By Vince Robitaille
Not only does Yours Truly already enjoy the gritty test and gamesmanship of match play from a golfer’s perspective, the added pleasure of filling brackets after March – and to do it with you this time around – can’t leave us but fully contented. In fact, with the Sybase Match Play Championship coming back to Hamilton Farm Golf Club for the third consecutive year, it is now time for us to look into the year’s lone head-to-head tournament of the season – one which saw 2012 Kraft Nabisco champion, Sun Young Yoo, and World No.3, Suzann Pettersen, win in 2010 and 2011 respectively. In order to make an attempt at claiming grabbing rights versus a virtual opponent – at the risk of incongruent upsets causing me to fall flat on my face – inspecting the venue, first and foremost, appears logical. Once this is done we’ll go through the table and get a feel for who might come up on top of the 64-player event.
The par-72 Hamilton Farm Golf Club will play, for this week’s Championship, to a slightly above-average length of 6,553 yards. While this could appear to be a significant advantage for the upper tier, in terms of distance, of the field, with all four par-5’s covering more than 500 yards – the longest being the 568-yard-long 11th – players opting out of planning their par-5 adventures as three-shot holes should prove quite the rarity. Furthermore, while a par-5 finishing hole might usually lend a helping hand to the LPGA’s bombers, in match play, more often than not, pairings won’t reach the 18th hole; thus eliminating a clear birdie opportunity for the longer hitters.
Greens on the hilly grounds of Hamilton Farm, a location that also plays host to the United States Equestrian Team, are somewhat peculiar. The majority of them are quite deep – some reaching depths of 40 yards – yet narrow, or, much to the contrary, rather wide and shallow. Ergo, players who combine superior distance control and lag putting. Much like South Korea’s Na Yeon Choi, United States’ Morgan Pressel and Scotland’s Catriona Matthew, could knife their way through the brackets to exit victorious this weekend. Our quick course overview behind us, we shall now proceed to our selections and highlights.
In the Patty Berg Division, while clear favorites Tseng and Creamer should move on to the second round rather easily, Hee Young Park and Brittany Lincicome might experience harsher times on their way. Park, on her hand, will have to put a halt to the surprising hot streak of French golfer Karine Icher who came out of relative obscurity – at least, on this side of the pond – to record back-to-back top 5’s in the Mobile Bay LPGA Classic and the HSBC Brasil Cup. Ultimately, however, Park’s flat stick shall prevail. Perhaps the most intriguing matchup of the division at this stage, the Lincicome-O’Toole duel, will see two players that have shown the killer instinct necessary to dominate the format. Even though we see Lincicome pulling through and eliminating what could be her fiercest foe until the group’s final stage – assuming that the head-to-head battle reignites the fire, in O’Toole, that was put out by a fishtail ending at the Solheim Cup last fall – one would be hard-pressed to find a pick on which we’d prefer to be wrong.
The second round’s most heated match should be between the aforementioned Catriona Matthew and Caroline Hedwall. The Solheim Cup teammates will clash in what will either end in a decisive win for the veteran, or a hard-earned triumph for the young Swede in extra holes. Proving that sometimes guts are stronger than brains and hence dismissing the stellar form of Hedwall in 2012, our long established pick for the summer’s Ricoh British Open, we’ll opt for the former option. At the other end of the table, in the Battle of the Brittanies, Lincicome should take care of Lang who, over the last few months, has shown signs that she might take her spot on the weekly radar of the LPGA Tour back, after all.
The divisonal semifinals will, in Yours Truly‘s opinion, play theaters to what will prove itself to perhaps be the paramount upset of the week, namely Matthew’s victory over Yani Tseng. Yes, you heard right. The World No.1’s usually systematic quasi-perfect performances have ever so slightly faded recently and, despite this week’s visit with putting guru Dave Stockton, we expect a few slippery 5-footers to edge out and, eventually, cost her the match and leave Matthew to face Lincicome. Sticking with our previous reasoning regarding the primordial skillset to swiftly manoeuver around the Hamilton Farm Golf Club, and taking into consideration the American’s tendency of late to decelerate in her fourth trip around the course, we’re picking Matthew to reach the Final Four.
