Wednesday, April 30, 2014

My Picks for the North Texas LPGA Shootout

Between the LPGA's previews and Tony Jesselli's, you should have a good perspective on the next tournament on tap, the North Texas LPGA Shootout.  Inbee Park is defending her title and most of the players who challenged her last year are back this year.  The biggest names to be sitting this one out are Karrie Webb, Lydia Ko, Paula Creamer, Ya Ni Tseng, Ai Miyazato, and Shanshan Feng.  So who do I think will prevail this week?

1. Park Inbee
2. Thompson
3. Kerr
4. Wie
5. Lewis, Stacy
6. Stanford
7. Shin, Jenny
8. Munoz
9. Ryu
10. Choi Na Yeon
11. Pak Se Ri
12. Park Hee Young

Alts: Icher; Kim In-Kyung; Choi Chella

So who are your picks?  Do you see Lizette Salas or Gerina Piller making a move?  Eun-Hee Ji continuing her strong start to the season?  Suzann Pettersen recovering from her back injury quicker than I expect?  Morgan Pressel bouncing back from her only bad start of the season?  Sun Young Yoo continuing to show steady improvement?  Sandra Gal, Catriona Matthew, or Caroline Masson putting it all together?

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Best on the LPGA: 3-to-6-Time Winners, April 2014 Edition

The last time I tried to predict who was most likely to win among those with 3 to 6 LPGA victories was back in January.  Obviously a lot has happened since then, most notably that 3 of the biggest names in the world of women's golf have shown some serious signs of being ready to realize their promise.  The way Lexi Thompson, Michelle Wie, and Lydia Ko have won this year has gotten everyone's hopes up, including mine, as you can see below.

[Note: The numbers in parentheses following each player's name represent LPGA wins and majors.]

Most Likely to Win (Again) in 2014

1. Lydia Ko (3/0):  She started the 2014 season with 3 top 10s in her 1st 5 starts (all top 20s), including a bronze and a silver, but 1 bad start and 2 ok ones lowered expectations heading into last week.  The rest is history.  Just kidding--she's got a lot of history still to make!  The difference last week was her putting.  If she can keep adjusting to new greens quickly, there's no reason she can't keep contending.  I think she has the most complete game of anyone on this list, and that's saying a lot!
2. Lexi Thompson (4/1):  She won twice in her last 5 LPGA starts of 2013 and finished inside the top 22 in 10 of her last 12 starts last season.  So it's no surprise that she picked up right where she left off after a couple of hiccups to start 2014.  She's got 3 top 5s in her last 5 starts and no finish outside the top 30, but to tell you the truth I was surprised that she was able to get a major victory so early in her career.  Last time, I wrote, "If #1 in their Class of 2012 So Yeon Ryu doesn't get it in gear, Lexi could blow by her in 2014 (and a lot of other people)!"  It's starting to look like that "could" should be a "will"!
3. Michelle Wie (3/0):  She's doing it her way and has a 13-event top-25 streak to show for it, including 7 top 10s--with a gold, silver, and bronze among them.  Look for her to keep collecting medals, as her confidence and maturity are at all-time highs and she's got the game to match them.

The Contenders

4. Shanshan Feng (3/1):  With 2 wins in her last 4 LPGA starts of 2013 and a 5-event streak inside the top 11, she was one of the hottest golfers on the planet coming into this season, but she's just started to recover from a late and a slow start to 2014.  Now that she's got her golf legs under her again, she's riding a 4-event top-20 streak and has 2 top 10s, including a T4 last week, under her belt.  She's ranked #3 in her class and #6 in her generation and rising fast in both lists, but catching Na Yeon Choi and Ya Ni Tseng is one tall order.  If anyone can do it, she can, but she has to strike while the iron is hot, particularly while NYC and Ya Ni are struggling.
5. Angela Stanford (5/0):  She was considering a North-America-only schedule in 2013, but started playing great golf, with an early bronze at the Founders Cup and another top 5 at Kingsmill, so she did everything but the fall Asian swing in the 2nd half of the season and responded with a 9-event run inside the top 21 to close out her season, highlighted by a T4 at the U.S. Women's Open, a T6 at the Evian Championship, and a near-win at the Manulife.  She went all in at the start of 2014 and has 5 top 25s to her credit, including 2 top 5s (one of them another near-win).  Forget those 2 missed cuts in the midst of that run:  she's definitely playing elite golf over the last year.  But she's vying with Stacy Lewis for the title of Close Call Kid.  Here's hoping she can focus on the former and keep putting herself in contention.
6. In-Kyung Kim (3/0):  She was hottest in the middle of the 2013 season, when she racked up 7 top-6 finishes in a 14-event run.  But she couldn't find win #4, as Inbee Park continued to blow by her in the Class of 2007 rankings and Shanshan Feng made up a lot of ground on her in the Tseng Dynasty rankings.  After a very late start to 2014, she finally got her 1st top 20 of the season last week.  Let's hope that's the start of better things to come for one of my favorite players on tour.

The Next Best

7. Catriona Matthew (4/1):  Last time, I wrote, "She had a great 1st 3/4 of 2013 and hung on for a bunch of top 30s at the end of the year when she didn't have her A-game.  She's skipping the Bahamas and the LET's opening New Zealand and Australia events but playing the next 3 LPGA events over in the eastern hemisphere.  Don't be surprised if she's ready to win in February!"  She came close in her 2nd start of the season, but hasn't since.  Still, she's made the cut in her last 6 starts and has 2 more top-21 finishes under her belt.  Never count this veteran out!
8. Beatriz Recari (3/0):  Last time, I wrote, "As great as she was in the 1st half of 2013, the 2nd half was a little bit of a letdown, as she started missing cuts (3 times), finishing outside the top 30 (twice more), and even having to withdraw from Lorena's event.  And yet she still got a win, 4 other top 10s, and 5 other top 20s in that very same run.  The key for her was a red-hot putter and a killer instinct down the stretch.  If she can maintain both in 2014, she's going to have an even better season than last one.  As the #1 golfer in her LPGA rookie class and #8 in her generation, it'll be interesting to see which ranking is a better indicator of where she's headed on tour." Unfortunately, the early part of 2014 has been an absolute disaster for her, with 3 MC, 1 WD, and no finish in the top 25.  Let's hope she turns it around soon!

Quantum Leap Candidates

9. Brittany Lincicome (5/1):  I've said it before and I'll say it again:  I'm still waiting for her to go on a real run and put herself in contention over several events in a row.  At this point in her career, I'm starting to seriously doubt whether she has the desire, the temperament, and the work ethic to do any of that.  In 2013, she had 3 top 20s in the 1st half of the season and 3 top 10s in its 2nd half.  She could do that sleepwalking through 2014.  Unfortunately, she's doing something worse thus far this season.
10. Seon Hwa Lee (4/0):  After a terrible 2013, she needed to go to Q-School, but she showed she still has it with a 6th-place finish.  So it's clean slate time for 2014, where so far she's made 4 of 5 cuts but hasn't done much to impress.
11. Candie Kung (4/0):  Last time, I wrote, "I wonder if she's gotten to the point in her 13th season on tour when the most we can expect from her is top 30s and the occasional better finish.  The culprit in 2013 was clearly her putting.  If she can get that back on track, we'll see her do better than break the $6M mark in career winnings on the LPGA.  But contend?  Let's hope!"  Unfortunately, she has only 1 top 25 in her 1st 8 starts and no other finish better than 36th.  Still, she's missed only 1 cut, so I'm not counting her out just yet.
12. Hee-Won Han (6/0):  Gotta ask the same question about this 14th-year LPGAer.  She started 2014 late and got a top-15 finish right off the bat, but hasn't impressed since then.

