Rolex Ranked #2 Suzann Pettersen, the 2012 champion of the LPGA HanaBank Championship, will face some determined challengers when the tournament tees off on Friday. And there’s more on the players’ minds than the HanaBank Championship. The Koreans are looking forward to taking a strong team to the 2014 International Crown and with a 21 point lead over the American team, the HanaBank could be a preview of the Crown.
The Korean Challengers
Rolex Ranked #1 Inbee Park leads the field of Koreans who will challenge Pettersen, but Rolex Ranked #6, Na Yeon Choi, who won the HanaBank in 2009 and 2010 is sure to be in the mix.
Choi, with 8 top-10 finishes this year but no victories, has had an up and down year. But she’s been playing a stronger game than Inbee Park during the LPGA Asia loop, finishing 5th at the Reignwood LPGA Classic in Beijing and in a tie for 15th at the Sime Darby LPGA Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur. Choi is on my watch list going in to the first round at the HanaBank.
IK Kim is equally likely to emerge from the ranks of the Korean golfers as a viable challenger to Pettersen. Like Na Yoen Choi, Rolex Ranked #10 Kim has earned 8 top-10 finishes this year but has claimed no victories. Kim’s game has been uneven but her 2nd place finish at the US Women’s Open in June her her 5th place finish at the CN Canadian Women’s Open in August showcased her A game. Can she pull it out of her bag at the HanaBank?
Choi and Kim will both enjoy the advantage of playing on home ground and to the cheers of home town fans, an advantage that certainly buoyed Shanshan Feng as she played to her Reignwood victory two weeks ago. Korean golf fans are a wildly enthusiastic bunch, and they know that a Korean winner at the HanaBank is going to strengthen Korea’s team position at the 2014 LPGA International Crown.
Choi and Kim have the game and they have the crowd support to challenge Pettersen. But they are not alone in their intent to challenge Pettersen.
Spaniard Beatriz Recari, ranked 19th by Rolex, is playing a very strong game. She finished in the top-10 at both the Reignwood and the Sime Darby. The Asian loop seems to agree with her. Like Choi and Kim, Recari has earned 8 top-10 finishes this year, but she’s also earned 2 victories, at the Kia Classic in March and the Marathon Classic in July.
Recari is also bringing her experience at the 2013 Solheim Cup to her play. Golf Channel’s Golf Talk Central graded Recari’s rookie Solheim performance, 3 wins in 4 matches, with an A and described her as the 2nd most important player on Team Europe. (Caroline Hedwall was first.) Recari is a good bet to win the HanaBank.
German Sandra Gal and Recari’s Solheim Cup teammate, Swede Caroline Hedwall, are also likely challengers at the HanaBank, although neither of them is playing quite as strong as Recari.
Gal, who’s ranked 51st by Rolex, finished in a tie for 15th at the Reignwood and in a tie for 6th at the Sime Darby. Hedwall finished the Reignwood in a tie for 10th and the Sime Darby in a tie for 20th, not a noteworthy finish for a player of Hedwall’s strength. Gal’s game has gotten stronger over the past 3 months and Hedwall has a very strong game that she hasn’t pulled back out of her bag since the Solheim Cup in August. The cooler, less humid weather and the links-style course, however, could invigorate both Gal and Hedwall. They’re not as high on my list of players to watch as Recari, but I’m keeping them on my radar.
Lexi Thompson, coming in to the HanaBank from her stunning victory at the Sime Darby last week, is a logical and obvious challenger to Pettersen’s hegemony. Ranked 14th by Rolex, Thompson is a quickly rising star on the LPGA Tour.
Although back-to-back wins are a statistical long shot, Thompson was energized by her win last weekend and she certainly has the game as well as the teenaged bounce-back to take this victory as well.
Christie Kerr, ranked 12th by Rolex, and Paula Creamer, ranked 11th, are not playing as well as their numbers suggest they should, but they’re both capable of winning this tournament.
Kerr, with 4 top-10 finishes and a win at the Kingsmill Championship in May, finished in a tie for 45th at both the Reignwood and the Sime Darby. At 35, three years older than Pettersen, Kerr is hardly at the end of her golf career, although she does have a fully developed and diverse set of interests that may be distracting her from pro golf. She’s a seasoned and capable competitor, not easily unsettled by boisterous fans. She has a game to play and I’d like to see her pull it out of her bag and put it to work at the HanaBank.
Paula Creamer is a consummate competitor. She’s earned 6 top-10 finishes this year, but no victories. She finished the Sime Darby in a tie for 15th. I’d like to see her bring back that stronger game she was playing in mid-summer events, when she had a 4th place tie at the US Women’s Open and a 2nd place finish at the Marathon Classic. Like Kerr, Creamer has a winning game in her bag. She’s rested, and she’s had her warm-up at the Sime Darby. I’m predicting some aggressive golf from her this weekend at the Sky 72 Golf Club.
In addition to Stacy Lewis, who’s not playing at the HanaBank, Lexi Thompson, Christie Kerr and Paula Creamer are the likely American representatives at the 2014 International Crown. If the HanaBank is to serve for the Koreans as a preview for the Crown, Thompson, Kerr, and Creamer know they will need to play some serious golf.
Suzanne Pettersen wants to be Number 1, and to get there this year she needs to win the HanaBank this weekend and the Sunrise LPGA Taiwan Championship next weekend. There are many agendas in play at the LPGA KEB-HanaBank Championship. Watching it all unfold will be lots of fun!
Golf Channel will provide daily coverage from Friday, October 18 through Sunday, October 20, 11am-2pm ET and I’ll provide a daily wrap-up at the end of each round as well.