Since my last ranking at the end of June, the 1-time winners on the LPGA have lost Inbee Park and So Yeon Ryu but gained Mika Miyazato. Here's my new take on who's most likely to join Park and Ryu in the 2-win club, ranked in the order I expect them to move on (if at all)....
Most Likely to Win (Again) in 2012
1. Mika Miyazato: If the LPGA were handing out medals instead of trophies in the run-up to, playing of, and aftermath of the London Olympics, Mikan would have garnered 1 gold, 2 silvers, and a bronze in her last 7 starts (none of which saw her finish outside the top 10 except for a T16 at the Evian). She's Exhibit A in how to bounce back from a little early-season slump. With all due respect to Shanshan Feng, who might well be having the best 2012 of anyone on the planet, I believe that Mikan is the hotter and more consistently contending golfer on the LPGA right now.
2. Shanshan Feng: Her final-round bogey-free 67 on Sunday at Locust Hill to win the Wegmans LPGA Championship was the single most impressive round of the week--and it shows what she's capable of when her putting comes close to keeping up with her ball-striking. She's got good distance and great accuracy even for a Cristie Kerr/Angela Stanford/Brittany Lang-type straight shooter. So it should come as no surprise that she's contended in about half her starts this year, followed up her breakthrough win in Pittsford by almost making the playoff in Waterloo and another T4 in Evian, and is riding a 6-event top-20 streak on the LPGA. Oh, and she's 10th on the JLPGA money list with a 71.06 scoring average and two wins in only 6 starts thus far this year. With her early-season LET victory, she the most worldwide wins of any female golfer!
3. 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 has already put herself in contention a number of times this year, including at its 1st major. It looks like she's starting to bounce back from the disappointment of her Sunday back-9 travails at the Kraft Nabisco Championship, getting her accuracy with her approach shots and putting back in Waterloo and having several putts to win in regulation and in the playoff. Although she broke her 5-event top-25 streak with a missed cut at the Safeway, I still believe she's very close to LPGA win #2. All she needs to do is improve her approach shots to be a consistent contender on the top women's tour on the planet.
4. Azahara Munoz: Yes, she's had 4 of her worst 5 finishes of the year (3 MC and a T44 at the Safeway) in her last 7 starts, but she bounced back from missing 2 cuts in a row after her breakthrough win at the Sybase with a T2 at the Walmart and her performance stats this year remain very good. So I believe she's capable of putting it all together any given week and building on her total of 5 top 5s this season. The key for her is simply making more birdies!
5. Brittany Lang: She's riding a 6-event top-25 streak that includes her breakthrough playoff win at the Manulife, her performance stats are just what you'd expect of a classic straight shooter, and she's starting to figure out how to make more birdies and break 70 more often, plus she's entering a string of LPGA sites that I think suit her game quite well. So watch out for her as summer turns into fall!
6. Lexi Thompson: She won once on the LPGA and once on the LET at the end of the 2011 season, but hasn't found the magic yet in 2012. She's surprisingly accurate off the tee for a full-fledged bomber (very close already to the kind of "straight-up bomber" moniker that only Annika and Lorena have achieved for any length of time in recent memory) and is also among the tour's best in greens in regulation, so you have to blame a still-unseasoned 100-yards-and-in game for the fact she's averaging only 3.60 birdies per round and taking 1.85 putts per green in regulation, has suffered 2 missed cuts in a row, and has only 2 top 10s all year. But since both were top 5s (1 a runner-up!), I can't justify putting her any lower on this list.
7. 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. This season, she's healthy, her performance stats are excellent, and she followed up a couple of early top 10s with a great T4 at Evian, but she's suffered a surprising number of missed cuts (4) and a garnered a surprisingly small number of top 20s (5). If the right Natalie shows up more often--that is, if she can give herself more birdie chances and convert them more efficiently--the rest of the season, she may surprise a lot of people with win #2.
8. Sandra Gal: She's starting to turn around what's been a pretty mediocre season thus far in 2012, with a 3rd-place finish at the U.S. Women's Open and 7 finishes of T26 or better in her last 9 starts. Her putter has been the biggest culprit, but she's not hitting as many fairways or greens as the LPGA's elite tend to do. Taken together, that explains why she's had a good number of respectable finishes this year, but only 1 top 10. Still, I thought her game was on the rise last ranking and I still think it is this one.
9. Beatriz Recari: As a member of the rising Spanish Armada on the LPGA, she is playing with a lot of precision with every club this year except her putter (1.84 PPGIR, 30.58 putts per round, and 2.80 birdies per round are well below elite standards). Hence her inability to follow up on her season-opening top 10 or her opening 68 at Locust Hill--or even capitalize on the 3 66s she shot in Evian and Toledo. Still, she got her best finishes of the year in both places (T9) and hasn't missed a cut all season, so it's just a matter of putting it all together for the right 4 rounds in a row for her.
Quantum Leap Candidates
10. Mi Jung Hur: Her struggles since getting her 1st LPGA win as a rookie in 2009 are one big reason I'm not jumping on the Korda bandwagon just yet. This may be a make-or-break year for Hur, who went from so-so to worse last season, but still managed to hang onto full membership for this one. It looks like it's going to be a "make" year, but whether it's "just barely" or whether she can build on her excellent top 10 at the Manulife (which featured 4 rounds in the 60s) depends on whether she can straighten out her driver. She's putting and scrambling so well that if she can do it, she could qualify for the late-season Asian swing and go on a real tear. But if not, she's going to be scratching and clawing to stay in the top 80 on the money list.
