Contenders and Players to Watch (Part 2 of 2)
In Part – 2 of our preview of the 2020 U.S. Women’s Open Championship, we review the second set of contenders and some additional players to keep watch for. The U.S. Women’s Open is the most contested major championship in all of women’s golf and despite the abbreviated season, this year remains no exception.
Rolex Ranking – 4
With two wins earlier in the summer and coming off of a second-place finish in her last event, Danielle Kang will be considered a serious contender for this year’s US Women’s Open. While Kang is the last player to win back-to-back U.S. Women’s Amateur Championships in 2010 – 2011, she has never won the U.S, Women’s Open and it is one championship that she would like to add to her 2017 victory at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship.
Kang was playing very well at Aronimink earlier in October for the KPMG Women’s PGA event, entering the weekend in second place with four other players. However, she stumbled on the weekend, taking herself out of contention, eventually finishing in a tie for 33rd position. Kang’s mental strength and confidence helped her bounce back in her next event at the second LPGA Drive On event held at Reynolds Lake Oconee where she rebounded finishing 2nd to Ally McDonald.
She enters the U.S. Women’s Open with driving that has been strong and consistent for much of this season, but it is her putting which has been exceptional this year with her putting average of 1.75 per GIR being good for Fourth best on tour. Driving the ball well, finding fairways and putting well on traditionally fast greens have always been important keys to winning a U.S. Women’s Open.
Regardless, Danielle’s competitive nature will mean that she wants to finish the year winning the last major and what better than the most prestigious major championship in women’s golf.
Rolex Ranking – 3
Having been off with an unspecified back injury that forced her to withdraw from the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship in early October, Nelly Korda will be one of the most watched and scrutinized players during the week. Prior to her withdrawal, she had been playing very good golf, finishing in T3 position at the Walmart NW Arkansas event before nearly winning the ANA Inspiration finishing in T2 after losing in a three-way playoff to Mirim Lee. She then finished the next event in 5th position at the Shoprite Classic before withdrawing at Aronimink.
Korda has all of the tools needed to prevail in Houston. She is wonderful driver of the golf ball (4th overall in distance) with a great iron game where she sits 9th overall, hitting 72.86% “Greens in Regulation” – GIR. What everyone will be watching for is if Nelly is able to swing the clubs smoothly and freely as she did before withdrawing in October. Despite not playing since October, if she can shake off the rust and swing with the same intent as she did at the ANA Inspiration, then she can be a legitimate contender come Sunday.
Jin Young Ko
Rolex Ranking – 1
Unfortunately for golf fans outside of South Korea, the top ranked player in the world only made her LPGA debut a couple of weeks ago at the Pelican Women’s event, where she finished tied for 34th spot. That is the season that 2020 and the coronavirus has wrought.
Ko’s 2019 season is best described as spectacular. She finished the season first in scoring average (69.06 per round – second best in LPGA history), first in Greens in Regulation (79.56%), first in rounds under par (67), and rounds in the 60s (47). She finished 9th overall in driving accuracy, hitting 89.40% of the Fairways in Regulation. Her putting was exceptional too, with a putting average of 1.75 strokes per GIR. Perhaps most impressive of all was that Jin Young Ko played 144 consecutive holes before she made a bogey or worse – that is solid, steady play that will surely be difficult for another player to achieve.
Under normal circumstances, Jin Young Ko would be a player to consider as an automatic contender, but given her lack of competitive starts outside of South Korea, her progress is hard to gauge. Nonetheless, Ko’s game plan to prepare for the U.S. Women’s Open sees her playing in the Volunteers of America Classic before heading to Houston. It is sound strategy as the extra rounds will help her sharpen her game. The only question will be if she can get her game into top form in time for Houston.
Rolex Ranking – 8
Australia’s Minjee Lee has been a consistent competitor in most of the majors in which she has competed. Since 2015, she has had Five – top 10 finishes, 5 – top 20 finishes and four additional Top 25 finishes. Sine 2015, she has been a veritable contender in half of the major championships that she has played in with 14 – Top 25 finishes in 28 – total majors played.
In the previous major championships of this truncated season, Minjee has enjoyed some success with a solo 3rd place finish at the AIG Women’s Open (Royal Troon), a T7 at the ANA Inspiration at Rancho Mirage and a disappointing T58 finish at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Aronimink.
Entering the U.S. Women’s Open, Minjee Lee placed 15th at the Pelican Women’s Championship in Florida and prior to that, she won the LET’s Omega Dubai Classic in a playoff over fellow LPGA player Celine Boutier. She is teeing it up this week in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area at the Volunteers of America Classic prior to heading to the Champions Golf Club in Houston.
Minjee is playing some good golf right now and if she can keep her game sharp, she should have another good showing in Houston. This season, Lee is putting well, averaging 1.70 putts per GIR and an overall putting average of 29.53 per round. Her overall play, anchored by her putting, has resulted in a scoring average of 70.43 per round, good for 10th place overall on tour; she has recorded 32 rounds under par – good for 5th overall on tour; and she is currently 4th overall on tour, recording 170 birdies to date.
With a golf game like that, Minjee Lee should be another contender in Houston.
Rolex Ranking – 6
Brooke Henderson has been having a really good season – statistically at least. Prior to this season though, Henderson had been on a streak of winning two titles per season, but with this shortened Covid19 season, she has yet to win and her opportunities are down to just two events in which to notch a victory.
