arimura in particular.  But she hit the longest drive I saw on the par-5 14th all 3 days of walking the course I've done so far (although not the longest of the day:  a spotter told me Jennifer Kirby hit it to 153 yards away from the 1st group this morning, while Nomura was about 175).  Her weakness today, however, was short putts.  She could have gone really low today if she had been better from 4 feet and in.  I saw her miss 3 short ones in her 1st 7 holes on the back, including a 3-foot downhill eagle attempt on 14 after a fantastic approach.  So even though she birdied 3 of the 4 par 5s today, she had to settle for a 72.

I watched Arimura make 14-straight pars (and 17 in the 18 holes I saw overall!).  The most memorable came yesterday on the par-4 11th, where she had the 3rd-longest drive of any I saw on that hole.  Instead of trying to fly it to the front-middle of the green and hope it released to the pin at the base of a bump in the back-middle-right, she hit a low punch that landed short-left of the green and ran right up to the bump, which she tried to use as a backstop.  The ball fell to the right instead of coming straight back to the hole, but it was still a neat try that left her about 18 feet for birdie.  She did something similar today on the par-4 7th, landing her shot left of the front-left pin and using the contour to release the ball back toward the center of the green, about 20 feet past pin-high but exactly on line and with a relatively flat look for birdie.  Her best birdie chance that I saw, however, came on the par-5 3rd, where she hit a fantastic sand wedge from the front-right bunker to recover from a rare imperfect hybrid when she tried to hit the green in 2.  But from 4 feet to the right of the tucked front-left pin, she hit a dead pull that didn't even come close to touching the hole.  Obviously she is capable of making birdies--she made 3 in a row to close out her 1st round, 2 in a row at the start of Friday's round, and what must have been a fine walkoff birdie on 18 to salvage a 73 today.  But what she really was when I was watching was a par-making machine.

That's why the 13th yesterday stands out so much.  I can't remember if she was in the back trap or the rough just short of it, but when she came out of it her ball came perilously close to rolling all the way off the green and down a hill that was sending even well-struck shots back 50 yards short of the green.  Then she did something I never saw again:  she rammed her par attempt from 40 feet away.  Fortunately, she hit the hole so solidly it bounced in the air and only rolled 3 feet away (instead of the 10 or more it was clearly slated to!).  Unfortunately, she missed that comebacker and went from E to +2 in a single hole.  She needed to stay there to make the cut, something that neither Ai nor Mika Miyazato were able to do over their last 5 holes.  And she did it by playing textbook golf, fairway to green to tap-in.  The only putt in that stretch I really saw her try to make sure she got to the hole was on 17, when she finally took a run at a birdie.  But when you're giving yourself putts of 4 inches or less for par, that's the way you cruise to making the cut.  Pretty impressive when you consider that she was playing with a club pro and with Reilley Rankin, who was scrambling heroically all the way home.

The 13th was also memorable for Uehara and Nomura today.  Uehara had made her 3rd bogey in her previous 6 holes on the 10th, but righted the ship with pars on 11 and 12. When her fairway wood landed on the front-right of the 13th, it looked like she was in good position to make her 3rd-straight par.  But then the ball started trickling slowly back toward the edge of the green.  By the time it got there, it had enough speed to roll out all the way down the hill to about 50 yards short of the green and 50 feet lower than the pin.  From there, she hit a good pitch to the back-right corner of the green, about 20 feet from the back-middle pin.  And she rammed it home for par!  Nomura missed her approach short-right and it ended up in one of those really deep bunkers that look like a challenge just to clear the lip.  And when she barely did so, the ball trickled down the hill about 25 feet left and short of the cup.  Then she, too, rammed it home for par!  So even though she missed a 4-footer to save par on 11, a 3-foot eagle putt on 14, and a 7-foot birdie putt on 15--missing the chance to go 4-under in that 5-hole stretch--she also avoided a bogey or worse on 13.  So I'd say she's about even.  Uehara, by contrast, was deadly from short range--and good for her she was, because she wasn't afraid of getting the ball past the cup.  She got her speed down on her last 2 holes, however, making a great 50-foot lag on 17 to 2 feet and getting her speed near-perfect on 18 from 25 feet down and through the gully.

Overall, I don't see any reason why these golfers shouldn't continue to be LPGA regulars for years to come.  They certainly have the games to compete with the best in the world!  Let's see what they can do Sunday.

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