On the Bottom, Looking Up

13. Maria McBride (5/0):  She kept her LPGA card only because of Category 5 (multiple wins between 2010 and 2013) on the 2014 LPGA Priority Status List, so she still has a chance to catch or pass her fellow '98er Sophie Gustafson (the 2 of them have been neck and neck their entire careers).  Her best finish of 2013 (T30) was her last one, but she missed her 1st 5 cuts of 2014 and couldn't crack the top 70 last week, so she's got a ways to go to find her game again.
14. Pat Hurst (6/1):  She used up her Category 14 exemption for being in the top 40 on the career money list, so still has a chance to become a $7M woman on the LPGA.  Missing her 1st 6 cuts in a row in 2014 is not the way to do that, however.
15. Lorie Kane (4/0):  At #154 on the priority status list she should get plenty of starts this season, which is good, because she's racing Hurst to the $7M mark in career winnings.  She's got 1 top 30 so far in 2014, but only has 3 starts thus far.

On the Outside, Looking In

16. Sophie Gustafson (5/0):  At #209 on the priority status list, she's in Category 18-land for retired players.  Too bad she's already missed the cut twice in LPGA starts this season.  Never fear, Gustafson fans:  you can find her full-time on the LET!
17. Wendy Ward (4/0):  At #210 on the priority status list, it was nice that she got a sponsor exemption into the 1st tournament of the season, but she probably won't get into many others.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Congratulations to Lydia Ko, Azahara Munoz, Kyu Jung Baek, Phoebe Yao, and Marissa Steen!

The world knows 17-year-old Lydia Ko won the Swinging Skirts (again!), but only Mostly Harmless regulars know that she's joined Lexi and Michelle in the LPGA's Club 36 (for 3-to-6-time winners on tour).  About time I updated that predictive ranking, don't you think?  Soon!

Azahara Munoz couldn't crack the top 10 in the Bay Area, but she did earn enough to break the $3M barrier in career winnings on the LPGA.

It's worth noting that the Pacific Rim youth wave that Ko is the most famous droplet in began out in Asia.  Last week, 15-year-old Minami Katsu became the youngest winner in JLPGA history.  This week, 18-year-old rookie sensation Kyu Jung Baek won on the KLPGA and 21-year-old Phoebe Yao won on the JLPGA.

Back at home, 24-year-old Marissa Steen prevailed in a 5-hole playoff on the Symetra Tour over another young sensation of Asian descent, 18-year-old Yueer Cindy Feng.  Feng has top 5s in 4 of her 5 starts on tour and continues to lead their money list.

Do yourself a favor and don't add up the combined ages of all 4 of last week's winners!  Congratulations to them all!

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Swinging Skirts LPGA Classic Sunday: Lydia Ko Holds Off Stacy Lewis and Jenny Shin for 3rd LPGA Victory

On a day when 18-year-old Kyu Jung Baek and 21-year-old Phoebe Yao won on the KLPGA and JLPGA, respectively, Lydia Ko prevailed at the Swinging Skirts LPGA Classic over Stacy Lewis and Jenny Shin.

Ko's 3rd career victory on the LPGA was tense and dramatic, as she and Lewis stalled for much of the day.  After a slow start of her own, Shin made 4 birdies over her final 11 holes of bogey-free golf to take a run at her playing partners.  In fact, the threesome came to the final hole, a tough par 5, with Ko holding a slim 1-stroke lead over Lewis and Shin.  Lewis had parred the entire front 9, but then stumbled at the start of the back with bogeys on the 10th and 13th to fall to -8, but she came right back with birdies on 14 and 16 to return to -10.  Ko had birdied 3 of her last 4 holes on the front, but offset that run with bogeys on 4, 7, and 10, so she, too, needed to turn on the afterburners down the stretch.  And she responded with birdies on 13 and 14 to become the 1st player in the field to get to -11.  When Shin parred 18 and Ko matched Lewis's birdie, the laurels went to the 17-year-old LPGA rookie.

A little further down the leaderboard, Inbee Park, Cristie Kerr, and Caroline Masson matched Shin's 68 for low rounds of the day, while Line Vedel, Mina Harigae, Mi Hyang Lee, and Lizette Salas matched Ko's 69.  I was glad to see Ai Miyazato and Tiffany Joh put together 70s during an otherwise tough week.  It was also good to see Brittany Lang and In-Kyung Kim putting together good weeks.  Michelle Wie, Hyo Joo Kim, and Shanshan Feng continue to play very good golf.  It was a career week for P.K. Kongkraphan.  And Mika Miyazato and Harukyo Nomura tied for low Japanese golfers at T21, so it wasn't a bad week for them.

But the day belonged to Lydia Ko.  As expected, she's had some trouble adjusting to a week in, week out LPGA schedule.  But she won the LPGA's version of the Swinging Skirts in an even more impressive fashion than she won Taiwan's version last December, where she chased down So Yeon Ryu.  If she keeps putting like she did this week the rest of the year, the rest of the world had better watch out!

Happy Birthday, Imoto! Otanjobi Omedetou!!

Imoto turns 8 today.  She's an amazing girl.  She's into so many things!

She's working hard to get to Level 2 at gymnastics. Don't know if down the road she'll try out acrobatic gymnastics:

Or rhythmic gymnastics:

But right now she's inspired by the Fab Five from the 2012 Olympics:

She also likes to play golf with me. I hope we can do a lot more of that this summer!

I'm really glad imoto likes to laugh.  We definitely share a sense of humor.  She loves watching How It Should Have Ended on youtube.  Here's one of her favorites:

Yup, she loves Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and The Hobbit!  Not to mention Frozen, Tangled, Brave, Powerpuff Girls, Pretty Cure, and Winx Club, to name a few more!

Best of all, she's a hard worker, great student, kind friend, and loving sister!

So happy birthday, imoto!

Fujisankei Ladies Classic Sunday: 21-Year-Old Phoebe Yao Breaks Through for 1st JLPGA Victory

21-year-old Phoebe Yao fired a bogey-free 68 to win the Fujisankei Ladies Classic by 5 shots over fellow young guns Mamiko Higa and Misuzu Narita, but the final round was much more dramatic than that quick summary makes it seem.

First was the crashing and the burning.  Shiho Oyama, who ended last season in the winner's circle, was going for career JLPGA victory #14 today, while her co-leader, Esther Lee, who like her started the day at -5, was going for her 2nd W in the last 3 weeks.  Well, Oyama didn't make a birdie all day and faded to E with a 77, while Lee held on for the 1st 9 holes but put herself out of the running with a 5-bogey 40 on the back.

Then there was the charging and the jockeying.  Yao played brilliant golf as her playing partners and fellow co-leaders through 36 holes struggled, then plummeted down the leaderboard, firing a bogey-free 33 on the front to move to -8.  And it was a damn good thing she did that, because 20-year-old Mamiko Higa, who had struggled earlier this season under the pressure of trying to catch Sakura Yokomine and Rikako Morita for the last spot on Team Japan in the LPGA's International Crown and gone through a little bit of a let-down after failing to do so, all of a sudden went on a birdie barrage an hour and a half before the leaders.  Higa made 7 birdies in a row to close out her front 9 and stood at -6 for the week right around the time Yao, Lee, and Oyama were getting ready to tee it up.  Even though Higa bogeyed the 568-yard par-5 12th, she bounced back with a 2 more birdies in a row to stand at -7 with 4 holes left to play.

But she wasn't the only one forcing Yao to step it up to stay in the mix.  25-year-old Step-Up Tour graduate Eriko Sonoda, playing with newbie Hikari Fujita (all of 19) and veteran Soo-Yun Kang (you look it up)--who were doing the Oyama-Lee crashing/burning thing all day right in front of the leaders' threesome--made it look easy for her 1st 11 holes as her 3 birdies and no bogeys also moved her to -7.

So it was a 3-player race down the home stretch, right?  By the time Yao made the last of her birdies on the front, on the par-3 9th, disaster had struck Higa on the par-3 17th.  With the tournament on the line, she somehow tripled the 172-yard hole, a fate that befell only 2 other golfers all day.  So Higa finished her week at -4, sharing leader in the clubhouse honors with her playing partner Narita, who birdied the 17th for a 4-shot swing on her fellow young gun.

So then it was 2, right?  Well, Sonoda stopped making birdies after the 11th and bogeyed the 416-yard par-4 15th to fall to -6, then fell 3 behind the leader when Yao birdied the 480-yard par-5 16th.  In response, she finished double bogey-bogey to fall to -3, tied with Miki Sakai for 4th at -3.

