With Yani Tseng struggling, field is open
The first time the LPGA's best played the U.S. Women's Open at Blackwolf Run, the United States Golf Association got exactly what it wanted from its championships. The course took its toll on everyone, even eventual winner Se Ri Pak.
That was 14 years ago, when neither equipment nor fitness on tour were quite at the level they are now. To compensate, Blackwolf Run will play 542 yards longer than it did in 1998; it will be at 6,954 yards.
That's not the only difference; the tour -- and this Women's Open field -- is even more international than it was back then. Youth also has become a hallmark in the LPGA. When Pak and Jenny Chuasiriporn had a playoff for the '98 Open title, both were 20, which at the time seemed rather remarkable.
Currently, the No. 1-ranked player in the world is 23-year-old Yani Tseng, who already has won five majors. The winners of the LPGA's majors so far in 2012 are South Korea's Sun Young Yoo, 25, and China's Shanshan Feng, 22.
In the past several weeks, though, Tseng's game has been on a downhill slide that doesn't show much sign of improving. She won three times to start the 2012 season then finished third at the Kraft Nabisco Championship on April 1. She was in the top 12 in her next three tournaments but really struggled in the LPGA Championship in June, barely making the cut before tying for 59th. She then missed the cut at last week's 54-hole Wal-Mart NW Arkansas Championship.
All it might take is one "normal" round for Tseng to feel back in sync. But she has seemed lost in every aspect of her game, and it's a stretch to think she might find herself on a course as difficult as Blackwolf Run.
So if Tseng isn't in the mix for winning the 67th Women's Open, who might be?
Ai Miyazato, Japan
She has won twice this year, most recently Sunday, when her game was even hotter than the temperature in Arkansas. Her 6-under 65 in the final round finished a big comeback after she missed the cut a week earlier at the Manulife Financial LPGA Classic.
Miyazato tied for sixth at the LPGA Championship last month. That matches her best previous finish in the Women's Open, which she has done twice, including last year at The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, Colo. Five of her nine LPGA tour victories came in 2010, but now, at 27, she may actually be reaching her peak. She's No. 1 on the tour in putting average (28.36).
Inbee Park, South Korea
She won the Women's Open in 2008 and she has played well consistently in this tournament over the past five years, with three other top-10 finishes. She also has been in the top 10 in her past three starts of 2012.
Park leads the tour in putts per greens in regulation (1.73), and that bodes well for what likely will be limited scoring chances at Blackwolf Run.
Brittany Lang, United States
Lang broke through with her first LPGA victory on June 24 at the Manulife Financial LPGA Classic in Canada. She tied for eighth this past weekend in Arkansas, which included a second-round 63. At her best, she frequently does a good job of giving herself birdie chances.
Lang, who played two years at Duke before turning pro, finished tied for second in the Women's Open as an amateur in the 2005 event at Cherry Hills in Denver.
Shanshan Feng, China
Winner of the LPGA Championship last month, Feng seems to be feeling really confident about her game now. She had a strong start to this year, then hit a lull, but has played well the past three events. She fell off the pace with a 73 Sunday in Arkansas but still managed a top-20 finish.
She has missed the cut at four of her five Women's Open appearances, but her game is blossoming.
Mika Miyazato, Japan
She's no relation to Ai Miyazato, but they definitely have a lot in common in terms of their ability. Mika missed three consecutive cuts in March and April, but she seems to have figured things out.
She has tied for second in her past two starts -- in Arkansas this past weekend and at the LPGA Championship -- and tied for third before that. Her accuracy off the tee could be very important on a Women's Open course. She finished fifth last year at the Open.