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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Has the Tseng Dynasty Arrived?

This is the question buzzing on many, if not most, of the golf blogs this week. Yani's repeat of Cristie Kerr's unbelievable -19 performance at the Wegmans LPGA Championship -- well, if you want to pick nits, Cristie won by 12 and Yani by only 10 -- and the resultant records she's set or tied have everybody wondering...

Yani's pic from LPGA.comIs Yani the next great woman player? Is she going to be the best ever?

I thought I'd take a slightly different look at the situation than most of the other blogs and TV commentators have. I'm going to ask your indulgence here, because I'm going to compare the men and the women together. Don't misunderstand me -- I'm not saying that Yani could compete with the men. (At least, not yet. If she keeps improving, all bets are off.) But I think it will help us better understand the magnitude of what Yani's doing much more clearly if we compare her to what we're used to seeing from the men. I'm looking at this from two angles:
  • How Yani compares to the other women, relative to how the top male players compare to the rest of the men, and
  • How Yani is doing relative to the top male players, relative to how other top females have compared.
For example, doing this post meant a delay updating the Ruthless Golf World Rankings, as I usually do each month. It's interesting to see how Yani would fare in them if I included her.

The RGWR puts a lot of emphasis on winning over the last 12 months, and currently Martin Kaymer has the most wins at 4, which includes 1 major, plus 2 other Top 5s. Yani would easily trump him with 8 -- 5 LPGA wins, including 2 majors, and 3 other wins on other tours. She also has 5 other Top 5s in that time (one of those is a 2nd in the first major of this year). Her major record in her last 4 majors is T10, 1, 2, 1. This is in Annika and Lorena territory. Not surprisingly, the male with the best record in majors is Rory McIlroy, with 3, 3, 15, 1.

The top male in the OWGR is Luke Donald. He moved from #9 (5.566 -- about 4.6 points behind #1 at 9.1) to #1 (9.14, .48 ahead of #2). Yani started the year at #5 in the Rolex Rankings (9.75, less than a point behind #1 at 10.6) and moved to #1 (14.43, 3.31 ahead of #2). Yani's gained 4.68 points versus Luke's 3.58 points. You can argue that the men are more competitive, but I'd argue that Yani had fewer tournaments she could play and she passed 4 players that had each held #1 recently... and sometimes repeatedly. More importantly, those women took the #1 position; they didn't just have it come to them because others didn't play well.

More interesting still is the scoring average for this year. Yani sits at 69.31, nearly a whole stroke ahead of #2, while Luke (the lead on the PGA) sits at 69.42, a mere .09 strokes ahead of #2. I realize the men are always more competitive and so I expect them to be bunched... but it's rare for a woman to beat the men. Because Tiger's figures are usually incredible (I'll put his in parentheses at the end), I'll compare the #2 male against the women in a few recent examples:
  • 2010: Matt Kuchar 69.61, Na Yeon Choi 69.87
  • 2009: Steve Stricker 69.29, Lorena Ochoa 70.16 (TW 68.05)
  • 2008: Sergio Garcia 69.12, Lorena Ochoa 69.70
  • 2007: Ernie Els 69.29, Lorena Ochoa 69.69 (TW 67.79)
  • 2006: Jim Furyk 68.86, Lorena Ochoa 69.24 (TW 68.11)
  • 2005: Vijay Singh 69.04, Annika Sorenstam 69.33 (TW 68.66)
  • 2004: Vijay Singh 68.84, Annika Sorenstam 68.70
The LPGA online stats don't go back any farther, but you can see how far back you have to go to find anything comparable... and Tiger didn't play enough that year to count. After Annika, they're not even close to the 2nd best male until Yani this year.

How does Yani compare in terms of overall play? Well, we don't have nearly the same amount of stats for the LPGA as we do for the PGA, but I was hoping for a few pertinent comparisons with the men. LPGA courses are shorter, but they're also narrower -- there was an 18-yard wide fairway at the major this weekend! So I chose the PGA's most accurate long hitter for comparison -- Bubba Watson.

That's not so crazy as it sounds. Bubba's #2 in Driving Distance and #104 in Driving Accuracy (60.46%) while Yani is #5 in Driving Distance and #83 in Driving Accuracy (70.6%). In other words, each is long and relatively inaccurate. (For comparison, the top PGA driver hits 74.81% versus 85.7% on the LPGA. That puts them at roughly the same level on their respective tours.) So here's what I found:
  • Wins: Bubba 2, Yani 3
  • Top 10s: Bubba 3/16, Yani 8/10
  • Missed Cuts: Bubba 1/16 plus one WD and one DNS, Yani 1/10
  • Finishes Outside Top 25: Bubba 8/16, Yani 1/10 (only once out of Top 10!)
  • GIR: Bubba 72.48% (he's #1), Yani 75.2% (also #1)
  • Scoring Average: Bubba 70.53, Yani 69.31
  • Birdie Average: Bubba 4.30 per round, Yani 5.09 per round
  • Total Eagles: Bubba 11 in 59 rounds, Yani 2 in 32 rounds (works out to almost 4 in 59 rounds)
  • Total Birdies: Bubba 228 in 59 rounds, Yani 163 in 32 rounds (works out to 300 in 59 rounds)
What stands out here is how consistently Yani is playing. Bubba is arguably the best American player right now, but he's either "on" or "off" with no in-between.

And that consistency is what's so amazing about Yani's rise to the top of the ladies' game. She's playing with the power and accuracy of Bubba Watson, the consistency of Luke Donald, and the scoring ability of Tiger Woods. (Remember, her scoring average this year is nearly a full stroke above her nearest female rival, just as Tiger's has been above his male rivals. For the moment, this is a fair comparison. And again, you have to go back to Annika to find a similar situation on the women's side.)

The real question in all of this is simply how long she can maintain this level of performance. Is it possible? Certainly -- we need only look at Tiger and Annika to know that this level of play can be sustained for several years. In both cases, it was injury that interrupted their dominance. Given that Annika seems to be mentoring Yani, it's possible that Yani may be able to avoid that problem. (One of the more humorous things Yani said this weekend came when Rich Lerner told her Suzanne Pettersen planned to go to the Broadmoor Course early to practice, and then asked how she planned to prepare. She simply smiled and said she would talk to Annika, who won the U.S. Women's Open when it was there in 1995.)

Yani has now won 4 majors at a younger age than any other player, male or female, in the modern era. That last bit gets added because Young Tom Morris won 4 of the first 8 Open Championships, his last at age 21. (He died at only 24, on Christmas Day 1875, in case you're interested. That's why you rarely hear more about him.) But Yani's wins represent more different styles of golf -- including Open-style -- which I think is more impressive.

And there was no career slam back then, which Yani looks poised to snag in a couple of weeks even though the U.S. Women's Open has been her weakest major. Her best finish was T10 last year.

Still, you've got to like her chances.

It's probably a bit early to say she's the best ever, but it seems pretty clear that the Tseng Dynasty now rules women's golf. The real question is whether "the rest of the best" on the LPGA Tour will accept it quietly...

I doubt it. And that's why I think the Tseng Dynasty is going to be FUN!

Pic from Yani's page at LPGA.com. Other facts from the Young Tom Morris page at Wikipedia and various LPGA.com and PGATOUR.com pages.

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