Mickey Walker: Three outsiders who might capture the Kraft
For me the first two Majors signal the start of our golfing season. