Thursday, October 7, 2010

What Is Inbee Park Doing on the JLPGA This Week??

I've grown increasingly interested over the years I've been following the world of women's golf in the decisions players with dual memberships on major tours make. To give just a couple of examples, I called out Ai Miyazato for passing up an opportunity to play an LPGA major last year and got confirmation on Ji-Yai Shin's plans for the home stretch this one. Well, now it's Inbee Park's turn. Even though she skipped the previous 2 JLPGA events, she's playing in the Sankyo Ladies Open over there this week instead of the Navistar Classic on the LPGA. Why?

I can understand why Momoko Ueda, Shiho Oyama, and Tamie Durdin would make that call this week. Ueda's been dealing with a knee injury and not playing very well on either tour; she needs to play a lot on the JLPGA the next couple of months just to guarantee she keeps her card--and give herself every opportunity to qualify for their season-ending major, the Ricoh Cup. Oyama's coming off elbow surgery and will likely seek a medical extension to keep her LPGA membership next year; while she's been playing well, why go over to the toughest tour in women's golf when you're not close to your best? And Durdin is on the bubble on both tours when it comes to keeping her cards, so why not focus her efforts on her "home tour," the JLPGA, particularly when focusing on the LPGA has a higher downside (losing both cards) and when winnings in the Mizuno Classic count for both efforts? Why not build up momentum on the JLPGA, travel less, and be readier to do well at the Mizuno? All she has to do is finish in the top 100 on the LPGA money list to get into any event she wants to next season. She might not have to win all that much at the Mizuno to get there.

But what's Park's rationale for choosing the JLPGA over the LPGA this week? She's not playing in the Fujitsu Ladies next week (as Shin is), so it's not like she's focusing on the JLPGA in October. No, it's much more likely that she plans to play in the KLPGA's back-to-back majors that week and the following week and stay in Korea for the Hana Bank Championship after that before playing in the Mizuno Classic in Japan. (Or perhaps she'll skip the last KLPGA major for the LPGA's Malaysia event.) So the reason why she skipped the Japan Women's Open would be to avoid playing 6 weeks in a row. She'll have to decide whether to do that when the Lorena Ochoa Invitational rolls around in mid-November. But we may not see her back in a non-co-sponsored LPGA event until the LPGA Tour Championship in mid-December--and maybe not even then, if she decides to play in the Pinx Cup for Korea against Japan instead of flying back and forth across the Pacific in late fall.

So there is a method to Park's apparent madness. Heck, when you have a gold and 5 silvers in 9 starts on the JLPGA, wouldn't you rather play over there again? Especially with an event whose purse trails only the JLPGA majors and exceeds the Mizuno Classic's? Even if she ends their season with only, say, 12 or 13 starts, she could easily finish in the top 5 on their money list if she continues to contend.

But let's look at the other side of the coin. Unlike Shin, Park's not dealing with serious health issues. Given that she's playing very close to Shin's level--in her 16 LPGA starts this season, she's put up numbers that rank her among the LPGA's elite--why not shoot for her best LPGA season ever? While she trails the leaders on the LPGA money list by a significant margin, she has a great opportunity to add to her lone career LPGA victory at the '08 U.S. Women's Open and break the $1M barrier in season earnings for the 1st time since the '08 season and 2nd time in her career. When you're playing well enough to beat the best, you should be playing against the best. And the Navistar field, while not the strongest by LPGA standards, remains very strong by international standards.

Put it this way. If Park had been concerned with maximizing her odds of maximizing her winnings this season, she would have entered both the JWO and the Sankyo. With the yen's strength against the dollar this year, this would have definitely been the season to play as much as possible on the JLPGA. Given that she's already earned more from golfing than any other single year in her career, and that she's likely to come close to $2M in total winnings, though, it can't be money alone that's motivating her. At this point, it's gotta be the chance to have a career year, to play her best against the best, and to get a feel for what she needs to do to get even better for next season, isn't it?

Now, perhaps other factors are playing a role in Park's decision-making--family and friends in Korea and Japan, for instance. And every decision involves trade-offs. In the end, it's her own responsibility to put together the schedule that works best for her.

Still, I hope the LPGA is paying close attention to scheduling decisions like Park's and Shin's. They could well be bellwethers for and influences on other Asian players' decision-making down the road. As the LPGA enters its own stretch run in planning the 2011 schedule. Giving its top Asian stars every reason to choose LPGA events over competing events on Asian tours, avoiding scheduling conflicts with prestigious and/or big-money events on them whenever possible, exploring options for further co-sponsoring of (new) events...these all should be weighing on Mike Whan's administration's minds for next season and future ones. The LPGA needs to take steps to ensure it remains the tour of choice for the top women golfers on the planet.

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