All Yao had to do was avoid triple bogeys on her last 2 holes for her 1st JLPGA victory, which she did easily.  And she moved to #8 on the 2014 JLPGA money list as a result:

1. Bo-Mee Lee ¥33.09M
2. Onnarin Sattayabanphot ¥31.60M

3. Sun-Ju Ahn ¥25.90M
4. Erina Hara ¥25.39M
5. Ayaka Watanabe ¥25.22M
6. Rikako Morita ¥25.21M
7. Esther Lee ¥21.99M
8. Phoebe Yao ¥18.89M
9. Miki Sakai ¥18.87M
10. Yuki Ichinose ¥16.56M

11. Ritsuko Ryu ¥16.28M
12. Mami Fukuda ¥14.31M
13. Ji-Hee Lee ¥14.03M
14. Mamiko Higa ¥13.82M
15. Misuzu Narita ¥13.35M
16. Saiki Fujita ¥12.53M
17. Yumiko Yoshida ¥11.58M
18. Asako Fujimoto ¥11.52M
19. Teresa Lu ¥10.94M
20. Yukari Baba ¥10.63M
21. Mi-Jeong Jeon ¥9.77M
22. Ji-Yai Shin ¥9.44M
23. Rui Kitada ¥8.45M
24. Mayu Hattori ¥7.61M
25. Junko Omote ¥7.49M

Next up is the CyberAgent Ladies, where Sakura Yokomine hopes she puts up a better title defense than her fellow star who also missed the cut this week, Miki Saiki.  With Ji-Yai Shin, Yuri Fudoh, and Chie Arimura as the other past winners of this event, I expect a strong field.  But so far neither the JLPGA nor the tournament organizers have posted a field list.  More on what to expect next week when I see one....  It's the last tune-up before the JLPGA's 1st major of 2014, the Salonpas Cup, so it's likely to be a strong one!

[Update 1 (5:20 am):  It was a battle of young guns on the KLPGA, too.  In the end, heralded rookie Kyu Jung Baek outputted last year's money-list leader Ha Na Jang down the stretch to take her 1st victory on tour.  Fellow rookies Min Sun Kim, Jin Young Ko, and Ji Hyun Oh all got top 10s, but after opening with a 64, I think Kim had higher expectations.]

Swinging Skirts LPGA Classic Saturday: Can Anyone Crash the Stacy Lewis-Lydia Ko Showdown at Lake Merced?

There's a major-like feel at the Swinging Skirts LPGA Classic in only its 1st playing, as Lake Merced exacted its revenge on all but a dozen golfers or so on moving day, leaving the stage virtually all alone for a Stacy Lewis-Lydia Ko Sunday showdown.  Consider the carnage:
  • Suzann Pettersen, who had been hanging so tough during her comeback from an unexpected month off from competition due to a back injury, hit only half her fairways and greens and was 0 for 4 from the sand as her 79 sent her from -2 and in the hunt to +5 and T40.
  • Mika Miyazato, who was in the mix for the 1st time in forever, hit only 6 greens and went 2 for 5 from the sand on her way to a 77 that dropped her to +2 and T22.
  • Na Yeon Choi, Morgan Pressel, Ai Miyazato, and Lizette Salas all failed to break 77 as bad weeks went worse.
  • 2-time winners Karrie Webb (+3, T30) and Anna Nordqvist (+2, T22) continued to struggle to break par--it hasn't happened this week for either one of them!  Nor has Paula Creamer in 3 tries.  Michelle Wie bucked the trend and became the only 2014 LPGA winner to do it the entire week--and as great as she's been playing this season, it was only a 71.
So for Lewis to be -10 after a bogey-free 68, for Ko to be -9 after a 5-birdie 68, for them to be several shots ahead of Jenny Shin (who fired a 6-birdie 68) and Hee Young Park (who put together a bogey-free 68) and even more shots clear of Shanshan Feng (yup, another 68, but this one had 2 eagles and 2 birdies in it!), P.K. Kongkraphan (also -4 after a 70), and Karine Icher (the only player disappointed to be at -4 after a 73 yesterday)--all that really means something.  (Heck, Geoff Shackelford even wrote a non-snarky post about women's golf on his blog!)

Today should be a real treat.  Either Lewis and Ko are going to continue playing at the level they've been playing, in which case we'll have a real shootout or battle of attrition on our hands, or one or both of them will forget how to walk on water and this will become a free-for-all.  Because those who have faltered have tended to plummet down the leaderboard at Lake Merced (cf. world #1 Inbee Park, who needed a bogey-free 34 on the back yesterday to arrest her plunge, and KLPGA 2013 Rookie of the Year Hyo Joo Kim, who has battled to be only +1 over her last 36 holes, but is stuck with Park 8 shots off the pace set by Lewis), the pressure is really on Lewis and Ko today.

Let's see how they handle it!

[Update 1 (4/27/14, 12:21 pm):  With 18-year-old Kyu Jung Baek winning on the KLPGA, 21-year-old Phoebe Yao winning on the JLPGA, and 18-year-old Yueer Cindy Feng holding a 3-shot lead with 17 holes to go on the Symetra Tour, wouldn't it be neat if Lydia Ko kept the youth movement going?  She wouldn't be the youngest winner in the last couple of weeks--that honor goes to Minami Katsu--but she'd be the 2nd-youngest!]

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Fujisankei Ladies Classic Friday and Saturday: Phoebe Yao and Esther Lee Catch Shiho Oyama

16-year-old amateur Kana Nagai was near the top of the leaderboard after the 1st round of the Fujisankei Ladies Classic, but fell off a cliff today with an 81 that left her well on the wrong side of the cut line, along with the likes of Sakura Yokomine, defending champion Miki Saiki, Mayu Hattori, and Na Zhang.  At the other end of the leaderboard, 21-year-old Phoebe Yao and Studio Alice Ladies winner Esther Lee caught veteran Shiho Oyama at -5 on the strength of a 6-birdie 67 from Yao and a 5-birdie 68 from Lee.  But never fear, fans of teenage winners on professional tours!  19-year-old Hikari Fujita shot a 5-birdie 69 to move within 1 shot of the lead.  And 19-year-old Sayaka Tsuchida matched 68s by Rikako Morita and Na-Ri Lee to move to -2.

Others with a good opportunity to win tomorrow on the JLPGA include 25-year-old Step-Up Tour graduate Eriko Sonoda (-4), Soo Yun Kang (-3), Yun-Jye Wei (-3), Kumiko Kaneda (-3), Miki Sakai (-3), Shinobu Moromizato (-2), Asako Fujimoto (-2), and Teresa Lu (-1).  Even Yumiko Yoshida, who fell to E for the week after making an eagle and 2 triples today, and Ritsuko Ryu, who fought her way back to E with a 6-birdie 68 today, are not out of this tournament by any means.

It'll be interesting to see if we have a 1st-time winner on the podium tomorrow, whether Esther Lee will make a statement, or whether Shiho Oyama will notch victory #14!

Friday, April 25, 2014

Swinging Skirts LPGA Classic Thursday and Friday: Stacy Lewis Leaps Past Lydia Ko and Karine Icher

There's an interesting trio atop the leaderboard at the Swinging Skirts LPGA Classic:  a former #1 (Stacy Lewis), a future #1 (Lydia Ko), and a 5-time LET winner still looking for LPGA win #1 (Karine Icher).

Let's start with yesterday's leader.  Icher opened with a bogey-free 66 but made only 1 birdie today as she dropped to -5 for the week.  My #8-ranked player without an LPGA victory is still 3 shots ahead of #3 Carlota Ciganda, #11 Haeji Kang, and #12 Jenny Shin, 4 shots ahead of #27 Mo Martin and #37 Christel Boeljon, 5 shots ahead of #26 Giulia Sergas and #30 Dewi Claire Schreefel, 6 shots ahead of #7 Jodi Ewart Shadoff, and (skipping a whole bunch of the winless) even further ahead of #2 Chella Choi, #6 Gerina Piller, and #17 Vicky Hurst (who are going to miss the cut), along with #4 Lizette Salas, #14 Caroline Masson, and #20 Xi Yu Lin (who have to hope the cut returns to +5--a pretty unlikely prospect right now).

