Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Best of the LPGA: Final 2009 Edition

For my last post of 2009, I'll be taking a final look at who was the best on the LPGA this past season. As usual, I'll be combining the LPGA money list (as of the end of the 2009 season), Hound Dog's latest ranking (which focuses exclusively on LPGA performances and results from 2009), the Rolex Rankings (which assigns points based on results over the last 104 weeks on the LPGA, JLPGA, KLPGA, LET, and Futures Tour as of December 28th), and the Golfweek/Sagarin Performance Index (which ranks players based on finishes over the last 52 weeks on the LPGA, JLPGA, LET, and Futures Tour as of December 26th) to divide LPGA players into tiers, then using my own judgment to rank them within each tier. It's the Mostly Harmless answer to the BCS--only less hated!

So just how close has Lorena Ochoa's chase pack gotten to her?

1. Lorena Ochoa: #4 money ($1.49M), #1 HD, #1 RR (11.75), #1 GSPI (68.92). She turned it on in the 2nd half of the year, and not just in the obvious ways (getting her 4th-straight Player of the Year award and Vare Trophy and joining Cristie Kerr in breaking the $1M barrier each of the last 6 seasons): she also beat out Michelle Wie for highest birdie rate (4.18 to 4.15) and Ji-Yai Shin for lowest putts per green in regulation rate (1.7457 to 1.7495), plus she regained the #1 spot in Hound Dog's total driving stat. By moving up to #4 on the money list, she also made her lead chase pack considerably smaller. In fact, you could make a good argument that it should be smaller than I'm calling it: only 1 other player is in the top 5 in every ranking system, only 3 others are in the top 5 in 3 of the 4, and only 5 others are in the top 5 in 2 of them.
2. Ji-Yai Shin: #1 money ($1.81M), #2 HD, #2 RR (9.04), #6 GSPI (69.43). The LPGA's ROY and 1st-ever Korean money-list leader was also head of her class (and generation, so far) in my final Mostly Harmless ranking. Plus, with her #5 ranking on the JLPGA and win there, she may well be the frontrunner for the coveted Mostly Harmless Best 2009 in Women's Golf award.
3. Cristie Kerr: #2 money ($1.52M), #4 HD, #4 RR (7.20), #2 GSPI (69.12). As great as her season was, she'll likely remember it more for its coulda woulda shouldas--the 2 majors that slipped through her fingers on Sundays and the lead on the money list, in Player of the Year points, and in scoring average that dissolved down the home stretch. So the title of best American on the LPGA is going to feel like a bit of a let-down.
4. Ai Miyazato: #3 money ($1.52M), #3 HD, #8 RR (6.61), #8 GSPI (69.54). Same goes for my favorite player, as she converted only 2 of the 13 weeks when she was playing well enough to win into actual victories, once on the LPGA and once on the JLPGA. She had a legitimate chance to jump from #41 in 2008 to #1 in 2009. But ending the year ranked #6 on the JLPGA in only 8 starts shows what a quality season she had. I'm hoping that 64 she shot in her final match in the Kyoraku Cup--and last round of 2009--is a sign of things to come in 2010.
5. Suzann Pettersen: #5 money ($1.37M), #6 HD, #3 RR (7.49), #5 GSPI (69.41). Illnesses and injuries cropped up at inopportune times for her this season, which is really too bad, as she, too, was giving herself a lot of chances to add to her career victory total and was in a great position to contend for all the LPGA's major year-end awards. She did get her 1st LPGA win since 2007 and joined the Million Dollar Club for the 3rd-straight season, so it's not like the year was a disappointment, but....
6. Na Yeon Choi: #6 money ($1.34M), #5 HD, #12 RR (6.01), #3 GSPI (69.34). She came on strong in the 2nd half of the season with 2 huge wins, the 1st over Ai Miyazato and the 2nd over Ya Ni Tseng and Maria Hjorth. She still hasn't missed a cut in her LPGA career and she's closing on the top Super Soph, Ya Ni Tseng. Just not that quickly, because Tseng also had a great 2nd half of her season.
7. Ya Ni Tseng: #7 money ($1.29M), #8 HD, #5 RR (7.13), #7 GSPI (69.52). Finally getting her 2nd career LPGA win didn't open the floodgates for her in 2009, but she showed a lot more endurance than in her ROY season in 2008, as she finished out this season with 8-straight top 25s and 5-straight top 10s. She can't be happy about moving 3 spots down from her position in last year's ranking, so look for a great 2010 from her.
8. Paula Creamer: #9 money ($1.15M), #11 HD, #6 RR (7.04), #4 GSPI (69.37). It's amazing that she made it 5-straight seasons in the Million Dollar Club and with double-digits in top 10s, despite playing in the fewest events of her career due to injuries and illnesses that spanned the entire season.
9. Angela Stanford: #10 money ($1.08M), #9 HD, #9 RR (6.49), #10 GSPI (69.66). At the end of the 2008 season, when I ranked her #7, I asked, "does she have the staying power to remain a top 10 player, or will she go back to being a very good and very streaky golfer?" And I indicated my skepticism by predicting that she'd finish 2009 in 25th. Well, color me convinced! Even though she had to shut down part of her season to support her mother during her treatments for cancer, she still had a great year, posting the lowest scoring average of her career. If she keeps improving like this in 2010, she could well end up the top American on tour.
10. Michelle Wie: #14 money ($918.7K), #10 HD, #10 RR (6.28), #9 GSPI (69.64). Here's one of the vagaries of my ranking systems: even though I ranked MW 3rd in her rookie class, behind Anna Nordqvist, she had more top 10s in the major ranking systems than Nordqvist, so ended up in Ochoa's lead chase pack instead of her. That makes it 4 Americans in the Mostly Harmless top 10, the most of any nationality. That's as many as were in the top 20 last year, not counting those who became naturalized U.S. citizens! And I've never put 3 rookies in an end-of-season top 10, either.

