The Manulife Financial LPGA Classic, the tourney that's getting a reputation for wild Sunday finishes, tees off Thursday morning at the Grey Silo Golf Club in Waterloo, Ontario. Hee Young Park returns as defending champion after making birdie on the 18th last year to force a playoff, then birdied the par-5 18th three consecutive times to edge out Angela Stanford. Park’s 26-under four-day total tied the LPGA record. Coming into the Manulife this year there's a slightly different equation in play. Stacy Lewis isn't really secure in her top spot in the world rankings. With a third Canadian victory Lydia Ko, who won back-to-backs at the CN Canadian Women's Open in 2012 & 2013, could bump Lewis off the top spot in the world rankings. Michelle Wie's playing exceptionally strong golf, perhaps the best in her career. Gerina Piller's on the hunt for her first pro win and is very likely to nail down a victory at some point this season. Christina Kim is clawing her way back into the rankings and is also reaching for the top of the board. Put it all together on a golf course that's in perfect shape and weather that's ideal and what do you get: a hot, tightly contested competition that's going to be won by the woman who can sink the most putts with the least effort. I'm looking for a winning red number in the 25-30 range. Can anybody deliver four consecutive sub-par rounds in the -7 range? I'm thinking several players will hit this mark.
1st Round Pairings to Watch
I think we're going to see five hotly-contested tournaments within the tournament during the Thursday and Friday rounds at the Manulife Financial LPGA Classic.
Within the Michelle Wie, Sandra Gal, Suzann Pettersen pairing Rolex Ranked no. 10 Wie has been performing at the higher level. She’s entered 11 events, not missed a cut, and recorded seven top-10 finishes that include a victory at the LPGA LOTTE Championship. Wie’s weakness remains her putting. She’s averaging 30 putts per round coming into the Manulife. But Wie’s playing stronger than either Gal of Pettersen.
Like Wie, Gal’s entered 11 events, but missed the cut twice, at the Kia Classic and the North Texas LPGA Shootout. Pettersen, who was sidelined with a back injury but seems to be healthy now, has entered 9 events and not missed a cut. Gal has recorded two top-10s and Pettersen has three. Neither of them has a 2014 win on her resume.
Gal’s putting game is stronger than Pettersen’s or Wie’s, but her long game is less consistent. I’m looking for Pettersen to make a move soon, perhaps this weekend, perhaps at the upcoming US Women’s Open, which would be a more enticing victory for her. If Wie can maintain control over her flat stick and stay aggressive inside 100 yards, I think she’ll dominate this group.
The Inbee Park, Christina Kim, Anna Nordqvist pairing also has my attention. Park has just been edged off the top of the world rankings by Stacy Lewis, but that doesn’t mean her game has lost its punch. She’s entered 10 events this year and although she missed the cut at the Airbus LPGA Classic a couple of weeks ago, she also has seven top-10 finishes and an enviable 29 putts per round average. She’s going to stay competitive.
Rolex Ranked no. 9 Anna Nordqvist is coming into the Manulife with a solid 2014 track record. She’s entered 11 events, missed the cut once, at the LPGA LOTTE Championship, and has recorded 4 top-10s, two of them victories.
Rolex Ranked no. 53 Kim has entered 9 events and also missed one cut, at the Swinging Skirts LPGA Classic. With two top-10s, Kim’s best finish this season came last week at the ShopRite LPGA Classic. She’s getting her game back and this pairing will challenge her to give her very best.
I see Inbee Park edging out Nordqvist and Kim, but not by much. This group will give us a good contest on the putting surface. I wouldn’t be surprised to see all of them on the front page of the leaderboard at the start of the Sunday round.
Stacy Lewis will be the one to beat in her pairing with Cristie Kerr and Morgan Pressel. Lewis is on top of the world right now and she’s on fire! She’s entered 12 events and made 12 cuts. Her ten top-10 finishes include 2 victories. She’s ranked no. 1 in the world rankings and she’s leading in the Race to the CME Globe by 841 points. Kerr and Pressel will have to scramble to get ahead of her and stay ahead.
Like Lewis, Rolex Ranked no. 37 Pressel has entered 12 2014 events but she’s not playing to Lewis’s level, or Kerr’s. She’s missed the cut twice and recorded 2 top-10 finishes, but I don’t expect her to challenge Lewis. Pressel’s along for the ride in this pairing.
If anybody can get out in front of Lewis it will be Kerr. The 17-year Tour veteran hasn’t missed a cut this year. She’s recorded 6 top-10 finishes out of 10 events she’s entered and she’s an aggressive, persistent, indefatigable competitor who’s fully prepared to take advantage of her opponents’ every stray approach shot and every missed putt. With 16 career victories and 147 career top-10 finishes, Kerr knows how to play a winning game. With Lewis likely emotionally drained and the course receptive to low scoring — ideally suited to Kerr’s take-no-prisoners playing style — the conditions are absolutely perfect for Kerr to outplay Lewis this week.
Defending champ Hee Young Park is paired with Jennifer Johnson and Ai Miyazato. In this group I see Johnson leading. Rolex Ranked no. 23 Park, who’s entered 13 events this year and missed only one cut, has put no top-10s on her resume. Rolex Ranked no. 46 Miyazato has entered 10 events, has established a similar 2014 record with one missed cut and no top-10s.
Johnson’s ranked lower by Rolex than Park or Miyazato — she’s 44th — and she’s missed the cut twice in the 11 events she’s entered. But her last four finishes have been increasingly stronger: T12 at the North Texas LPGA Shootout and the Kingsmill Championship, T13 at the Airbus LPGA Classic, and T3 at the ShopRite LPGA Classic. I’m looking for Johnson to have consistently stronger finishes during the second half of the season.
The Lydia Ko, Gerina Piller, & Na Yeon Choi pairing is also going to produce some exciting golf. Ko, who’s Rolex Ranked no. 3, has entered 11 events and missed no cuts, has recorded 5 top-10 finishes that include a win at the Swinging Skirts LPGA Classic. But Ko’s game has been inconsistent. She’s finished outside the top-20 four times and her worst finish was a T61 at the Kia Classic. Ko’s world ranking may not be accurately reflective of her longer-range performance. Ko didn’t turn professional until around a year and half ago so she has fewer events factoring into her ranking than Stacy Lewis or Inbee Park and her finishes, high as well as low, come with more weight attached to them.
Rolex Ranked no. 14 Choi, in coming into the Manulife with 11 2014 events, one missed cut, and has recorded 2 top-10s. Piller, who’s ranked no. 26, has entered 12 events and like Choi has missed one cut. Piller’s a power player, ranked 2nd on the Tour in driving distance, 4th in hitting greens in regulation, and 1st in number of eagles (she’s had 7 this year). She’ll have the advantage at the Manulife.
Can Piller outplay Ko? Despite Ko’s remarkably controlled, targeted game, Piller will have a 25 yard advantage off the tee, and she’s ahead of Ko in sinking birdies and eagles, even though Ko has a slight edge in putts per round: Ko’s averaging 29.74 to Piller’s 30.91. If Piller can take advantage of the Grey Silo’s open fairways and avoid trouble, she’ll take command of this pairing.
The first round of the Manulife Financial LPGA Classic begins at 7am Thursday, June 5. Golf Channel begins coverage at noon Eastern Time.