The now-17-year-old Ko, meanwhile, hit 3 fewer greens and made 3 fewer birdies today than yesterday, but at -5 she's also 3 shots ahead of her closest fellow under-22 star, Hyo Joo Kim, 7-up on Ariya Jutanugarn, and well ahead of Harukyo Nomura and Mi Hyang Lee (who will make the cut) as well as Jessica Korda and Charley Hull (who won't).

But it's Stacy Lewis who might well be the most interesting of the 3 leaders right now.  With world #1 Inbee Park charging (she birdied 3 holes in a row to post a 68 and move to -3 for the week) and #2 Suzann Pettersen playing amazingly well for someone recovering from a serious back injury (she's -2 after going 70-72), Lewis has a great chance to make a huge statement from the #3 position in the Rolex Rankings.  With Michelle Wie and Anna Nordqvist at E and Karrie Webb at +3, the Big 3 of 2013 can put themselves back on the map in 2014 this weekend.

I'm also really excited to see how well Mika Miyazato is scrambling around Lake Merced.  After doubling her 5th hole of the tournament, she's played the next 31 in -5.  It would be great to see Mikan keep it going on moving day!  It was shocking that Maria McBride went 68-81, but she still may live to play another day, as the cut line could still go to +5.  Ai Miyazato's been having trouble hitting greens, but at +4 will definitely get a chance to straighten out her iron play.  Maybe being forced to scramble more than usual will get her putter going.  More when all the scores are in!

[Update 1 (11:00 pm):  Ya Ni Tseng and Amy Yang will be missing the cut, but there's a chance those at +5 will make it.  All that has to happen is that neither Jaclyn Sweeney nor Maria Hernandez birdie their final hole.  Northern CA natives Juli Inkster and Paula Creamer are safely on the right side of the line, but they will need to play perfect golf the rest of the way to have a chance to contend.  BTW, I just read on twitter that Inbee Park had food poisoning today!]

[Update 2 (11:03 pm):  Hernandez parred and Sweeney bogeyed the 9th, their final hole, to make it 82 golfers at +5 or better....]

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Teenagers Off to Great Starts on LPGA and JLPGA

It's looking like neither Thursday's 1st round of the Swinging Skirts LPGA Classic nor Friday's 1st round of the Fujisankei Ladies Classic will be done before I crash for the night, so I'll save my overviews for tomorrow.  But it's worth noting right now that Lydia Ko opened with a 68 on one side of the Pacific and 16-year-old amateur Kana Nagai did the same on the other side, less than a week after 15-year-old Minami Katsu made history on the JLPGA.

There's still a lot of golf to be played over in Japan, so there's a good chance Nagai won't be leading once everyone's turned in their cards, but Ko is only 2 shots behind Bay Area leader Karine Icher, who fired a bogey-free 66 on a tough Lake Merced course that's given a lot of big names fits.  Ya Ni Tseng, Jessica Korda, So Yeon Ryu, Paula Creamer, Azahara Munoz, Amy Yang, and Caroline Hedwall couldn't break 75.  Karrie Webb, Na Yeon Choi, Shanshan Feng, and Ai Miyazato did by the skin of their teeth.  Inbee Park, Cristie Kerr, Ariya Jutanugarn, and Charley Hull couldn't get back to E by the end of the day.  And only 11 golfers (as of this writing) broke 70, including Maria (Hjorth) McBride, Stacy Lewis, Morgan Pressel, Hyo Joo Kim, and Jenny Shin.  A triple bogey on the par-4 11th was the only thing that kept Suzann Pettersen from joining them.

So there are lots of players to follow and stories to tell, but not right now.  Take care, everyone!

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

My Picks for the Swinging Skirts LPGA Classic

Tony Jesselli's preview and picks are out for the LPGA's 9th event of 2014, the Swinging Skirts LPGA Classic.  Since I did my preview last night, it's now time for my picks:

1. Park Inbee
2. Lewis
3. Webb
4. Feng
5. Kerr
6. Creamer
7. Choi Chella
8. Wie
9. Nordqvist
10. Kim Hyo Joo
11. Ryu
12. Munoz

Alts: Ko; Pressel; Salas

I'm looking for players long enough off the tee to handle the long par 4s on the front and the short par 5s on both sides, and accurate enough with their irons to control where their approach shots go on what look to be very tricky greens.  Just watch:  this'll be the week my favorite golfer, Ai Miyazato, finally regains her touch on the greens!

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Busy Week Coming Up in the World of Women's Golf

There's more women's golf than usual going on this week around the world.

Out in northern California, the LPGA and TLPGA are co-presenting the Swinging Skirts LPGA Classic, which features Hawaiian winner Michelle Wie, everyone in the top 10 of the Rolex Rankings except Lexi Thompson, everyone in the next 15 except for the KLPGA's Ha Na Jang and JLPGA's Ji-Yai Shin, and such non-member phenoms as Hyo Joo Kim, Ariya Jutanugarn, and Charley Hull.

Over in Japan, the JLPGA's Fujisankei Ladies Classic spotlights veterans like Mi-Jeong Jeon, Sakura Yokomine, Shiho Oyama, and Shinobu Moromizato and young guns like Rikako Morita, Mamiko Higa, Erika Kikuchi, Kumiko Kaneda, and Ayaka Watanabe, not to mention talented amateurs like 16-year-old Kana Nagai, 17-year-olds Megumi Takahashi and Shoko Sasaki, and soon-to-be 19-year-old Hibiki Kitamura (who shares a name and a birthday with imoto!).

I'll let my pals at Seoul preview the KLPGA's Nexen-Saint Nine Ladies Masters.  My grasp of written Japanese might not pass muster in kindergarten over there, but my Korean is nonexistent!

And let's not forget that the Symetra Tour heads to Sarasota this week, where Cheyenne Woods, Yueer Cindy Feng, Kendall Dye, Jennie Lee, Hannah Yun, and the gang will continue their quest to join (or rejoin) the LPGA.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Best to Join the LPGA since 2005, April 2014 Edition

With Lexi and Wiesy winning the last 2 LPGA events, it's a good time to take another look at how the best players to join the LPGA since 2005 stack up against each other, something I haven't revisited since the end of last season.  For the full rundown, check out my spreadsheet.  The numbers in brackets following the player's name and point total represent how many points they have gained or lost since my November ranking.

Simply the Best
1. Ya Ni Tseng (3820) [-44]

The Contenders
2. Ji-Yai Shin (3376)
3. Na Yeon Choi (2768) [-56]
4. Inbee Park (2762) [+37]
5. Stacy Lewis (2757) [+55]
6. Paula Creamer (2752) [+57]

The Next Best
7. So Yeon Ryu (2367) [-97]
8. Lydia Ko (2358)
9. Lexi Thompson (2159) [+317]
10. Ai Miyazato (2155) [-63]

Quantum Leap Candidates
11. In-Kyung Kim (1734) [-25]
12. Anna Nordqvist (1654) [+107]
13. Shanshan Feng (1598) [-25]
14. Michelle Wie (1552) [+195]
15. Brittany Lincicome (1454) [-33]
16. Morgan Pressel (1346) [-9]
17. Azahara Munoz (1264) [+83]
18. Amy Yang (1237) [-2]
19. Song-Hee Kim (1226)
20. Seon Hwa Lee (1203) [-21]
21. Mika Miyazato (1185) [-42]
22. Hee Kyung Seo (1180) [-79]
23. Beatriz Recari (1115) [-49]
24. Angela Park (1114)
25. Hee Young Park (1094) [-94]
26. Lizette Salas (1083) [+114]
27. Jessica Korda (1059) [+197]
28. Eun-Hee Ji (1044) [-3]
29. Sun Young Yoo (1043) [-22]