Here's why you can also make a good argument for expanding the lead chase pack: there are a bunch of very good players with a top 10 in at most 2 of the 4 systems and/or top 20s in at least 3 of them:

11. Anna Nordqvist: #15 money ($871.8K), #7 HD, #7 RR (7.00), #12 GSPI (69.93). The LET's ROY had to settle for #2 in her LPGA rookie class in my other ranking system and #3 in this one, but that's pretty impressive for someone who couldn't even make the top 20 in the LPGA's 2008 Q-School. And if she can improve on her approach shots next season, she could challenge Pettersen for head Euro in charge on the LPGA.
12. In-Kyung Kim: #8 money ($1.24M), #12 HD, #11 RR (6.03), #15 GSPI (70.30). A win in Dubai capped off a great season for the LPGA's #2 Junior Mint, giving her dual membership on the LPGA and LET in 2010. Given the way she missed cuts down the home stretch this past season, though, when lots of major end-of-year awards were well within her reach, she may want to avoid too much international travel in the upcoming one. She could easily have jumped much farther from her #22 position at the end of 2008. During 2010, I think she'll keep movin' on up.
13. Song-Hee Kim: #11 money ($1.03M), #13 HD, #14 RR (4.82), #11 GSPI (69.75). Another Junior Mint I expect to be moving up this list in 2010. Her stats over the last 2 seasons suggest she's due for her 1st LPGA victory early next season.
14. Karrie Webb: #12 money ($968.1K), #14 HD, #13 RR (5.84), #17 GSPI (70.37). I said it before and I'll say it again: "When she's on, she's still one of the world's best." That's why I wasn't surprised to see her win in 2009 and I wouldn't be to see her get more than 1 in 2010.
15. Eun-Hee Ji: #13 money ($937.3K), #16 HD, #19 RR (3.94), #35 GSPI (71.23). Even though she turned out to be yet another victim of the U.S. Women's Open jinx, her win there was no fluke. She's got the best career going in the LPGA's rookie class of 2007, even though she's played almost 20 fewer events than most of her top peers.
16. Kristy McPherson: #16 money ($816.2K), #18 HD, #21 RR (3.89), #18 GSPI (70.37). Made a huge jump from #48 at the end of last season. I think she's starting to realize how good she really is. She has the talent to make her 1st LPGA win a major--as she almost accomplished twice in 2009.
17. Brittany Lang: #19 money ($675.1K), #17 HD, #26 RR (3.57), #13 GSPI (70.13). Also made a great jump from #31 on last year's list, she's in a race with SH Kim, McPherson, Lindsey Wright, and fellow Senior Standout Sun Young Yoo to become the 1st to get that 1st LPGA win.
18. Sophie Gustafson: #17 money ($792.4K), #19 HD, #18 RR (4.08), #37 GSPI (71.24). Really came on in the 2nd half of the season, moving up 16 spots from last year's final ranking on the strength of her 1st LPGA win since 2003--and leading the LET money list in only 4 starts! She's still inconsistent from round to round, but 2009 was her 5th-straight season in the top 30 on the LPGA money list, so there's definitely still a there there. You don't move up 16 spots from last year's ranking without it.
19. Catriona Matthew: #26 money ($480.7K), #15 HD, #16 RR (4.45), #20 GSPI (70.47). In only her 2nd tournament back from maternity leave, she won the Women's British Open; she almost broke the $500K barrier in only 10 total LPGA starts and had a chance to beat Gustafson by enough in Dubai to take the LET money title away from her (in only her 3rd LET start of the year). That's a huge 21-spot jump in what amounts to half a season!

