Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Best on the LPGA: 1-Time Winners, January 2014 Edition

There's only been 1 new 1-time winner on the LPGA since my last ranking last October, but Teresa Lu decided not to rejoin the LPGA in 2014 despite having the opportunity to do so after taking the Mizuno title.  So as part of my 2014 preview series, it's time to reshuffle this list based on who's most likely to graduate from it this coming season--and Lu will be near the bottom.

Most Likely to Win in 2014

1. Amy Yang:  The #5-ranked player in the Class of 2008 found something at the end of 2013, not just with her breakthrough win in Korea, but with 5-straight finishes inside the top 11, too.  I don't know if it was her putter getting hot or her ball-striking improving or both, but I know if she keeps playing this season like she did last she's going to win again on the LPGA soon.  She's entered in the Bahamas, Thailand, and Singapore, so we'll see what state her game is very soon!
2. Azahara Munoz:  After a fantastic 2012, 2013 was pretty disappointing for the now-#2 player in the Class of 2010 until she finished 2nd, T7, and T14 to close out the season.  My guess is she figured out something about putting, which had been holding her back all year.  She's definitely excited about something, as she's entered all 4 of the opening events on the LPGA schedule.
3. Jessica Korda:  The #3-ranked player in the Class of 2011 had a really good 2013, turning herself into a player you're no longer surprised to see high on the leaderboard.  And she has a history of playing well at the start of the season.  So I'm expecting good things from her as she globe-trots her way through the LPGA's 1st 4 events of 2014.  [Update 1 (1/26/14, 8:22 pm):  Well, that was quick!]

The Contenders

4. Sandra Gal:  She really turned 2013 around in the last third of the season, when she finished inside the top 30 in her last 9 starts, capped off by a 4th-place finish at the Titleholders.  If she keeps her putter hot in 2014, watch out for her!  She obviously thinks so, too, as she's entered all 4 of the LPGA's season-opening events.
5. Mika Miyazato:  The #5-ranked player in the Class of 2009 played best on the LPGA in the middle of 2013, but got her 2nd JLPGA victory (and 2nd in 4 years at the Japan Women's Open) in October, so even though her results were unimpressive during the tour's Asian swing, I'm not discounting her chances in 2014.  As terribly as she putted in the 1st half of the season, getting her putts per green in regulation average down to almost 1.84 was a major victory in itself in the 2nd half of 2013.  Her 2014 starts in Thailand.
6. Hee Kyung Seo:  She won as a non-member at the 2010 Kia Classic, easily won the 2011 Rookie of the Year race despite her failure to secure her 1st LPGA major at the U.S. Women's Open (where she lost in a playoff to So Yeon Ryu), and came this close to graduating from this list when Yang beat her with a 15-foot birdie putt on the 1st playoff hole in Korea, but she now has 4 playoff losses on the LPGA and only 10 other top 10s in 3 full seasons, so the chances are coming few and far between and she hasn't been able to take advantage of the ones she's gotten as an LPGA member.  She's got the talent to do it.  It's only a matter of when.  Her 1st chance in 2014 will come in Thailand.

The Next Best

7. Ilhee Lee:  The #3 player in the Class of 2010 is on the rise, finishing in the top 30 in 6 of her last 7 starts of 2013, including a T3 in Malaysia.  She starts 2014 as the defending champion of the season-opener, skips Australia, then plays in Thailand and Singapore.
8. Brittany Lang:  She's another player who started 2013 on the wrong side of the bed and woke up during the 2nd half of the season, but she never surpassed her T7 at the U.S. Women's Open.  If she can start making birdies at an elite rate again, she will improve on those results in 2014.  But that's a pretty big if.  She's starting 2014 like Yang and Lee, so we'll soon see what she figured out over the off-season.
9. Jennifer Johnson:  The #4 player among the '11ers had 3 top 10s and 5 top 20s after her surprise win in Mobile last season, so she's definitely for real.  If she can continue making incremental improvements in her game, especially her putting, she should earn her way onto the 2015 Solheim Cup team.  She's playing the same 3 opening events of 2014 as the others in this group, so we'll get an early indication of how she's playing.

Quantum Leap Candidates

10. Natalie Gulbis:  Recurring back problems since her 2007 Evian Masters playoff victory over Jeong Jang have dropped her back where she was in her 1st 3 seasons on the LPGA--a player who makes her share of cuts but has trouble cracking the top 10. In fact, 24 of her top 10s and all 7 of her top 3s came between 2005 and 2007, when she was a regular on the top 20 of the money list.  She had 3 top 10s in 2012 but only 1 in 2013.  She says she's healthy, so I'm keeping her tops among the quantum leap candidates, but it looks like she's taking an extended honeymoon and won't start 2014 until the LPGA comes to the States.
11. Jee Young Lee:  It looks to me like the once-elite '06er got hurt in fall 2010 but whatever the reason she was in free fall until 2013, which wasn't very good by her usual standards but at least included a top-5 finish for the 1st time in a long time and inclusion on the fall Asian swing.  Strangely, she's not entered in any of the LPGA's 1st 4 events of 2014.
12. Mi Jung Hur:  Her struggles since getting her 1st LPGA win as a rookie in 2009 are by no means over, but she hung in there last season despite some uncharacteristically poor putting by her high standards and got a surprise T8 in Taiwan.  She's playing the LPGA's 1st 2 events, so we'll see if she can build on that late 2013 finish early in 2014.
13. Julieta Granada:  She's back to being a regular on the LPGA after spending a lot of time on the LET in recent years, but didn't do much in 2013 after notching back-to-back top 10s as part of a run of 6 top 25s in 8 starts in the middle of the season.  Let's see if she can build on her T17 in Japan when she kicks off 2014 in the Bahamas.
14. Nicole Castrale: She had shoulder surgery in 2010 and hip surgery in September 2013, but is signed up for Thailand to start the new LPGA season.  Despite her injury issues and limited schedule last season, she finished 2013 #59 on the money list, so don't count her out in 2014!