The Best of the Rest
30. Jee Young Lee (996) [-12]
31. Caroline Hedwall (943) [-54]
32. Brittany Lang (918) [-19]
33. Chella Choi (855) [+73]
34. Meena Lee (838) [-13]
35. Momoko Ueda (765)
36. Julieta Granada (756) [+2]
37. Gerina Piller (741) [+49]
38. Sandra Gal (734) [+4]
39. Ilhee Lee (682) [-44]
40. Jenny Shin (659) [+21]
41. Jennifer Johnson (647) [-41]
42. Pornanong Phatlum (640) [+36]
43. Jodi Ewart Shadoff (630) [-33]
44. Carlota Ciganda (629) [-139]
45. Ji Young Oh (602) [-10]
46. Kristy McPherson (594) [-10]
47. Mi Jung Hur (577) [-20]
48. Teresa Lu (587)
50. Caroline Masson (533) [-49]

As you can see, my system ranks Thompson, Korda, Wie, Salas, Nordqvist, Munoz, and Chella Choi as the hottest players to join the tour since 2005, while Ciganda, Ryu, Hee Young Park, Seo, Ai Miyazato, NYC, Hedwall, Recari, and Masson are playing the furthest below their career averages.  It'll be interesting to see where Ko ends up at the end of this season, given how volatile her ranking will be this year.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

KKT Cup Vantelin Ladies Sunday: 15-Year-Old Minami Katsu Outlasts Bo-Mee Lee to Become Youngest Winner in JLPGA History

As more experienced golfers around her plunged down the leaderboard during the final round of the KKT Cup Vantelin Ladies, 15-year-old Minami Katsu calmly went out and birdied 5 of her 1st 13 holes to move to -12 and take a 3-shot lead on former KLPGA star Bo-Mee Lee.  Even though she bogeyed the 385-yard par-4 14th, Katsu held on with pars the rest of the way, which was just enough to finish ahead of Lee, who birdied her 2 final holes but ran out of room to chase down the NZ Women's Stroke Play Championship winner.  With her victory, Katsu became the youngest winner in JLPGA history, eclipsing the mark set by then-16-year-old Hyo Joo Kim in 2012.

What an impressive win for the high school student!  She had the low round of the day and only 4 other players managed to break 70.  You'd have expected her to play more like her fellow Japan National Team member Haruka Morita, who ballooned to a 77 and finished T23, particularly on a day when some of the best players on tour also blew up:  Miki Saiki (78, T50), Yumiko Yoshida (75, T45), Mamiko Higa (76, T37), Rikako Morita (74, T28), Chie Arimura (76, T23), Shiho Oyama (75, T18), Onnarin Sattayabanphot (78, T15)....  Ji-Hee Lee leapfrogged lots of players with a 69 that lifted her into solo 3rd, as Teresa Lu and Erina Hara held steady with 72s, 21-year-olds Mami Fukuda (75) and Misuzu Narita (74) fell back to T6, and Kaori Nakamura (72), Mi-Jeong Jeon (71), and Ritsuko Ryu (71) failed to make moves.  So a lot of factors came together for Katsu to win, but that's true every week for every winner.  What matters is she got up-and-down from the sand, canning an 8-footer on the final hole and forcing Lee to eagle to tie her!

Because Katsu is an amateur, the winner's share of the pot went to Lee, who jumped from #8 to #1 on the 2014 JLPGA money list:

1. Bo-Mee Lee ¥33.09M
2. Onnarin Sattayabanphot ¥31.60M
3. Sun-Ju Ahn ¥25.90M
4. Erina Hara ¥24.85M
5. Ayaka Watanabe ¥24.68M
6. Rikako Morita ¥23.96M
7. Esther Lee ¥19.59M
8. Yuki Ichinose ¥16.56M
9. Ritsuko Ryu ¥15.57M
10. Miki Sakai ¥14.47M
11. Mami Fukuda ¥14.31M
12. Ji-Hee Lee ¥14.03M
13. Saiki Fujita ¥12.53M
14. Asako Fujimoto ¥10.98M
15. Yumiko Yoshida ¥10.87M
16. Yukari Baba ¥10.08M
17. Mi-Jeong Jeon ¥9.77M
18. Teresa Lu ¥9.68M
19. Ji-Yai Shin ¥9.44M
20. Mayu Hattori ¥7.61M

Next up on tour is the Fujisankei Ladies Classic, which is defending champion Miki Saiki's best chance to start turning 2014 around.  The field list doesn't look complete just yet, but amateur Hibiki Kitamura, who turns 19 on the same day imoto turns 8, will be trying to follow up on Katsu's victory, as will 17-year-old Megumi Takahashi.

[Update 1 (10:32 am):  Check out this youtube clip of the home stretch:

LPGA LOTTE Championship Saturday: Michelle Wie Wins at Home!

You don't need me to tell you that Michelle Wie has won the LPGA LOTTE Championship by 2 shots over Angela Stanford, 3 over Inbee Park, and 4 over Hyo Joo Kim.  By now everyone who pays a lick of attention to women's golf knows that Wie chased Stanford down with 3 birdies in her 1st 6 holes, then outdistanced the 2nd- and 3rd-round leader and everyone else in the field with 3 birdies in her 1st 7 holes on the back.  I mean, you expect Brent KelleyTony Jesselli, bangkokbobby, and Ruthless Mike to be all over this, and you expect Geoff Shackelford to have something snarky to say, but it's only good for the LPGA when American stars like Paula Creamer, Lexi Thompson, Jessica Korda, and now Michelle Wie have won in 2014.  ESPN gave Wie's win more than their usual paragraph and followed their game story up with an ESPNW feature on Wie's journey back to the winner's circle.  And it won't be the last in-depth look at the former phenom.

Right now Team USA is looking like the team to beat for the International Crown (although Team Korea must be pretty happy with Park and So Yeon Ryu, who tied Chella Choi for 5th at -9).  If they had captain's picks in this event, Wie would certainly be the frontrunner for it.  Yes, she hasn't won on tour since 2010, and she still hasn't won in one of the contiguous 48 states, but she's got them surrounded, with wins in Mexico, Canada, and now Hawaii.  And let's be clear:  Wie didn't need this win to build her confidence in her game or her strategy.  Everyone on tour and who follows it knows that she's been playing solid solid golf in 2014 and that the pieces were falling in place.  I didn't think this would be her week to win, but I expected she'd contend.

So congratulations to Michelle!  The way she's playing and the way she's enjoying the game lead me to believe we'll see her near or at the top of the leaderboards a lot the rest of the spring!

[Update 1 (10:36 am):  More Wie-linkage from Golf BabesGolf Spelled Backwards, Ladies on Tour, and Women's Golf Center!]

[Update 2 (10:40 am):  Here's Randall Mell with an implicitly Easter-themed reflection on Wie's journey!]

[Update 3 (4/21/14, 9:12 am):  Here are Centurion's observations on Wie's win.]

Saturday, April 19, 2014

KKT Cup Vantelin Ladies Saturday: 21-Year-Old Mami Fukuda Vaults into Lead

21-year-old Mami Fukuda rode a bogey-free 66 into the lead at the KKT Cup Vantelin Ladies today in Kumamoto, passing yesterday's co-leaders 2014 money-list leader Onnarin Sattaybanphot (3-birdie 71) and 15-year-old amateur Minami Katsu (5-birdie 71) while outdistancing Bo-Mee Lee (4-birdie 70) and 21-year-old Misuza Narita (who was sparked by a 4-hole birdie train on the back to fire a 69).  With Fukuda at -8 and her lead chase pack at -7, the leaderboard is already quite packed, but let's make sure not to count out Erina Hara (5-birdie 68) or Teresa Lu (bogey-free 70) at -6, Yukari Baba (3 birdies in her last 10 holes for a 70 of her own) at -5, last week's winner Esther Lee (3-birdie 70), Kaori Nakamura (3-birdie 71), or Ji-Hee Lee (2-birdie 72) at -4, much less Katsu's more heralded Japan National Team compatriot 17-year-old Haruka Morita, who finished birdie-par-par-eagle to pull within 5 shots of the lead.