Statistically speaking, Henderson is still driving the ball really well, averaging 266.8 yards per drive, good for 11th overall. The strength of her game though, is her irons. If she is hitting her irons well, her ability to hit greens improves significantly and that in turn, gives her plenty of “looks” at potential birdies. This season, she has hit 77.40% of Greens In Regulation (GIR), which is good for 2nd overall. Her scoring average has been exceptional as well, recording 69.21 strokes per round on average – that too places her 2nd overall on the LPGA.
Naturally, when a player is scoring well, their performance in shooting rounds “under par” it places them near the top of the tour overall and for Henderson, she doesn’t disappoint in these categories either. To date, she has recorded 20 rounds under par and a total of 17 rounds in the 60s – both good for 2nd overall. Unfortunately for Henderson, the is just slightly behind Sei Young Kim in the categories of scoring (average score, rounds under par and rounds in the 60s). That is how fine the line is between winning and notching top–10s in professional golf.
Brooke Henderson’s performance in the majors this year has been very solid – with the sole exception being the AIG Women’s Open, which was her first competitive event upon returning from the Covid19 suspension in play. At the ANA Inspiration at Rancho Mirage, Henderson battled in the final round with Nelly Korda as both finished tied for first along with Mirim Lee who snuck into the playoff with an “’eagle” on the 18th hole. Both Henderson and Korda would have to settle for finishing tied for second.
At Aronimink and the KPMG Women's PGA Championship, Henderson was in the final group for Sunday, having shot a 65 on Saturday to get her to -5 for the tournament. Unfortunately, overnight leader Sei Young Kim finished Sunday in record fashion having shot 63 to win her first major championship. Henderson had to settle for 6th place. Having skipped the VOA Classic in Dallas, Henderson has instead focused on getting some rounds under her belt at Champions Golf Club in preparation for the US Women’s Open. The familiarity gained with both the Cypress and Jackrabbit courses should bode well for her, especially as Henderson will be looking to capture a win in these last two events.
Rolex Ranking – 146
One of the most pleasant "surprises" in the second half of this season has undoubtedly been the play of rookie Bianca Pagdanganan ( Pag-dang-anon ). While she started her season at the first Drive On event held at Inverness, she literally burst onto the scene at the KPMG Women's PGA Championship, announcing herself to the golf world with her booming tee shots and two consecutive bogey free rounds of 65.
Playing in the second to last group on Sunday, Bianca stumbled a little, but managed to stay focused, eventually birdieing the last hole to finish the tournament at Even Par and more importantly, a share of 9th place. That birdie on 18 to get Bianca into the top-10 meant that she had punched her ticket to the US Women's Open. Anything less than a top-10 and she would not have qualified for Houston.
When asked afterwards, whether she knew standing on the first tee box that she needed a top 10 finish at the end of the day in order to qualify for the US Women’s Open. Bianca responded that she was so focused on her round that day that she was completely unaware of qualifying for Houston and the US Women’s Open, “I had no idea. I was too in the zone. I just really tried to focus on today's round. I usually try to take everything hole by hole, shot by shot, so honestly I had no idea.”
The keys for her to do well in Houston will be to find the fairways a little more consistently than she has. If she can find two or more additional fairways per round with her driving, then she will give herself better opportunities to hit more Greens in Regulation. The rough at Champions will likely be less penal than it has usually been in previous US Women’s Open events simply since it’s December and less than prime grass growing season. Another important key for Bianca will be to improve her iron game. She needs to hit more Greens in Regulation so that she can get additional looks at birdie opportunities.
If she can achieve that, then she could be in a position to make a charge on Sunday – and boy, wouldn’t that be fun to watch! With her back-to-back 65s at Aronimink, we know that Bianca is capable of going low in a major tournament. And, as Beth Ann Nichol stated in our podcast, Bianca is playing without any pressure and that should allow her to just go out and play her game.
For more on the US Women's Open:
"We're Talking Golf" podcast show with Beth Ann Nichols and Sophie Walker [ click here ]
Emily Kristine Pedersen
Rolex Ranking – 69
Having won three LET events in a row, Emily Kristine is coming into Houston brimming with confidence. She started her streak winning the Aramco Saudi Ladies International, before following it up the following week winning the individual title at the Saudi Ladies Team International event. The “cherry on top” came when she won the season ending event in Spain – the Andalucia Costa Del Sol Open to capture the season-long points series.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for Pedersen will be to navigate not only the courses but to do so with so many talented players in the field competing for the honours. As Sophie Walker, a golf analyst for Sky Sports, commented in a recent podcast show, the players on the LET know that the LPGA is the pinnacle of women’s professional golf, meaning that even successful players like Pedersen will need to bring their “A” games to Houston if they wish to compete. Or, as Walker opined, Pedersen won in Spain with her “C” – game, but if she is going to be successful in Houston, she needs her “A” game.
Pedersen has been striking the ball very well over the last month a bit; she has been long off of the tee and hitting both fairways and greens. Those will be keys to success in Houston as the players generally know that the US Women’s Open is traditionally one of, if not the toughest set up in women’s golf. SO even if Pedersen can make a top-20 in Houston, it will be nice to see a current LET player achieve that level of success and it should be heartening for many of the other players from the LET in future. Of course, one only has to look back to July and the AIG Women’s Open ( Sophia Popov ) for a recent example of a current LET player capturing a major championship. Regardless, Pedersen will definitely be one of the players to watch over the week and hopefully she will have her “A” – game with her because she is fun to watch.