On the Bottom, Looking Up

15. Moira Dunn:  Her 2004 win at the Giant Eagle Classic was the high point of an LPGA career that dates back to 1995, but her best season was probably in 2001.  My junior golf buddy's been struggling to keep her card each year since the 2006 season, and once again in 2013 she failed to add to her 23 career LPGA top 10s.  But she's still got full status for 2014, her 20th season on tour.  Here's hoping she makes it special!
16. Silvia Cavalleri:  She's only had 10 top 10s in an career that started back in 1999 and in that span has only cracked the top 50 on the money list once--in 2007, when she won the Corona Championship.  But despite a terrible 2013, she finished T13 at Q-School and will be back to try, try again in 2014.

On the Outside, Looking In

17. Teresa Lu:  I'm still shocked that she didn't try out dual LPGA-JLPGA membership in 2014 after winning the 2013 Mizuno Classic, but let's see if she can build on last season on the JLPGA, where she finished 3rd on their money list.  The 1st time we'll see her compete in 2014 will be in Singapore.
18. Soo-Yun Kang: Her win at the Safeway Classic in 2005 was part of the best season of her career, where she got 6 top 10s and ended up #14 on the money list. But it was also the last season her stroke average dipped under 72. Of her 17 career top 10s since she started on the LPGA in 2001, only 2 have come after 2005. Now she's playing full-time on the JLPGA, where she got her 1st win in her 3rd full season on tour.
19. Young Kim:  She joined the JLPGA in 2010 and ended up ranked 14th on tour in my system; the next 2 seasons, she's finished in the mid-30s on the season-ending money lists; in 2013, she finished at #40.
20. Shi Hyun Ahn:  Like Jee Young Lee, her only LPGA win comes with an asterisk, as she got it as a KLPGA member in 2003, but since then she's played roughly 20 events on the LPGA each year, garnering 27 top 10s in the process, with only 3 of them coming since the end of the 2007 season. Until 2011, that is, when she fell off a cliff. It may have been injuries, but probably it was love. The golfer known as "Cinderella" got married to Argentine-Korean star Mario in November 2011, but has been in the news lately in Korea with stories of domestic abuse.  Apparently, she's trying to restart her career on the KLPGA.
21. Meaghan Francella:  She shocked the golf world with a win over Annika Sorenstam on the 4th playoff hole at the 2007 MasterCard Classic, but Annika's announcement a little later that season that she had been suffering significant back and neck injuries for some time put a little asterisk by that victory.  And her performance ever since hasn't been all that impressive (perhaps due to injury issues of her own).  But things went from mediocre to worse in 2013, where she played in 14 events and won less than $10K.  She's only #139 on the Symetra Tour's 2014 Priority Status List, so it's unclear how much competitive golf she'll be playing this season.
22. Jin Joo Hong:  After playing 3 seasons on the KLPGA, she won the jointly-sponsored event with the LPGA and switched tours for the next 3 seasons, ending 2009 ranked #10 among the '06ers. Since then, she's decided to focus on the KLPGA and JLPGA
23. Joo Mi Kim:  She came to the LPGA in 2005 with 3 KLPGA victories under her belt and made a lot of cuts in her rookie season, then followed it up with a playoff win at the SBS Open (over Lorena Ochoa and Soo Young Moon) and 4 top 10s in all the next season, where she ended up 27th on the money list. She stayed in the top 50 for the 3rd-straight season the following year, but saw her starts go down and her scoring average go up over the next 3 seasons. Since the fall of 2010, she's been focusing her efforts on the KLPGA.
24. Birdie Kim: For awhile, it seemed like she had been coming back from the U.S. Women's Open jinx after her stunning 2005 win from the sand over then-amateurs Morgan Pressel and Brittany Lang, not to mention the serious injuries she sustained in a car accident years ago.  But her 2012 Symetra Tour and Q-School performance earned her only 2 LPGA starts in 2013, both missed cuts, and she ended up #41 on the 2013 Symetra Tour money list, so she's back there in 2014.
25. Eunjung Yi:  Her playoff victory over Morgan Pressel at the Farr in 2009 remains her only LPGA top 10 since her LPGA career began in 2008. She won Hound Dog's fluke victory of the year award that year, a dubious distinction. She barely played on the LPGA in 2012 and 2013 due to injuries, but didn't made a cut in either season and is now #249 on the LPGA's Priority Status List and #160 on the Symetra Tour's.

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