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Friday, January 17, 2014

Chicks With Sticks: 2014 Forecast

Paula Creamer's Instagram Shot. Courtesy
With the 2014 season just days away from tee-time, I'm going to stick my neck out and make some predictions.

First, the Big Three.

Inbee Park.  The South Korean's been sitting on the top of the pile for 41 weeks, but she's riding on her performance during the first half of the 2013 season.  How long can The Serene Queen hold on to the top ranking with a stone-cold putter?  If Park doesn't get that flat stick going again she's going to take a tumble.

Suzann Pettersen.  The Norwegian's said it herself.  She's 33 and she's running out of time.  Pettersen was on fire during the 2nd half of the 2013 season, and almost eclipsed Park.  Close, but no cigar.  Will she come into the 2013 season still charged by the momentum she established with her win at The Evian and sustained through the end of the season?  Not likely.
Stacy Lewis

Stacy Lewis.  What's in store for America's #1 golfer, winner of the 2013 Vare Trophy?  Did her short visit to the #1 Rolex Rank make her hungry enough to take control of her mental game so her superb technical game can take her back up to the top and keep her there?  No more sour grapes tweets, no more complaints about the crowds, no more petulant, 11th hour withdrawals?  Just steady, consistent, world-class golf?  If she can do that, Lewis has a chance to get on top and stay there.

I'm picking Lewis over Park and Pettersen.  But these aren't the only players in the field.

What about the youngsters?

Lexi Thompson
Lexi Thompson.  Thompson rocketed up the Rolex Rankings in 2013 and she's starting the 2014 season hot.  Her rookie Solheim Cup performance and then two late-season wins left her flushed with the self-confidence that comes from success.

With two years' experience on tour under her belt, the effervescent teen's had time to smooth out the rough spots, get her rhythm, devise the strategies to maintain her emotional equilibrium.  She's ready to seize the lead and she has the game to do it.

Lydia Ko.  The Kiwi teen phenom kept all of us hanging for most of the 2013 season with her coy evasion of the persistent question: When are you turning pro?  When she finally made the announcement via YouTube (it was never a question of if, aways a matter of when) she set off a chain of events that may or may not serve her well in the long run.  But even positive changes have a way of disrupting the balance of an established routine.  Ko hired IMG to manage her career, fired her long-time coach, and signed a contact with Callaway.  Now that there's money involved, the game has change for Ko.  I think 2014 will be a year of adjustment and internal rebalancing.

Charley Hull.  Hull's playing primarily on the LET but in a very young career the 2013 LET Rookie of the Year has already established herself as a world-class competitor on the global stage of golf.  She's young.  She can be impetuous.  She's also unflappable, aggressive, and utterly refreshing.  Is her game ready to take her to the top of the rankings?  Not yet, but soon.

I pick Thompson over Ko and Hull, and I can envision a season-long battle between Stacy Lewis and Lexi Thompson for the top rank and the Race to the CME Globe.  Wouldn't that be fun!

Four players are lurking just below the top, and all of them have the potential to take off on a rocket ride to the top this year.

Lizette Salas.  I know Salas is still looking for her first LPGA victory, but seven of her eight top-10 finishes came in 2013, and the only thing that kept her from collecting a win was Sunday.  She's starting her 3rd year on Tour.  Did she learn enough about herself during 2013 to break through her Sunday clutch this year?  If so, she'll put some wins on her resume and get into the top-10 in the rankings.

Beatriz Recari.  Recari's starting the 2014 season poised to make her move.  With two victories and nine top-10 finishes last year, with the confidence-building 2013 Solheim Cup performance and the leadership of the Spanish 2014 International Crown team secured, Recari is ready to dominate the field.  Does the aggressive Spaniard have the game to outplay Stacy Lewis and Lexi Thompson?  Yes.  Can she sustain that game through the entire season? Perhaps.

Caroline Hedwall.  The 2013 Solheim Cup MVP is a bit of a mystery to me.  She won every match in which she participated at the Solheim, yet she's still looking for her first LPGA win.  What's that about?  She's a power player, but she's not as accurate as Pettersen or Park off the tee or on the green.  What's stopping her from playing the game we saw last summer at the Colorado Golf Club?  If she can unlock that mystery Hedwall will be a serious threat.  If not, she's going to languish below the top-10 in the rankings.

Shanshan Feng
Shanshan Feng.  With 2 victories and ten top-10 finishes, China's golf darling had a splendid 2013 season.  She's coming into the 2014 season, her 8th year on the Tour, ranked at 6th by Rolex.  Even though her win at the Reignwood came with a lucky bounce off a fundamentally flawed shot, the synergy between Feng and the Beijing fans fueled her game beyond measure.  Feng has an entire nation cheering her on, and she knows it.  Her mental game's over the top.  Feng's ready and more than able to take the top spot.

Shanshan Feng is very likely to join the top three this year, and I look for her to duke it out with Stacy Lewis and Lexi Thompson for the top spot in the rankings.  Beatriz Recari will go up, but not all the way.  Lizette Salas and Caroline Hedwall need to find their games.

What about Paula Creamer, Christie Kerr, Karrie Webb, and Catriona Matthew?  They're all world-class golfers.  They all deliver, consistently.  They're all deeply experienced and have mature careers.

Creamer's just gotten engaged and is going to be planning a wedding.  Kerr is a new mother.  Webb's moving increasingly toward management and administration.  Matthew has cut back on her travel to better accommodate the family obligations that accrue with growing children.

I expect to continue to enjoy the steady, consistent, smooth, competition this quartet delivers at every event.  But their energies are divided and I don't see them as viable competitors for that million dollar crystal globe that's waiting for one golfer next December.