Monday, November 16, 2009

Wie Wins! Wie Wins! Whoa, Whoa, Whoa: Some Perspective, People?

I'm as happy as the next guy that Michelle Wie has become the 3rd player of the top 8 without a win as an LPGA member I labelled as "most likely to win this season" to fulfill my expectations and, well, win in this season. After Ai Miyazato and Na Yeon Choi, Wie has been playing the best among the LPGA winless of late, and without jet lag or the pressure of competing for Player of the Year, the Vare Trophy, and money list queen to deal with yesterday, it's no huge surprise that the cookie finally crumbled her way. But let's be honest here: while she definitely deserved the win, she was one of several spoilers in the mix down the stretch at Lorena's tournament.

Top disappointment must go to Cristie Kerr once again. Think what kind of a year she could have had if she had been able to play better on the back 9 on a few more Sundays this season: no majors for Brittany Lincicome or Eun-Hee Ji, that's for sure. Even though she hit an incredible 60 greens at Guadalajara Country Club, those 121 putts she took were a few too many to really put pressure on Wie. While still technically alive in the Player of the Year race, according to Hound Dog, I don't believe Kerr (or anyone else) can take the money title away from Ji-Yai Shin.

Speaking of Shin, would we have seen the same wave of adulation and excitement if she had clinched POY, too, at Lorena's place? All she needed was a normal weekend by her standards, but instead what she got was the reverse of her 1st win as an LPGA member at the HSBC Women's Champions back in February, when she started slow and finished incandescent. This time, her weak weekend not only cost her her 4th win of the season, it handed back to Lorena Ochoa the lead in the scoring-average race, by .05 of a stroke, leaving Shin tied with Kerr and .07 ahead of Ai Miyazato.

Speaking of Ai-sama, the hottest golfer in the world has now failed to shoot in the 60s in her last 5 rounds. Like Kerr, I suspect her putting is to blame; whereas 50 greens in regulation is only a bit below her season average, 10 birdies for the entire tournament is way off her usual pace of close to 4 birdies per round. Even while not going over par for a singe round in her last 6 LPGA tournaments, she seems to have regressed recently to where she was at the start of the season--playing really solid golf, but scoring much worse than she was playing. Even if she gets back on track in the last events of the LPGA and JLPGA season (where she'll be competing next week in the Ricoh Cup with Momoko Ueda and Ji-Yai Shin, who also won this season on the JLPGA, and alongside the former and against the latter in the Team Japan vs. Team Korea Kyoraku Cup the following week), even if she becomes a $2M winner on both tours combined in '09, this is going to remain the "what could have been?" year for Ai-sama. Her decisions to skip the LPGA Championship to play hostess at the Suntory Open on the JLPGA and skip the Hana Bank/KOLON Championship in Korea to vacation in the U.S. could well end up being all that stood between her, POY, and top of the money list.

As I've suggested, even though Lorena Ochoa didn't put herself in the mix on her birthday this past Sunday, she still kept her hopes alive for her 4th consecutive Player of the Year award and Vare Trophy. That Wie was able to beat her on her home course, along with Kerr, Shin, and Miyazato, defnitely speaks to how impressive a spoiler she was. The 4th rookie to win this season, Wie could join Shin in the Million Dollar Club with a good finish in Houston this week. In that case, they'd be the 2nd pair of LPGA rookies ever to accomplish this feat, following on Ya Ni Tseng and Na Yeon Choi from last season. That's pretty good company, and I don't see any reason why they shouldn't make like Tseng and Choi this season and also break the $1M barrier in season winnings in 2010.

But the difficulties of Paula Creamer and Seon Hwa Lee this season should strike a cautionary note for those who want to see in Wie's win some kind of changing of the guard or new era in LPGA history. Creamer and Lee are the only 2 players who started playing the 2nd half of this decade to be averaging more than 1 win per season, yet both are in danger of going 0-for-2009. Creamer's litany of injuries and illnesses this season clearly explain why she couldn't contend for any of the top year-end honors, but Lee's absence from the winner's circle is more mysterious. While she needs to shoot 4 rounds in the 60s this week to match her career high in a season, which she established in her rookie year, none of her key performance stats are that much worse than her career averages. So why has she dropped from the top of the money list to barely in the top 30? Well, it certainly didn't help that she played so badly in the majors. Nor has she been getting top 10s and top 20s with the regularity we've become accustomed to seeing from her. I'm sticking by my theory that with mre gaps in the LPGA schedule this year than any of her previous seasons on tour, she lost some advantage on the field from her better conditioning. With other players able to rest more, she wasn't able to outplay them under the mental and physical stress of a lot of weeks in a row.

That's something Michelle Wie isn't going to have to worry much about next season. I doubt this win will change her plans to play about 20 events per season while working toward her undergraduate degree. Even if she decides to play more, it remains to be seen how many more events the LPGA can offer its players in 2010 (although it's certainly good news that the ShopRite Classic is back!). Actually, we should have a pretty clear sense by Wednesday....

Anyway, I don't want to rain on anyone's parade, but when you consider how long it took for a player of Ya Ni Tseng's caliber to get win #2, we shouldn't be heaping loads of extra expectations on Michelle Wie's shoulders the second after she got that 1st-win monkey off her back. Whatever happened to letting a player enjoy her win and helping her keep it in perspective?

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