Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The LPGA Elevator

A new season automatically brings hopeful aspirations for every golfer and their fans, but which players are most likely to improve in 2008? Obviously not all of them can improve, but which ones will drop down as the others go up? Your guesses are probably as good as mine, but I’ll take a written stab at it now and review how I did in a few months.

MOVING UP:

Annika Sorenstam (current HD rank: #12)
Now healthy and focused on playing her normal schedule, Annika is a lock to get back into the Top 10 and should be a POY contender. One early clue to watch for – if she’s hitting GIR at a good rate through her first couple of events, she’s BA-ACK!

Jee Young Lee (#10)
I’ve talked about Jelly’s potential before but I’ll reiterate – her distance, GIR and putting numbers resemble Pettersen’s (and to a lesser extent, Ochoa’s) so even if she just maintains her levels of last year, she ought to win at least once in 2008. Continuing the Pettersen parallel - if she gets that win early in the year, the confidence boost could lead to three or four more victories. And if her putting improves just a little, she could be Player of the Year.

Natalie Gulbis (#18)
After getting her first career win at Evian, Natalie played very well down the stretch. Assuming that the physical problems she had in June stay away, she could move up several spots even if she doesn’t collect win #2.

Hee-Won Han (#28)
This prediction may be more of a lock than the one for Annika. If Han doesn’t return to the Top 20, it will only be because of injury or family considerations.

Ai Miyazato (NR)
We’ve all seen what Ai-chan can do. After an off-season to work out the kinks that her lower-leg injury put into her swing, I expect her to move back into my rankings.

Grace Park (NR)
I have to list Grace, don’t I? Of course any good player who has fought physical problems the last couple of years could be expected to improve (assuming she is now healthy), but we know that doesn’t always happen. If Grace can finish in the Top 10 a couple of times in 2008, I’ll count that as improvement.

MOVING DOWN:

Suzann Pettersen (#2)
A trend I’ve seen in many sports - a player or team makes a huge leap in their performance level for a season then takes a step backward the following year. Why does this happen? One reason could be the new set of circumstances they find themselves in – the transition to “the pursued” from “the pursuee”. Or the increase in outside distractions from their new-found success. Or all of the good things that came together during that great season don’t repeat themselves the next time around. I’m not saying all of these are proof that Pettersen will decline or suggesting that luck had much to do with why she had such a good 2007 – just that a lot of different things could make ’08 less successful than ’07 was. One season’s ranking at #2 doesn’t mean that #2 is her established level of play. This is all aside from the fact that her back could go out on her again (like it did at the Lexus Cup).

Cristie Kerr (#8)
I mentioned in my end-of-season player profiles that 2007 would have been a terrible year for Kerr without the US Open victory. Without it, her ranking here would have been around #17 or 18 which is a one-year decline just short of Karrie Webb territory. Cristie’s stats just don’t give me any confidence to say she’s going to stay in the Top 10.

Maria Hjorth (#15)
Take the Pettersen comment about “established level of play” and double its emphasis for Hjorth. She did rank #11 in 1999 and #17 in 2001 but in the other seven years of her career she hasn’t been near the Top 30. Her 2007 peripherals don’t really support a mid-teen ranking either, so I’m predicting a fall.

Sherri Steinhauer (#19)
I’ve been working on an advanced player rating system, which I hope to unveil in the near future. This new system incorporates a player’s ability in stuff like GIR and PPGIR to flesh out the rankings a bit more. The player whose ranking was hurt the most in this exercise was Steinhauer – she doesn’t seem to rate well in any of the categories I added to the system. Even including her victory, money list and scoring ratings that put her #19 in my original system, she clocks in at #28 in the advanced version. Because of this information and her age (sorry Sherri!), I have to expect her to drop.

Final Note – Over the last several years about five players per year who were ranked in my Top 10 fell out of the Top 10 the following year. I’ve already picked Kerr to fall out and indicated that Pettersen might too. You want me to pick three more who will fall out? Bear in mind “fall out” includes only dropping to #11 or #12. Let’s go with Morgan Pressel, Stacy Prammanasudh and Angela Park.

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