LPGA 2014: Inbee Park's American Challengers

Coming in to the 2014 season, four Americans on the LPGA Tour are poised to challenge South Korean Inbee Park’s control of the top Rolex Rank.  Park’s been sitting on the top of the rankings for 40 weeks, since she won the Kraft Nabisco Championship in April, her first 2013 major, and sent Stacy Lewis tumbling down to the 2nd spot.  Lewis, 2013 Vare Trophy winner, wants to reclaim the top in the Rolex Rankings, but she has company.  Lexi Thompson, Christie Kerr, and Paula Creamer also have their eyes on the top as the 2014 season begins.  Let’s take a closer look.

Stacy Lewis, Rolex Ranked No. 3

Stacy Lewis would like to reclaim the No. 1 Rolex Rank. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

Stacy Lewis started the 2013 season exactly where she ended it in the Rolex Rankings, at No. 3.  In January 2013 Yani Tseng was holding the top rank and Na Yeon Choi was ranked at No. 2.  At the end of the season Lewis was still playing 3rd fiddle, but now to Inbee Park and Norwegian Suzann Pettersen.

Lewis won the RR Donnelley LPGA Founder’s Cup in March and glided past both Choi and Tseng to claim the top of the Rolex Rankings.  It was a short reign.  Less than a month after Lewis’s Founder’s Cup victory Inbee Park won the Kraft Nabisco and jumped over Choi, Tseng, and Lewis to claim the No. 1 Golfer in the World position.  The rest is written in the history book.

Still, Lewis has a superb technical game in her bag and she played world class golf in 2013.  She earned 3 victories, the HSBC Women’s Champions and the RICOH British Women’s Open in addition to the Founders Cup, and she had 19 top-10 finishes.

Her mental game is a bit more problematic.  Her last minute withdrawal from the CN Canadian Women’s Open in August, claiming mental fatigue following the Team USA trouncing at the Solheim Cup, and her sour grapes tweet following Shanshan Feng’s win off a poor shot that took a lucky bounce at the Reignwood LPGA Classic in Beijing last October raise questions about Lewis’s ability to manage the pressure of competition.  That could be the fatal flaw in her game.

Lexi Thompson, Rolex Ranked No. 9

Lexi Thompson, ready to challenge Inbee Park. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Lexi Thompson is a rising star in women’s pro golf.  There’s no doubt about that.  Thompson turned pro in 2010, at the age of 15, and qualified for the LPGA Tour in 2012.  She holds the distinction of being the youngest golfer ever to qualify to play in the US Women’s Open.  Thompson thrives on competition.  It seems to fuel her game.

Thompson started 2013, her 2nd year on the LPGA Tour, ranked 24th by Rolex.  Her meteoric rise to the 9th rank involved 7 top-10 finishes and 2 victories, the Sime Darby LPGA Malaysia and the Lorenz Ochoa Invitational, both late in the season.

Thompson can out-drive just about every other player on the Tour.  Her 6′ frame looks like a coiled spring when she comes down out of her backswing.  Like Caroline Hedwall, another potential contender for the top rank, Thompson needs to strengthen her driving accuracy and her putting, but she’s a powerful, relentless player who is poised to finish the job she started in 2013 and get to the top of the rankings.  Stacy Lewis is closer to the top of the rankings than Thompson going in to the 2014 season, but Thompson’s bringing a positive energy level, an overwhelming aura of self-confidence, and a zest for competition that could unleash her game this year.

Christie Kerr, Rolex Ranked No. 12

Christie Kerr

Christie Kerr is starting the 2014 season with 17 years’ experience on Tour, 16 career victories, including the 2013 Kingsmill Championship, and 141 top-10 finishes.  In addition to being a world-class golfer, 36-year old Kerr is also a successful businesswoman, a stunningly effective philanthropist, and a new mother.

Kerr’s game is all-around solid, consistent, and unshakable.  But is it the game to eclipse Inbee Park?  In 2006 through 2010, Kerr held the number 4 spot in the Rolex Rankings.  She ended the 2012 season in the 11th slot in the rankings and dropped down one more notch in 2012.  Among her closest competitors from 2006 to 2010, Annika Sorenstam and Lorena Ochoa have retired from pro golf, and many others have been displaced from the top of the ranking by younger players.  There’s a lot of golf remaining for Christie Kerr to play, but Kerr is thinking about many matters other than the next tournament.

Paula Creamer, Rolex Ranked No. 13

Paula Creamer. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Like Christie Kerr, Paula Creamer’s an old timer of the LPGA Tour, if a 28-year old can be an “old timer.”  Creamer qualified for the Tour in 2005, the year she turned pro, but she’d been playing in pro events for two years by the time she joined the Tour, won the Evian Masters, and ended her rookie year with the Louise Suggs Award.  That was 9 years ago.

The Pink Panther has compiled an impressive resume: 9 career victories including the US Women’s Open in 2010, and 90 top-10 finishes, 5 Solheim Cup appearances.  But Creamer hasn’t collected a win since the 2010 US Women’s Open.  Like Christie Kerr, Paula Creamer’s flirted with the top spot in the rankings and like Kerr, Creamer’s world has broadened and deepened to include many activities and interests outside the next event on the LPGA schedule.

Stacy Lewis, Lexi Thompson, Christie Kerr and Paula Creamer are top contenders for the 2014 LPGA International Crown American team, and they’ll make a strong team for this new event.  But of the 4, Stacy Lewis and Lexi Thompson seem most likely to mount successful challenges to Inbee Park’s hold on the top of the Rolex Rankings.   The move from 3rd to 1st is a shorter journey than the move from 9th to 1st, but Thompson bounded up over 15 ranks during the 2013 season.  Can she do it again in 2014?

Lewis, Thompson, Kerr and Creamer will all be teeing off at the 2013 Pure Silk-Bahamas LPGA Classic on Thursday, January 23.  That will be our 1st opportunity to see Park’s American competition in action.  I’m counting down the days!

 

 

Tags: Golf Inbee Park Lexi Thompson LPGA Stacy Lewis

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