A couple of weeks ago, Svenson asked in the comments just how many players truly have a realistic chance at winning an LPGA tournament each week. The Constructivist and I have opined that the number is around 25 and could easily be higher. Is there a way to prove or disprove that theory?
I started working on one way, but the research required for that is going to take a while so I thought I would attack the question from a simpler direction and later we’ll see if the two methods agree. Here, I’m going to use my Top 30 lists to try to find an answer.
Over the last two seasons, there have been six players who won an event when they began that week not ranked in the Top 30:
Meaghan Francella (07 MasterCard)
Silvia Cavalleri (07 Corona)
Natalie Gulbis (07 Evian)
*Momoko Ueda (07 Mizuno)
Louise Friberg (08 MasterCard)
Leta Lindley (08 Corning)
Several players were ranked in the 20s the week they won – Suzann Pettersen (her first win at Michelob), Young Kim, Nicole Castrale, Sherri Steinhauer, Maria Hjorth. Gulbis ranked #35 going into Evian while the others in the list above were nowhere in sight. I put an asterisk beside Ueda since Rolex ranked her #21 going into Mizuno. Toss out 07 Evian and Mizuno and what do the other four events have in common? Weak fields. Corning’s field was the strongest of the four with only ten of the Top 30 players there. Of the wins by the 20-somethings, Kim’s win at Corning came in the weakest field – Hjorth’s Navistar victory and Steinhauer’s State Farm win both came over slightly stronger fields, while Pettersen and Castrale defeated fields at nearly full strength.
From this analysis I’m going to draw several conclusions:
1) In a full-strength full-field event, approximately 25 players have a realistic chance to win.
2) For each Top 30 player that the field loses, two or three more players can be added to the “realistic chance” category, leading to…
3) If less than half of the Top 30 is entered, perhaps 70 players could win that week, and…
4) If only three or four of the Top 30 are entered, the entire field could have a chance to win.
I’m not stretching logical reason with #4. Even when that group of three or four Top 30 players included Lorena Ochoa, it could not prevent Louise Friberg from grabbing the brass ring at MasterCard or Silvia Cavalleri from taking Corona. Annika Sorenstam could not stop Meaghan Francella and Jeong Jang could not defeat Leta Lindley. Would any of you have considered all four of those unlikely winners to be in the top half of the field at any of those events? The primary reason that lesser players don’t usually win LPGA majors (Hilary Lunke and Birdie Kim aside – the U.S. Open is its own discussion) is that they have so many better players to beat. Thin out that upper level of competition by 50% or more and the task gets astronomically easier.
I can’t go back prior to 2007 with this method because I didn’t begin ranking the Top 30 (only 20) until then and wasn’t ranking at all prior to August 2006. 45 events is a pretty good data set however, so I’m going to be bold and suggest that its results are indicative of reality. Time will tell if they continue to hold true.
In retrospect, much of history seems obvious. The “revelation” that thinning out the field makes it easier for lesser players to win shouldn’t be surprising to anyone. What was surprising to me is the fact that even the presence of one of the top two players in the world can’t always override the absence of the other elite. Strength in numbers, like they say.