If the leaders' scores don't seem that impressive, consider that Momoko Ueda shot a 77 to join Hyun-Ju Shin (75), Soo-Yun Kang (75), and Natsuka Hori (74) on the wrong side of the cut line, along with the likes of So-Hee Kim, Na-Ri Kim, Young Kim, Erika Kikuchi, Yuki Sakurai, Kaori Ohe, Na Zhang, and even heavier hitters like Yuri Fudoh and Shinobu Moromizato.  Sakura Yokomine, who opened with a 69, had to withdraw, as did Bo-Bae Song and Jessica Speechley.  So the fact that Fukuda has a 6-shot lead on such players as Mi-Jeong Jeon, Shiho Oyama, Chie Arimura, Mayu Hattori, Saiki Fujita, and even Yui Mukaiyama (who fired a 66 of her own today), a 7-shot lead on Na-Ri Lee and Ritsuko Ryu, and an 8-shot lead on Mamiko Higa and Maiko Wakabayashi is nothing to sneeze at.

It'll be interesting to see if Fukuda can follow up her low round of 2014 and improve on her best JLPGA finish of 3rd just a few weeks ago at the T-Point Ladies.  But there are plenty of other interesting what ifs to contemplate:

  • whether Sattayabanphot will extend her lead on the JLPGA money list by notching her 2nd win of the season;
  • whether Katsu or Morita will break through for her 1st JLPGA victory at an even younger age than Ai Miyazato did in 2003;
  • whether Bo-Mee Lee or Narita will find her way into the winner's circle again for the 3rd consecutive year in Japan;
  • whether Hara will follow through on her 2008 JLPGA victory or Megumi Kido her 2012 one or Lu on her 2013 one or Ayaka Watanabe on her AXA Ladies one earlier this year or Esther Lee on last week's;
  • whether Mi-Jeong Jeon will get JLPGA victory #23, Ji-Hee Lee her 18th, Oyama or Arimura her 14th, Hattori her 5th, Baba or Junko Omote her 4th, or Nakamura her 1st at age 27.
Perhaps not quite so compelling as a showdown between Angela Stanford, Michelle Wie, Hyo Joo Kim, and Cristie Kerr on the LPGA, but not half bad!

LPGA LOTTE Championship Friday: Angela Stanford Tames Ko Olina Winds, Roars into 4-Shot Lead on Michelle Wie and Hyo Joo KIm

Angela Stanford leads the LPGA LOTTE Championship by 4 shots over Michelle Wie and 2013 KLPGA Rookie of the Year Hyo Joo Kim (thanks to walkoff bogeys by each of them) and 5 shots over Cristie Kerr after firing a 6-birdie 67 on a day when many golfers struggled in the winds at Ko Olina (such as KLPGA money-list leader last year Ha Na Jang, who ballooned to an 81, not to mention Lydia Ko [74], Se Ri Pak [74], Paula Creamer [74], and Morgan Pressel [75]).

Stanford has always been one of the most reliable ball-strikers on tour, but also has been streaky with her putter over the course of her career.  Some time after a disappointing Solheim Cup run last summer, she found something on the greens--and it's carried over into 2014.  She ended 2013 on a 9-event run in which her worst finish was T21 and started 2014 by extending her top-25 streak to 12.  Right after finishing 4th in Singapore, the site her her 5th and most recent LPGA victory, she missed the cut twice in a row in the States, which lowered many people's expectations for her in Hawaii this week.  However, she's reconnected with her putter, with only 80 putts over her 1st 54 holes, and she's handled the winds better than anyone.

That said, nothing is guaranteed today.  Stanford played great enough to dominate the Manulife last summer, but a final-round charge allowed Hee Young Park to make Waterloo Stanford's Waterloo.  And Ko Olina is vulnerable to low scores if the winds die down.  Of course, someone like world #1 Inbee Park would need to find her own galactic-class putting touch to make up 7 shots on Stanford and can't afford any more double bogeys like the one on the par-5 13th that dropped her out of realistic contention.  But if players like Park, So Yeon Ryu (-6), rookie Amy Anderson (-6), or Chella Choi (-4) were to make early runs and if Stanford were to open the door, anything could happen today.  And if someone at -2 like Na Yeon Choi, Shanshan Feng, Azahara Munoz, or Ariya Jutanugarn were to play out of their minds, things would get very interesting, very fast.

Of course the biggest story would be if Michelle Wie were to learn from her struggles in the final round of the Kraft Nabisco Championship and make a big run for her 3rd LPGA victory right in her home state.  And Asian audiences (and her fans around the world) would be thrilled by a Hyo Joo Kim run.  Cristie Kerr's Hall of Fame clock is ticking, so she needs to make the most of her opportunities, as well.  All in all, it's enough to make me try to find a friend with Golf Channel tonight!  If only....

Friday, April 18, 2014

KKT Cup Vantelin Ladies Friday: Onnarin Sattayabanphot and 15-Year-Old Minami Katsu Go Low

JLPGA money-list leader Onnarin Sattayabanphot bounced back from last Sunday's disappointment by shooting her low round of the year thus far, a bogey-free 66 at the KKT Cup Vantelin Ladies, but she may not have been the biggest story of the day.  Sharing the lead with her is 15-year-old amateur and history-making winner of this March's NZ Women's Stroke Play Championship Minami Katsu, who birdied 5 holes in a row as she closed out the back (her front) and followed it up with a birdie on the par-5 4th.

Katsu, who's playing on the Japanese National Team with 2013 Japan Women's Amateur champion Haruka Morita and 2013 U.S. Women's Amateur medalist Yumi Matsubara, made a bounceback of her own from a disappointing performance at the Queen Sirikit Cup of Golf last week.  She's already a seasoned international competitor, with experience in the Japan Women's Open and a T12 last year at the Studio Alice Ladies, but it's going to be a tall order for her to keep hanging with Sattayabanphot, who's grabbed a gold, silver, and bronze in her 1st 6 starts of 2014.  And when you consider that the likes of Bo-Mee Lee (bogey-free 67), Teresa Lu (5-birdie 68), Ji-Hee Lee (ditto), Sakura Yokomine (6-birdie 69), and Mayu Hattori (bogey-free 69) are hot on the co-leaders' trail, well, the teenage amateur has a lot on her plate this weekend.

I'll be curious to see if Chie Arimura, Momoko Ueda, and Shiho Oyama can build on their -1 opening rounds and gain some confidence and momentum for the 1st time in 2014, if Mamiko Higa (E), Rikako Morita (+1), and Ayaka Watanabe (+1) can bounce back from blah starts, and if Na Ri Kim (+5), Bo-Bae Song (+5), Yuri Fudoh (+4), Shinobu Moromizato (+3), and Miki Saiki (+2) can fight back to make the cut tomorrow.

LPGA LOTTE Championship Wednesday and Thursday: Best and Worst of Times in Hawaii

There's a Dickensian feel to the LPGA LOTTE Championship this year.  With the winds up Wednesday and down Thursday, most of the field were able to improve their scores in a big way.  Leader Angela Stanford exemplifies one such extreme.  She struggled her way to a 3-birdie, 3-bogey 72 in the 1st round, then exploded in the 2nd with 5 birdies in a row on the front and 3 on the back to post the low round of the week and move to -8.  But Stanford's 8-shot improvement--which put her 1-up on a resurgent Michelle Wie (70-67) and 2-up on Inbee Park (70-68), So Yeon Ryu (68-70), Cristie Kerr (72-66), and Hyo Joo Kim (68-70)--was not even close to the biggest of the week.

That belonged to Jimin Kang, who bounced back from an opening 80 that was lowlighted by a walkoff double with a 2nd-round 65 that was highlighted by a 5-hole birdie train to begin her day.  Others who made heroic efforts to make the cut, which fell at +4, included Jaye Marie Green (80-68), Amelia Lewis (77-66), Pernilla Lindberg (78-69), Seon Hwa Lee (78-70), and Ryann O'Toole (77-69).

Given the scale of the bouncebacks most in the field engineered yesterday, those who moved backwards have to feel even worse.  Ai Miyazato continued to hit the ball solidly and putt terribly (27 greens in regulation, 67 putts, 3 birdies in 36 holes), missing the cut at a tournament she won 2 years ago and finished in the top 10 in last year.  Anna Nordqvist made 4 birdies late on the front to claw her way back to +1, but then she doubled 10 and bogeyed 14 to put herself right near the cut line.  How did the 2-time winner this season respond?  By finishing birdie-double-quad to end up with a 44 on the back and a +9 total for the week.  Heck, even those who improved a great deal, like Jeong Jang (78-71), Paz Echeverria (78-71), Sei Young Kim (77-72), Belen Mozo (77-72), Jane Rah (77-72), and Perrine Delacour (77-72), came up just short of making it into the weekend.  Others who will be taking their troubles to the beach include such big names as Mika Miyazato, Hee Kyung Seo, Brittany Lincicome, Brittany Lang, Lorie Kane, Pat Hurst, Karen Stupples, and Laura Diaz.