As for the Kathy Whitworth Division, the first round should let us observe two heated pairings, the first consisting of two golfers who have enjoyed recent success despite an inability to close out, So Yeon Ru and Karin Sjodin, and the second comprising a resurgent star in Meena Lee, as well as a swashbuckling Vicky Hurst. Both melees should reveal themselves to be quite puzzling as a golfer in each of them, namely Lee and Sjodin, have the ability to go quite low on this specific type of course, as well as the predisposition to hit dry spells mid-round. Thankfully for both of them – and for us as spectators – the week’s format should keep the Korean and the Swede right in the thick of things, if either of them records an inopportune double-bogey like it has been the case at the Lotte Championship and the Kia Classic, respectively. Once the dust settles after the day’s rumblings, look for the statistically superior Ru and the fist-pumping grinder that is Hurst to stand firmly on their own two feet; until their next fixture that is. In fact, we forecast a short-lived celebration for our two golfers as Americans Michelle Wie who, despite absolutely horrendous performances over the last few months which resulted in missed cuts, has shined when put in a ring against one specific opponent whether it’d be at the Solheim Cup or in this very event – she tallied a 9th place finish and a top 5 in the previous years – and Cristie Kerr should play telephone poles to Ru and Hurst’s drifting cars.
Continuing this trend of quick dampers on previous successes of our featured players, the mechanical standouts that are Ai Miyazato and Angela Stafford, should steadily cut through both the course’s and their adversaries’ defenses to reach the divisional final; a final which, taking into consideration the fulgurant comeback of Miyazato to the very summit of the LPGA’s food chain, will turn in her favor – the Japanese’s short game mastery finally proving too much for the Texan’s steady ball striking.
The Mickey Wright portion of the table is arguably unbalanced; the previously cited Na Yeon Choi and Morgan Pressel, as well as 2008 U.S. Women’s Open champion and current World No.25, Inee Park highlighting the upper half of the bracket, while the bottom part’s star, Jiyai Shin, has suffered slender putting woes of late which have kept her from her reaching her usual crusing speed. That being said, her four top 10s in six events on the LPGA Tour this season and the fact that she has never finished in worse position than a tie for 26th in the first major event of the year, goes to show how fast her cruising speed actually is.
Joining her as favorites of this section of the field is the renascent, well one would be more accurate to describe it as trending, Natalie Gulbis. The American – who shall be profiled in a future installation – has enjoyed recent success, notwithstanding her propensity to hand in high scorecards early in tournaments, by showcasing a diametrically opposed faculty to get down in the mid-60’s. Three of those four players, according to our predictions will dispose of Jenny Shin, Inbee Park and Beatriz Recari, before colliding together in the semifinals; the other, Gulbis, succumbing – in the second round like both previous editions – to the 18-time top 10 finisher on the LPGA Tour, Amy Yang. At that stage, Na Yeon Choi’s loftier short game as well as superior ball striking, should enable her to upstage Pressel. In a battle where two identical swords – see playing styles – are drawn, Choi’s is, simply put, sharper. The Shin-Yang matchup would most likely turn out to be one of the Championship’s closest, one where an established star would confront a soon-to-be household name that could easily seem built from the former’s very own prototype. Riding her current wave of success, our vote goes to Yang. Nevertheless, our money won’t be riding on the 2010 LPGA Tour Championship runner-up against Choi.
The last fourth of the field is miles away from the other three’s relative homogeneity. A rather wild collection of golfers with contrasting styles, current forms and match play affinities, greatly widening the variance, an accurate prognosis seems somewhat unlikely. Thus said, this exercise is exactly that, an exercise; one wanting itself to open a dialogue. Reverting back to the Annika Sorenstam Division, while the victories of favorites Pettersen, Gustafson, Munoz and Sun Young Yoo are to be anticipated, don’t blink when you see Tiffany Joh – whose amateur match play track record is nothing short of spectacular, having won the U.S. Women’s Public Links twice in 2006 and 2008 – and Pornanung Phatlum defeat their opponents. The same could be said of Jessica Korda, for reasons analogous to Joh’s, if the Australia Open could start sinking putts; a hypothesis that hardly stacks up against Hee Kyung Seo. Nevertheless, on greens that shall play a tad slower due to the rain – hopefully permitting her to be more aggressive with the flat stick and quit leaving her putts a foot short – as well as on a course that renders obsolete the weakest part of her game, namely her play out of the sand, we’ll make Korda our wild card pick.
The latter rounds in the Annika Sorenstam Division should see the Sybase Match Play Championship’s two first champions, Sun Young Yoo and Suzann Pettersen, run the table, before running into each other. Ultimately, betting against Pettersen in match play is plain ludicrous and it is why, despite her lackluster form, we’re picking her to not only beat the reigning Kraft Nabisco champion, but her subsequent adversaries, presumably Na Yeon Choi and Ai Miyazato.