Saturday, August 23, 2014

Wegmans LPGA Championship Special Report: On Mina Harigae, Jennifer Song, Danielle Kang, Tiffany Joh, and Jane Park

With Danielle Kang 5 behind So Yeon Ryu at the Canadian Pacific Women's Open, Jane Park continuing to play well for the 2nd week in a row, Mina Harigae and Tiffany Joh making charges yesterday to make the cut, and Jennifer Song missing the cut by a single stroke thanks to a walkoff bogey, now is as good a time as any to report on what I saw of their games during last Sunday's final round of the Wegmans LPGA Championship.  Basically, I wanted to see how some of my favorite Asian American golfers on tour compared to the Japanese players I primarily followed the previous days.

Mina Harigae:  I got to Pittsford later than I hoped and could follow her only for the 16th through 18th holes, so I didn't get to pay as much attention to her game as I did 4 years ago when I focused on her and Mika Miyazato in "a tale of 2 20-year-olds."  Just as I predicted back then, Mina's made steady improvements each year, tweaking rather than rethinking her precision game.  She's putting the best this season of any year on tour and has a scoring average below 72 for the 2nd-straight year.  However, she was seriously steamed (by her laid-back Californian standards) by the time I got to interview her at the end of her round.  Despite nearly making a tough sandie on the tough par-3 16th, giving herself a great birdie chance on the tough par-4 17th, and nearly chipping in from all the way across the long 18th green, she was very disappointed in her play that week.  She told me she had been hitting the ball great coming into Monroe Golf Club, but had a terrible ball-striking week by her standards (I saw a microcosm of that in just those 3 holes, as she sandwiched a perfect 260-yard drive on 17 between a right miss on 16 and a left miss on 18).  Although she thought the course was set up fairly all week, she definitely bought into the narrative that it advantaged the long hitters on tour, with its generous fairways and relatively benign rough to either side of them.  Clearly she was tired of hitting 4-hybrids in when others were hitting 7-irons.  But think about how far she's come to be talking like that:  1) she's got the confidence as an established veteran to be criticizing the way the majors have been set up this year; 2) just making the cut at a major does not satisfy her (she's done that in her last 5 in a row); 3) she's playing consistently well enough to raise her expectations on herself.  So I'd venture to predict that 2014 will be the best season of her career and that we should see her back in the top 10 soon.

Jennifer Song:  I backtracked to the 6th green and followed her until the 12th green.  Most of that time, she and her playing partner Stacey Keating were on the clock, so they would jog between shots and generally play as fast as they could.  Even so, she displayed great touch around and on the greens, making a fantastic sandie from the very deep bunker to the right of the 7th green by using a backstop to pull the ball back within 3 feet of the cup, knocking down a 20-footer to save par on the par-3 8th after catching a bad lie from the right rough, making a tester to save par on the par-5 9th, and just missing a tester for birdie on the par-5 12th.  Her key performance stats are very similar to Harigae's--the most important area of their games both ought to focus on improving the most would be hitting greens in regulation--but she's struggling to stay in the top 80 on the money list because she's missed a lot more cuts and hasn't broken into the top 20 yet this season (her T30 last week was tied for her 2nd-best finish of the season thus far).  She's definitely pulled herself out of the depths of last season and has a good chance to make this her best year on tour, but she's going to need to get out the gates faster from here on out.  With only 3 more starts until the limited-field fall Asian swing, the clock is ticking to get into the top 50 on the money list and guarantee herself spots in those events.