Back towards the top of the leaderboard, the volatility of the 1st 2 rounds means that players like Hall of Famer Se Ri Pak (68-71), global young guns Ha Na Jang (70-69) and Harukyo Nomura (73-67), and even those who made more modest improvements like Morgan Pressel (73-69), Chella Choi (74-68), Caroline Hedwall (75-68), and Gerina Piller (75-68) are by no means out of this one.  I was also pleased to see Tiffany Joh move on up to -3, disappointed that Ayako Uehara backed up her 7-birdie 69 Wednesday with a 1-birdie 74 Thursday, and glad to see my old golfing buddy Moira Dunn hang on to make the cut on the number.

Let's face it:  golf can be a cruel game to try to make your living at.  The key is to give yourself a shot at playing another day.  You never know when you're going to go low.  Can't wait to see who does it on the LPGA's Friday moving day today!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Winds Must Really Be Up in Hawaii Today

I'll have a full report on the 1st round of the LPGA LOTTE Championship ready for you sometime tomorrow, and I still don't have Golf Channel, much less the time to watch live tournament coverage on tv, but it's worth noting right now that nobody's really tearing up the Ko Olina course and there are a lot of really high scores out there, so I'm assuming the winds are playing tricks on most of the field.

We'll soon see if Se Ri Pak can keep her recent run going and whether anyone still out on the course can keep pace with her or match So Yeon Ryu's 68 or Ayako Uehara's 69, the only sub-70 rounds posted thus far today.

For now, though, check out the previews from Tony Jesselli, Ruthless Mike, and Centurion--and the live leaderboard on!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

My Picks for the LPGA LOTTE Championship

It's an early start for the next LPGA event on the 2014 schedule, the LPGA LOTTE Championship, and there are lots of impressive visitors who are among the best in the 21-and-under set in the world of women's golf, so let's get my picks for the PakPicker competition over at Seoul out there!

1. Miyazato Ai
2. Creamer
3. Park Inbee
4. Ko
5. Wie
6. Jutanugarn, Ariya
7. Munoz
8. Kim Hyo Joo
9. Ryu
10. Nordqvist
11. Pressel
12. Choi Na Yeon

Alts: Choi Chella; Kerr; Lee, Meena

Somehow I won the Kraft Nabisco Championship PakPicker (my 1st in forever), so I fully expect the Mostly Harmless jinx to rear its ugly head this week.  Probably this'll end up being the week Shanshan Feng, Lizette Salas, Angela Stanford, and Hee Kyung Seo turn it up a few notches!

With defending champion Suzann Pettersen still nursing a back injury, Stacy Lewis and Karrie Webb sitting this one out, and plenty of rookies playing this week, I wouldn't be surprised if we see a lot of surprises on the leaderboard the first few rounds.  But come Sunday I'm counting on my picks to rise to the top!

Monday, April 14, 2014

Are the Bombers Taking Over the LPGA?

Luke Kerr-Dineen just made an interesting point about the players who went under par at Augusta last week:  Bubba Watson was the outlier rather than the norm among them when it came to driving distance.  Most of those who played well enough to win the Masters relied more on accuracy off the tee and into the greens; what set Bubba apart from that group may have been his length relative to them--or it may have been his ability to hit good recovery shots and make clutch putts.  Bottom line:  we shouldn't assume just because a bomber won this year's Masters that being a bomber is an advantage in general, at Augusta or anywhere.

This is a point I've been making for about the entire time I've been blogging on women's golf at Mostly Harmless.  And it's a point worth reiterating in the wake of Lexi Thompson's victory over Michelle Wie and the rest of the field at the Kraft Nabisco Championship.  Tony Jesselli is one of many who have been suggesting the last few years that the LPGA is shifting to courses and course set-ups that benefit bombers like Thompson, Wie, and Ya Ni Tseng, who (in their view) are an ever-increasing segment of a tour that used to be dominated by precision players like Ji-Yai Shin, Ai Miyazato, and In-Kyung Kim and straight shooters like Karrie Webb, Cristie Kerr, and Angela Stanford.  If he and others who believe this are right, we should see the pathways to success on the LPGA narrowing for everyone but the bombers.

But look at who's won in the world of women's golf in 2014 and their key performance stats (length and accuracy off the tee, greens in regulation rate, putts per green in regulation, and birdies per round, with ranks for each):

Precision Players (0 wins)
Paula Creamer used to be in this category, but she's actually gotten long enough--and inaccurate enough--off the tee, relative to her career averages, to be considered a straight shooter in 2014.

Straight Shooters (5 wins)

  • Karrie Webb (2):  258 yds. (#30), 76.5% fairways (#38), 72.2% greens (#38), 1.750 ppgir (#3), 4.04 bpr (#11)
  • Anna Nordqvist (2):  256 (#45), 74.4% (#69), 77.3% (#6), 1.769 (#10), 3.88 (#13)
  • Paula Creamer (1):  257 (#43), 76% (#51), 73.8% (#24), 1.753 (#5), 3.96 (#4)

Bombers (2 wins)

  • Jessica Korda (1):  262 yds. (#18), 64% fairways (#123), 69.7% greens (#69), 1.764 ppgir (#8), 3.79 bpr (#15)
  • Lexi Thompson (1):  275 (#1), 64% (#122), 76.9% (#8), 1.781 (#14), 4.15 (#5)

My takeaway from these few examples is that it doesn't matter how you give yourself birdie opportunities on the LPGA; it matters how many you give yourself and how many you convert.

Consider Michelle Wie as another key example here.  Wie is averaging 256 yards off the tee this year and is ranked #46 in driving distance.  She's hitting almost 70% of her fairways, a huge upgrade for her, but still only #93 on a tour known for its accuracy off the tee.  That improvement, however, helps explains why she leads the tour in greens in regulation at almost 81%.  If she can keep improving her putting, which is a respectable but not elite 1.799 putts per green in regulation (#41), she can make even more birdies than her current average per round (3.79, #15).  Basically, Wie has turned herself from a bomber into a straight shooter.  She's sacrificed distance for accuracy and is starting to see results from that change.

Paula Creamer made the opposite decision:  she sacrificed accuracy for distance and is also starting to see results from that change.  I would put Morgan Pressel in that same category, by the way.  Although Pressel hasn't gained enough distance to graduate from being a precision player to being a straight shooter, she has gained a lot (like on the order of 7 to 10 yards).  Yet Pressel, who's usually among the most accurate off the tee on tour, is down at #95 in 2014.  Hitting fewer than 70% of your fairways is usually a kiss of death for someone who averages only 251 yards off the tee.  So what is an even bigger factor for Pressel's success in 2014 than her increase in distance?  She's getting the ball in the hole quickly when she hits greens (1.761, #7) and therefore making plenty of birdies (4.25, #2).

The common thread in all these examples is that putting for dough remains way more important than driving for show on the LPGA.  That's true of everyone, but especially true of precision players.  Since Ai Miyazato is Tony's key example of a struggling precision player, it's worth pointing out that her ball-striking stats are pretty close to her career averages and that she's actually hitting more greens in regulation than in recent years.  But she's making only 2.58 birdies per round and a lot of that is attributable to poor putting:  she's averaging a horrific (by her standards) 1.885 putts per green in regulation, which puts a player who's accustomed to being ranked among the very best on tour in that category at #119 thus far this season.  It's pretty clear that the problem lies not with the longest club in Ai-sama's bag but in the shortest.