The top 19 on this list virtually monopolized the top 20 in each of the ranking systems I combine in mine--check out how many of Hound Dog's top 20 players he recently profiled are also in mine. So there were even relatively few players with at least 3 top 30s this season:

20. Lindsey Wright: #18 money ($734.7K), #20 HD, #28 RR (3.52), #26 GSPI (70.84). She got healthy and started playing like it was early 2008 again, at least in the 1st half of the season, when it took a miracle shot from Brittany Lincicome to deny her the LPGA Championship. She let down a little from August on, so will have to wait for 2010 for her 1st, and long overdue, LPGA victory, but she still moved up 19 spots from last year's ranking.
21. Morgan Pressel: #22 money ($630.3K), #22 HD, #23 RR (3.70), #23 GSPI (70.75). Her comeback continued in 2009, as she finally grooved her swing changes and was able to get back to working on her short game. I'm expecting a lot from the #2-ranked Senior Standout in 2010.
22. Sun Young Yoo: #23 money ($614.9K), #21 HD, #34 RR (3.13), #16 GSPI (70.37). Another Senior Standout with a strong season, she put up some stupendous ballstriking stats in 2009. If she ever gets her putter going in 2010, her 1st LPGA win will come sooner than later.
23. Seon Hwa Lee: #28 money ($458.3K), #27 HD, #31 RR (3.21), #25 GSPI (70.83). Staying the #1 Senior Standout in the face of charges from Morgan Pressel, Ai Miyazato, and Brittany Lang isn't enough of a challenge for her, apparently, as she won dual LPGA-JLPGA membership in 2010 thanks to a solid performance at JLPGA Q-School. I think this is a smart move for her, as she's in excellent shape and has a game that travels well. The main reason she dropped 15 spots from last year's ranking is that she didn't get to play her usual 28-to-30-event schedule.
24. Maria Hjorth: #32 money ($428.9K), #23 HD, #24 RR (3.65), #29 GSPI (71.00). The new mom returned to form quickly when she returned to competitive golf and got stronger the more she played, ending up with 9 top-25 finishes in her last 10 starts on the LPGA. She also placed 14th on the LET money list in only 4 starts.
25. Momoko Ueda: #33 money ($416.3K), #29 HD, #27 RR (3.56), #24 GSPI (70.80). All her hard work on her ballstriking started to pay off in the 2nd half of the season, as she didn't finish worse than T28 on either the JLPGA or LPGA from late August-on and finished 2009 with 3 top 10s and a T11 in her last 4 starts. There's nowhere to go but up for the 7th-ranked player on the JLPGA who only played 18 LPGA events this past season. I expect to see her swing changes grooved and a lot better touch around and on the greens in 2010.