Danielle Kang:  I spent the most time with DK of anyone today, catching up with her and Laura Diaz on the 10th fairway and staying with them the entire back 9.  And I got to see the most fireworks from her, too, as she pitched in for eagle on the par-5 12th, made a 40-foot sweeper for birdie on the tough par-3 13th after her approach stuck on the front-right portion of the green instead of falling off the cliff and ending up 70 yards away from the green, and followed it up with a delicate 10-foot downhiller for birdie on the par-5 14th after frankly chopping it around for most of the hole.  At that point, she had fought her way back to -2 for the week, and she stayed there after just missing a birdie on the par-4 15th and making a fantastic 20-foot par save on 16, but she just couldn't keep the magic going as she finished bogey-bogey on the 2 tough closing par 4s at Monroe Golf Club.  She found Death Valley to the left of the 17th green and left her 35-foot par attempt dead center but 5 inches short, and she got too aggressive on 18 after blasting her drive 20 yards past Diaz, going over the green, trying to chip in, having it run by into tester range, and just missing the par save.  But at least she was going for it and trying to keep her run going.  She ended up with her 2nd-best finish of the season and clearly left Pittsford with a lot of confidence.  In London, Ontario, she's been driving the ball great, hitting a lot of greens, and putting well.  Can't wait to see how she handles playing in the final threesome with So Yeon Ryu and Anna Nordqvist today.  She's made over $200K each of her 1st 2 seasons on tour but so far this one has barely made over $100K.  But I'm thinking she's turned a corner!  Let's see what she can do over the weekend with her great start to the week!

Tiffany Joh and Jane Park:  T-Joh was in the group ahead of Park, so I kind of tried to keep an eye on both UCLA grads from the 12th through 17th holes, but by the end of the day my focus shifted to Lydia Ko and Inbee Park.  Jane Park was in Chie Arimura-style lockdown mode, making 6-straight pars while I watched her.  Meanwhile, T-Joh stuck a little wedge to 2 feet on the 12th, but missed her birdie attempt right after her playing partner Azahara Munoz made her longer try to get to -9, then bogeyed the 16th after missing it pin-high left and failing to convert a 6-footer after a great pitch after just missing medium-length birdie attempts on the previous 2 holes.  Both were playing really solid golf, with Park the more consistent ball-striker and T-Joh the more artistic player around the greens.  T-Joh has clearly pulled herself back from the brink after 2 forgettable seasons in a row; if her putting were as improved as the rest of her performance stats are this season, she'd be having more rounds like Friday's than Thursday's and be much higher on the money list.  She made 8 cuts in a row to start the season and is on a 4-event-and-counting run right now, so I expect her to give herself a good shot at qualifying for the Asian swing this fall.  Park has been fighting injuries all year, wrist sprains early on and back spasms that forced her to withdraw from the U.S. Women's Open.  She won the U.S. Women's Amateur on a Donald Ross course, so she was very disappointed not being able to compete at Pinehurst and very pleased with her near-top 10 in Pittsford.  This week she's making her 3rd solid start in a row, which has been a long time coming, as she's been driving the ball great all season, hitting the fairway 80% of the time while hitting it about 11 yards farther than last year, the 1st year she was that accurate off the tee.  And she's hitting greens in regulation at a higher rate than at any time in her career (71%), so it's really just a matter of getting those putts to drop.  With 8 birdies in her 1st 2 rounds in London, Ontario, I'd say that's just what's happening.

With Michelle Wie and Christina Kim the most prominent faces of Asian-American golf on the LPGA, I decided to focus my attention on lesser-known but quite promising Asian-American players during the tour's last stop in Rochester for at least awhile.  I'd followed T-Joh several times on the Symetra Tour at their Syracuse stop in recent years, so it was neat to see her in one of the final pairings in a major.  It was nice to check in with Harigae and watch her compete in person instead of just playing in a pro-am.  While I had my most embarrassing interview ever with DK a few years ago in Rochester (it started off with my referring to USC even though I knew damn well she went to Pepperdine and went downhill from there--but at least she could joke about it when I ran into her later at Waterloo), it was fantastic to actually get to see her play close to her potential.  And I came away impressed with Park and Song, whom I've been following online for quite some time but rarely saw on TV.

I'm happy to report that Ai Miyazato, Harukyo Nomura, Ayako Uehara, and Chie Arimura all made the cut this week and seem to be playing well.  So 9 of the 10 players who I followed at Monroe Golf Club who haven't been setting the LPGA on fire in 2014--and actually 12 of 13 if you add Laura Davies, So Yeon Ryu, and Lizette Salas into the mix!--are getting something of a Mostly Harmless bump in Canada.  Here's hoping it lasts for the rest of the season and beyond!


DaveAndrews said...

Would love to see Danielle Kang battle for the victory this weekend. She has a big game in that small frame.

The Constructivist said...

And a big heart and a great sense of humor!