I would suggest the same problem with the flat stick is afflicting other top precision players in my career ranking of LPGA rookies since 2005:  it's certainly the case for In-Kyung Kim (1.873 ppgir [#109], 2.92 bpr [#91]).  In fact, I'd be willing to bet that the fact that Inbee Park and Lizette Salas (now both precision players, a bit of a surprise since Park gained length off the tee in the run-up to and during her stretch of dominating the tour) are not putting as amazingly well as they did last year, and that the prototypical straight shooter Cristie Kerr's putting stats are way off from her career averages, helps explain why they haven't quite gotten it together yet in 2014 far far better than any other stat.

Hence, while you might be able to make the case that more LPGAers are doing what it takes to become straight shooters, the key to success remains hitting greens and especially making putts.  Given how long it's taken Wie, Creamer, and Pressel to groove swing changes designed to turn them into straight shooters, I still believe that the short hitters on tour are better off working on their short games than trying to gain a few yards off the tee.  And I definitely disagree with the proposition that the bombers are taking over the LPGA.

Now, if Lexi improves her accuracy off the tee, giving herself better looks at pins, I'd expect to see her ppgir go down and her birdie rate go up.  If that happens, I'd also expect to see her in the winner's circle a lot more often.  But if that happens, Lexi would transcend the "bomber" category and become someone you rarely see on the LPGA:  a straight-up bomber in the mold of Annika, Lorena, and, for shorter periods of time thus far in their careers, Ya Ni Tseng and Suzann Pettersen.  This is probably the best modern path to becoming an LPGA legend.  Nevertheless, it's not the only one, as Karrie Webb and Se Ri Pak can testify.

As the LPGA returns to Hawaii, the key for players is what it's always been:  giving yourself a lot of good looks at birdie or better and making more of them than everyone else.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Studio Alice Ladies Sunday: Esther Lee Wins with Walkoff Birdie

Esther Lee has been knocking on the door over and over during her 1st 7 seasons on the JLPGA, but today she finally busted it down with a walkoff birdie that gave her a 1-shot victory over Onnarin Sattayabanphot at the Studio Alice Ladies.  On a day when former KLPGA rivals Ji-Yai Shin and Sun-Ju Ahn leapfrogged from the bottom of the pack into the top 10 with an 8-birdie 66 and a 6-birdie 68, respectively, and when Mayu Hattori (bogey-free 66) and Miki Sakai (bogey-free 67) moved all the way to 4th and 3rd, respectively, the clash between the top 2 players in the field was much more of a battle of attrition.

It's not like Lee and Sattayabanphot got off to bad starts.  With her bogey-free 34 on the front, Lee pulled even with the 1st- and 2nd-round leader, who began her campaign for her 3rd JLPGA title with 9 straight pars.  And when Sattayabanphot birdied the 504-yard par-5 10th to get to -10, she held a 1-shot lead on Lee, a 4-shot lead on Sakai, and a 6-shot lead on Ritsuko Ryu (who would go on to finish T5 at -4).  So essentially the last 8 holes were a duel between Sattayabanphot and Lee.  But the back, which had been the leader's bread and butter over the 1st 36 holes, proved to be her downfall today.  It wasn't the bogey on the 162-yard par-3 12th that did her in, as Lee also bogeyed it.  It wasn't that Lee then tied her with a birdie on the 369-yard par-4 13th.  It wasn't even that Sattayabanphot fell behind Lee for the 1st time since the back 9 on Friday when she bogeyed the 363-yard par-4 14th.  It was really that Sattayabanphot couldn't make another birdie on the back than her 10th of the week on the 10th hole.  That opened the door for Lee, who made up for her bogey on the 379-yard par-4 17th with a birdie on the 402-yard par-4 18th to seal the deal and walk away with her 1st career JLPGA victory.

With her win, Lee jumped from #16 to #6 on the 2014 JLPGA money list, right behind Sattayabanphot, who at least had the consolation of extending her lead over her nearest competitors.

1. Onnarin Sattayabanphot ¥30.12M

2. Sun-Ju Ahn ¥25.90M
3. Rikako Morita ¥23.17M
4. Ayaka Watanabe ¥22.84M
5. Erina Hara ¥18.35M
6. Esther Lee ¥17.75M

7. Yuki Ichinose ¥15.94M
8. Bo-Mee Lee ¥15.09M
9. Miki Sakai ¥13.85M
10. Ritsuko Ryu ¥13.73M
11. Saiki Fujita ¥12.13M
12. Yumiko Yoshida ¥10.37M
13. Asako Fujimoto ¥10.19M
14. Mami Fukuda ¥9.81M
15. Ji-Yai Shin ¥9.44M
16. Yukari Baba ¥8.59M
17. Mi-Jeong Jeon ¥7.02M
18. Bo-Bae Song ¥6.91M
19. Airi Saitoh ¥6.90M
20. Mamiko Higa ¥6.88M

Next up on the JLPGA is the KKT Cup Vantelin Ladies, which Miki Saiki won in dramatic fashion last year.  Among 2013's greats and worldwide stars who have gotten off to slow starts in 2014--Momoko Ueda, Teresa Lu, Sakura Yokomine, Shiho Oyama--Saiki's has been among the slowest.  Let's see if they can get things in gear for this year next week!  And if those already in gear can take it up a notch....

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Cinderella Redux? Shi Hyun Ahn in Position for 1st Professional Win on KLPGA since 2004

Shi Hyun Ahn fired a 69 today to move to -11 and take a 1-shot lead on Min Young Lee and a 2-shot lead on Hyo Joo Kim and Soo Jin Yang into the final round of the Lotte Mart Women's Open.  The golfer formerly nicknamed "Cinderella" has a great chance to win for the 1st time on the KLPGA since 2004.  For more on her back story, see HappyFan's 2014 KLPGA Primer and the Florida Masochist's overview of her 2010 LPGA cheating scandal.  The 2004 LPGA Rookie of the Year has had a pretty tough time of it ever since leaving the States, so let's see if getting her 3rd career KLPGA victory can help her turn things around!

[Update 1 (4/13/14, 8:30 am):  Alas, the Cinderella story Ahn's fans were hoping for did not come true today, as Min Young Lee outplayed her to win by 2.  Still, Ahn finished T2 and is off to a great start since her comeback started late last season.]

Studio Alice Ladies Friday and Saturday: Onnarin Sattayabanphot on Track for 2nd JLPGA Victory of 2014

Onnarin Sattayabanphot has made 9 of her 11 birdies during the 1st 2 rounds of the Studio Alice Ladies on the back 9 of the Hanayashiki Golf Course, but she wasn't the only one to dismantle that side today.  Esther Lee, who matched her 33 on the back, trails her by only 2 shots, while 19-year-old Hikari Fujita, who like Lee fired a bogey-free 33 on the back, is 4 back.

In fact, a bunch of golfers turned it on on the back--including Maiko Wakabayashi (34 to get to -3), Eriko Tanikawa (32 for a 68 that brought her all the way to -2 after a bad start), Nozomi Inoue (who birdied 4 holes in a row late on that side to fire a 32 of her own that more than offset a triple bogey on the front), and 20-year-old Misaki Hama (whose 33 enabled her to join the big group at -2 that also includes Mi-Jeong Jeon and Ritsuko Ryu)--to keep Sattayabanphot in their sights today.  But it may be too little, too late for them to make a real run tomorrow at the 4th member of Team Thailand in the LPGA's International Crown.  Just like for Hiroko Fukushima, who dropped from 2nd to T10 with her 75 today and is now 8 shots back, tied with Momoko Ueda, who went +3 over her final 8 holes of birdieless golf today.  And for Ayaka Watanabe, the 20-year-old champion of the AXA Ladies, who fell 9 off the pace after shooting a 75 of her own--and added insult to injury by going +5 over her final 12 holes.

Still, these players were among the luckier of those who blew up today (or yesterday, for that matter).  At least they still have a ghost of a chance to contend on Sunday.  Ji-Yai Shin (72-76) and Sun-Ju Ahn (70-76) were fortunate to make the cut, while Rikako Morita (78-71), Yumiko Yoshida (73-77), and Kumiko Kaneda (79-72), among others, won't even be playing in the final round.  With Bo-Mee Lee and Ji-Hee Lee stuck at +1 after matching 72-73 starts, the stage is set for Sattayabanphot to attempt her 2nd victory of 2014 and 3rd of her JLPGA career.  Let's see if she can do it!