A good number of players have at most 2 top 30s and/or at least 3 top 40s:

26. Hee Young Park: #20 money ($666.3K), #26 HD, #36 RR (2.99), #46 GSPI (71.56). She moved ahead of Ueda in my career ranking of the Super Sophs, so in my other system she definitely had a better season than her. But her relative inconsistency--which she got more under control this season but still cropped up to often--and exclusive focus on the LPGA kept her from being ranked higher in the Rolex Rankings and Sagarin Index. So she ends up at the top of this tier instead--still a 16-spot leap from last season.
27. Katherine Hull: #27 money ($461.8K), #30 HD, #35 RR (3.12), #38 GSPI (71.26). At the end of the 2008 season, I wrote that she "got super-hot during the 2nd half of the season, but is it just a nice run, or can she sustain her fantastic play and keep moving up the rankings?" Well, she won early on the LET and putted very well in 2009 but her ballstriking tailed off a bit, and that was enough to drop her down 4 spots from last year's ranking--still 6 spots higher than I predicted back in January.
28. Brittany Lincicome: #21 money ($647.1K), #24 HD, #30 RR (3.23), #59 GSPI (72.00). She was MIA for what seemed forever but got up for big events in 2009 and brought her career back from the dead. Bam Bam ended the season longer and wilder than Michelle Wie off the tee--both are pretty impressive feats--but was nowhere near as efficient on the greens. Still, making one of the most impressive approach shots in the history of golf to win the Kraft Nabisco with a walkoff eagle and hanging in there for a solo 5th at the U.S. Women's Open impressed the heck out of me.
29. Ji Young Oh: #24 money ($558.3K), #28 HD, #41 RR (2.58), #47 GSPI (71.63). Her 2 surprise LPGA wins are the only thing keeping her ahead of McPherson in my career Junior Mint ranking, but even her Sybase victory this past season couldn't put her any higher than this. I'm not expecting her to return to the top 30 in 2010.
30. Natalie Gulbis: #40 money ($326.4K), #25 HD, #58 RR (1.91), #21 GSPI (70.48). Her back was healthy for 2/3 of the season, but she needed to rest it by skipping the Asian swing, yet she had to withdraw from Lorena's event and didn't start the LPGA Tour Championship.
31. Helen Alfredsson: #35 money ($385.3K), #31 HD, #25 RR (3.59), #39 GSPI (71.27). She didn't have as fantastic a 2009 as her 2008--she dropped 20 spots from last year's ranking--but given that I had predicted she'd fall outside the top 50, I'd say she surprised on the upside nevertheless. Shooting a 62 in mid-May and a 63 in early June were definitely the highlights of her season, but she culdn't convert either into a top 10.
32. Hee-Won Han: #29 money ($450.2K), #33 HD, #40 RR (2.75), #41 GSPI (71.33). Had flashes of brilliance at the State Farm and Women's British Open--where she ended up with bronzes in each--but those were her only top 10s. In fact, she had as many top 10s in 2007, when she only played in 6 events due to maternity leave. Looks like raising a toddler is tougher on your game than having a baby! She's down 17 spts from last year's ranking.
33. Jee Young Lee: #37 money ($358.7K), #35 HD, #46 RR (2.45), #33 GSPI (71.19). If 2008 was a "disappointing season," as I called it last November, then what was 2009? A disastrous one? Well, maybe I shouldn't go that far--she only dropped 15 spots in all--but it sure was strange to see one of the tour's most promising young players go from bad to worse.

A large number of players have at most 2 top 40s and/or at least 3 top 50s:

34. Se Ri Pak: #30 money ($447.7K), #38 HD, #43 RR (2.55), #42 GSPI (71.42). Improved her ballstriking in 2009; now, if her putter comes back online in 2010, she could once again play like the Hall of Famer she is. Whether she can return to her 1998-2003 form is something I tend to doubt, but I don't see why she couldn't get her scoring average down around 71 and start winning again.
35. Candie Kung: #25 money ($539.9K), #54 HD, #37 RR (2.93), #78 GSPI (72.28). A gutty performance at the U.S Women's Open was definitely the highlight of an otherwise off-year, as her low rankings in Hound Dog's system and the Sagarin Index, which don't place as much weight on the majors as the money list or the Rolex Rankings, suggest. Her approach shots and especially her putting were primarily to blame for the 16-spot drop from last year's rankings. I'm curious to see how she puts together her schedule on the LPGA and JLPGA in 2010.
36. Juli Inkster: #51 money ($259.3K), #36 HD, #50 RR (2.20), #31 GSPI (71.14). Another veteran I predicted would drop out of the top 50 in 2009, she exceeded my expectations by continuing to make a lot of cuts and keeping her scoring average near par. She's finding it harder to contend and get top 10s in recent seasons, but maybe I was wrong that this Solheim Cup run would be her last.
37. M.J. Hur: #31 money ($445.0K), #40 HD, #45 RR (2.52), #89 GSPI (72.50). Her surprise win in a playoff against Suzann Pettersen and Michele Redman boosted her to #5 in the rookie class in my other system (behind Vicky Hurst, as a matter of fact). And as much as injuries and illnesses, it was a key stumbling block in Pettersen's quest for POY. But if she's going to go from playing the spoiler to being a real player on the LPGA, she's going to have to dramatically improve her ballstriking.
38. Amy Yang: #45 money ($302.8K), #34 HD, #52 RR (2.17), #36 GSPI (71.24). 2009 wasn't quite the breakout season I predicted for her--she's 28 spots below where I expected her to be at this point and couldn't get her 4th career LET win (although she did finish 30th on their money list in only 4 events)--but she made good progress and is poised for...wait for it...a breakout season in 2010.
39. Vicky Hurst: #44 money ($305.8K), #32 HD, #62 RR (1.78), #40 GSPI (71.31). Her rookie season was remarkably similar to Yang's 1st full LPGA season, so I expect a great sophomore campaign from her.
40. Christina Kim: #38 money ($334.1K), #44 HD, #49 RR (2.23), #55 GSPI (71.91). A disappointing run-up to the Solheim Cup was forgiven in the heat of competition and she carried it over with some strong finishes right afterward, particularly at the Women's British Open. Once her ballstriking catches up with her new body, she should be giving herself more birdie chances more regularly
41. Wendy Ward: #39 money ($326.4K), #37 HD, #68 RR (1.66), #45 GSPI (71.49). Seemed to let down a bit after failing to play her way onto the Solheim Cup team, skipping the Asian swing after missing several cuts leading up to it. But it was still a very successful season for the veteran.
42. Pat Hurst: #36 money ($370.9K), #39 HD, #64 RR (1.77), #54 GSPI (71.90). Played badly for several months after getting her 1st LPGA win since 2006, but finished 2009 by making 7-straight cuts, so has some momentum heading into 2010.
43. Sandra Gal: #46 money ($298.8K), #43 HD, #73 RR (1.58), #43 GSPI (71.44). Started playing like Hee Young Park in the 2nd half of 2009--going very low and then very high, even from round to round. Blame the high scores on inconsistent ballstriking, both off the tees and from the fairways (and rough). But the low scores show what this Super Soph is capable of in 2010.
44. Michele Redman: #42 money ($316.5K), #45 HD, #51 RR (2.19), #50 GSPI (71.72). Another veteran who exceeded expectations in 2009. Imagine if she had won that playoff against Pettersen and Hur!
45. Stacy Lewis: #47 money ($298.4K), #46 HD, #47 RR (2.26), #53 GSPI (71.90). The adjustment to the LPGA was tougher than most expected for the 2008 Q-School medalist, but now that she's made it, I don't expect to see her ranked this low again.

There's a good-sized group with at most 2 top 50s and/or at least 3 top 60s:

46. Meena Lee: #34 money ($386.3K), #42 HD, #67 RR (1.67), #57 GSPI (71.97). Dropped 9 spots from last year's ranking.
47. Kyeong Bae: #41 money ($324.5K), #47 HD, #71 RR (1.62), #70 GSPI (72.17). Nice to see her back among the best in the world again.
48. Teresa Lu: #54 money ($242.5K), #50 HD, #76 RR (1.50), #48 GSPI (71.68). Dropped 13 spots from last year's ranking. Wonder how many events she'll play in Japan as a dual LPGA-JLPGA member in 2010.
49. Janice Moodie: #58 money ($208.4K), #41 HD, #84 RR (1.31), #52 GSPI (71.85). Nice to see her back among the best in the world again.
50. Meaghan Francella: #48 money ($292.3K), #48 HD, #81 RR (1.32), #64 GSPI (72.11). Nice to see her back among the best in the world again.
51. Mika Miyazato: #49 money ($284.8K), #52 HD, #60 RR (1.85), #79 GSPI (72.28). Her biggest tournament of the year was off the LPGA: she was in a great position to win the Japan Women's Open, the most important event on the JLPGA schedule, as a non-member, but blew up in the final round.
52. Inbee Park: #50 money ($271.2K), #59 HD, #42 RR (2.56), #74 GSPI (72.24). Her slump is over; 2010 should be a good year for her, as she'll be splitting time between the LPGA and JLPGA.
53. Eunjung Yi: #43 money ($314.6K), #57 HD, #55 RR (2.06), #110 GSPI (72.73). Kept Morgan Pressel's 2009 from being even better than it was; let's see if she can build on her 1st LPGA win in 2010.

And here are the best of the rest:

54. Nicole Castrale: #52 money ($257.3K), #67 HD, #65 RR (1.72), #117 GSPI (72.82).
55. Shi Hyun Ahn: #59 money ($202.6K), #64 HD, #72 RR (1.62), #92 GSPI (72.55).
56. Jane Park: #60 money ($194.9K), #68 HD, #78 RR (1.44), #62 GSPI (72.04).
57. Angela Park: #53 money ($253.4K), n.r. HD, #54 RR (2.08), #165 GSPI (73.66).
58. Guilia Sergas: #61 money ($181.3K), n.r. HD, #85 RR (1.30), #66 GSPI (72.14).
59. Stacy Prammanasudh: #55 money ($218.0K), n.r. HD, #79 RR (1.37), #84 GSPI (72.36).
60. Young Kim: #62 money ($181.2K), #62 HD, #92 RR (1.21), #73 GSPI (72.24).
61. Soo-Yun Kang: #57 money ($212.4K), n.r. HD, #94 RR (1.18), #71 GSPI (72.21).
62. Hye Jung Choi: #66 money ($155.0K), n.r. HD, #102 RR (1.05), #67 GSPI (72.14).
63. Anna Grzebien: #64 money ($166.9K), #63 HD, #112 RR (.96), #72 GSPI (72.21).
64. Becky Morgan: #65 money ($158.1K), #61 HD, #120 RR (.90), #76 GSPI (72.27).
65. Paige Mackenzie: #69 money ($140.7K), #51 HD, #114 RR (.95), #88 GSPI (72.47).
66. Allison Hanna: #84 money ($104.6K), #49 HD, #146 RR (.67), #61 GSPI (72.03).
67. Haeji Kang: #67 money ($148.0K), #58 HD, #151 RR (.66), #101 GSPI (72.64).
68. Kris Tamulis: #85 money ($103.9K), #60 HD, #156 RR (.64), #65 GSPI (72.13).
69. Mikaela Parmlid: #70 money ($137.4K), #56 HD, #101 RR (1.07), #104 GSPI (72.67).
70. Karine Icher: #63 money ($171.6K), #66 HD, #127 RR (.81), #102 GSPI (72.65).
71. Sarah Lee: #79 money ($119.5K), n.r. HD, #119 RR (.90), #68 GSPI (72.15).
72. Karin Sjodin: #88 money ($97.1K), #70 HD, #172 RR (.59), #86 GSPI (72.42).
73. Karen Stupples: #68 money ($144.4K), n.r. HD, #57 RR (1.96), #109 GSPI (72.73).
74. Jimin Kang: #56 money ($214.9K), n.r. HD, #95 RR (1.16), #108 GSPI (72.72).
75. Mi Hyun Kim: #93 money ($88.6K), #55 HD, #88 RR (1.24), #123 GSPI (72.94).
76. Sarah Kemp: #96 money ($85.5K), #65 HD, #174 RR (.59), #124 GSPI (72.97).
77. Jeong Jang: #106 money ($65.8K), #69 HD, #48 RR (2.25), n.r. GSPI (72.52).

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