11. Jee Young Lee: It looks to me like the once-elite '06er got hurt in fall 2010 but whatever the reason she's been in free fall ever since. She's too good not to pull out of it, in my view, and soon, even from #131 on the 2012 Priority Status List. Her performance stats this season aren't all that good but aren't horrible, either, and she's gotten 2 of her best 3 finishes of the year in her last 2 starts (T31 at the Farr and T12 at the Safeway to go with a T26 at the RR Donnelley). I'd love to see Jelly get on a roll from here on out!
12. Nicole Castrale: Her comeback from her 2010 shoulder surgery was derailed last season, so she started this one on another medical exemption, earning enough to move to #116 on the current priority status list. It's looking like everything is pretty much back on-line for her except her putting, and even that seems to be coming around, as you can't go 70-70 over the weekend at Locust Hill without putting very well. She followed up her T19 at the LPGA's 2nd major with a fantastic T9 at its 3rd, the U.S. Women's Open, so I wonder what she has in store for us at the Women's British Open?
13. Julieta Granada: She picked up 2012 right where she left off in 2011, going from worrying about keeping her LPGA card to fighting for her 2nd LPGA win. So far she hasn't come close to matching her T2 at the Australian Women's Open or T5 at the Sybase, but she does have 4 other top 25s this season. Unfortunately, most of them came in the 1st half of the season and she's suffered 5 of her worst 7 finishes of the year in her last 8 starts. It's going to take improved iron play and putting to get back on the right track for the rest of the season.
14. Jessica Korda: Well, she's reverted to mean after her surprising season-opening playoff win, but if she can get her putter going, her combination of distance and relative accuracy for a bomber off the tee bode well for her future on the LPGA. Still, with a 1st-round match-play win at the Sybase responsible for her only other finish in the top 35 this season, that promising future may be quite a ways off.
On the Bottom, Looking Up
15. Leta Lindley: Her extreme lack of distance off the tee is putting a lot of pressure on the rest of her game and despite making 7 of 10 cuts thus far this season hasn't yet cracked the top 40. Time is running out for her to move up from #101 on the money list and secure her card for 2013.
16. Heather Bowie Young: She won at the Farr in 2005 and has collected 26 top 10s since joining the LPGA in 2000. 2011 was her 3rd season in a row without one, however, leading her to seek (and gain) dual LPGA-LET membership at LET Q-School. So far, her experiment in dual membership isn't working out so great: she's #137 on the LET money list with only 4 starts and although her LPGA performance stats are pretty strong (excepting some horrific putting), she's only made 6 cuts in 13 starts and is fighting to stay in the top 100 on the money list.
17. 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. To make matters worse, Francella had to deal with injury issues of her own over the next season and a half, but the '06er bounced back in 2009 by getting her 5th and 6th top 10s on tour, breaking the 73 barrier in scoring average for the 1st time in her career, and returning to the top 50 of both the money list and my Best of the LPGA ranking. She continued her comeback in 2010 with a top 10 at the LPGA Championship and stayed in the top 60 of both the money list and my ranking, despite her approach shots and expecially her putting holding her back. But she fell out of the top 70 last season and will be fighting to keep her card this one from her #102 spot on the Priority Status List. So far this year, she's had serious problems with her putting, but is only 1 good finish away from moving into the top 100 from #110 on the money list.
18. 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 2011 she failed to add to her 23 career LPGA top 10s. But whereas she was a regular in the top 80 for most of her career, she dropped all the way down to #105 on the money list last season, so entered this one at #136 on the priority status list (and has since dropped to #139 in the latest reshuffle). She's hanging around at #113 on the money list, but despite driving the ball well all year, she continues to do very little with it, with only 4 finishes in the money in 9 starts. She needs to back up that T20 from Alabama--and soon!
19. 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. She had finished outside the top 100 on the money list the previous 3 seasons, and only improved to #96 in 2011. From #121 on the reshuffled Priority Status List, she has as much chance as anyone in this category to escape from Hound Dog's fluke victories list, which may not be saying much. She's only made 1 cut in 2012 and hasn't played on tour since missing the cut at the Kraft Nabisco Championship. I don't see her name on the LET money list, either, so I have to assume she's injured or on maternity leave or something....
On the Outside, Looking In
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 last year, that is, when she fell off a cliff. It may have been injuries, but maybe it was love. The golfer known as "Cinderella" got married to Argentine-Korean star Mario last November. What that means for her golf career remains to be seen. She's #123 on priority status list, so she should be able to play just about whenever she wants to this season. Which, so far, is not at all....
21. 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 finished #38 on the money list last season and is currently #15.
22. Young Kim: She joined the JLPGA in 2010 and ended up ranked 14th on tour; last season, she fell to 34th on their money list; this one, she's down to #40. Whether she'll return to the LPGA remains to be seen, but provided she does, if anyone on this list is going to follow in Jimin Kang's footsteps in breaking the Corning Classic jinx, I would expect her to be the next to do it!
23. 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.
24. 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.
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. The only way things could be worse for her prospects in 2012 would be if her defeat of Pressel had come in a U.S. Women's Open (see Kim, Birdie, below). She got some starts early in the season on a medical exemption, but missed the cut all 4 times, so with the reshuffle is now #247 on the priority status list.
26. Birdie Kim: I had wanted to put her higher on this list, feeling that 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. But no, she's only made 6 cuts in her last 28 LPGA starts dating back to 2009, hasn't added to her career total of 4 top 10s in that span, and has never broken the 73 barrier in scoring average since she started on the LPGA in 2004. Now she finds herself at #230 on the reshuffled Priority Status List for the 2012 season and fighting for the top 10 on the Symetra Tour money list (she just dropped from #12 to #16 when she followed up her silver with a MC).