Inbee Park‘s coming in to the 2014 season with a tenuous hold on the top Rolex Ranking. The 2013 Rolex Player of the year’s still riding the crest of her 2013 early and mid-season victories, but she hasn’t won a tournament since her record-breaking victory at the US Women’s Open last June. Is Park low-hanging fruit on the Rolex Ranking tree?
Norwegian Suzann Pettersen is certainly positioned to bump Park off the top of the rankings. In January 2013 Park was ranked 4th and Pettersen was ranked 6th by Rolex. At the end of June 2013, mid-way through the season, Park was securely positioned at the top of the Rolex Rankings and Pettersen was ranked 3rd, with Stacy Lewis holding the 2nd spot. At the end of December Pettersen and Lewis had swapped positions, but despite 6 winless months, Park was still in control of the top ranking. With the 2014 LPGA Tour only days away from its start, the story line could change. Three Europeans are poised to mount serious challenges to Park’s hegemony.
Suzann Pettersen, Rolex Ranked No. 2
Can Pettersen resume the drive to the top she launched with her wins at the LET World Ladies Championship, the LPGA Safeway Classic Presented by Coca-Cola, and the LPGA/LET co-sanctioned Evian Championship and sustained through her victory at the Sunrise LPGA Taiwan Championship in October?
Petterson is a powerhouse of a player, strong, aggressive, competitive. She needs to bring that aggressive, late-season game to the Pure Silk-Bahamas Classic if she hopes to knock Park off the top spot.
Other than Pettersen, are there any other European players on the LPGA Tour who are even close enough to realistically consider as challengers to Park’s dominance?
Beatriz Recari, Rolex Ranked No. 19
Spaniard Beatriz Recari started the 2013 season ranked 57th by Rolex. She ended the year ranked 19th. Recari began the 2013 season with top-5 finishes at the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open and the Honda LPGA Thailand, went on to win the Kia Classic in March and the Marathon Classic Presented by Owens Corning & I-O in July, played world-class golf for Team Europe at the Solheim Cup, and ended the season with a bit of a fizzle.
But with 2 wins and 9 top-10 finishes, Recari made a remarkable climb through the Rolex Rankings. If she does that again in 2014, she’d be looking at the top rank.
Caroline Hedwall, Rolex Ranked No. 23
Like Beatriz Recari, Swede Caroline Hedwall made steady progress up the Rolex Rankings during the 2013 season. In January 2013 Hedwall was ranked 40th and in December she’d climbed up to the 23rd rank, and she made the climb without any wins on either the LPGA or LET Tours.
Hedwall’s best finishes in LPGA events include a tie for 3rd at the Kraft Nabisco Championship and the CN Canadian Women’s Open and a solo 3rd place at the Sunrise LPGA Taiwan. She also collected a solo 2nd place at The Helsingborg Open, an LET event, and she was the outstanding player on both the American and European teams at the Solheim Cup.
Youth vs Experience
Inbee Park turned pro in in 2006, at the age of 18. She joined the LPGA Tour the following year and has collected 9 victories and 48 top-10 finishes over the past 7 years. Despite a 6-month putting slump, 25-year old Park is at the top of her game and won’t be easily displaced. She’s a consistent, focused, seasoned competitor.
Suzanne Petterson turned pro in 2001, at the age of 20. That year the Norwegian won the French Open and was awarded the LET Rookie of the Year. Pettersen joined the LPGA Tour in 2003 and has accumulated 14 victories and 89 top-ten finishes over the past 11 years. What’s blocked her from getting to the top of the rankings?
Pettersen has a slightly longer drive than Park, and they’re about even on the other major stats — driving accuracy, greens in regulation, and average putts per round. Will Pettersen’s deeper experience on the course prove the fulcrum on which the competition between the two turns? Or will Park’s relative youth prove the crucial advantage?
Beatriz Recari turned pro in 2005, at the age of 18. She played on the LET for 5 years, then joined the LPGA Tour in 2010. Over the past 3 years Recari has earned 3 victories and 19 top-10 finishes. Recari’s game stats are equivalent to Park’s. There’s no doubt she has a world-class technical game in her bag, but she may need another year or two on tour to build the strong mental game that’s taken Inbee Park to the top of the Rolex Rankings. Alternatively, if Park’s putting slump continues, Recari may find herself going head-to-head against Pettersen for the top rank.
The youngest player in this group in both age and pro golf experience, Caroline Hedwall turned pro in 2010 and joined the LPGA Tour at the age of 21, the year she graduated from Oklahoma State University. With 8 top-10 finishes over her career Hedwall remains winless on both the Ladies European Tour and the LPGA, although her 5-0-0 performance at the 2013 Solheim Cup showed her world-class game at its best. Hedwall’s game stats point to her weaknesses.
Hedwall can drive the ball further than Pettersen, but she’s less accurate than the others on the putting green as well as off the tee. If she can remedy her driving accuracy and strengthen her putting, she’ll be unstoppable. Hedwall may meet Park in passing through the Rolex Rankings, but unless she gets her flat stick warmed up Hedwall won’t get to the top.
They’re all playing in the Pure Silk-Bahamas LPGA Classic, January 20-26, so we’ll begin to get some sense of how the 2014 competition will unfold in a few days.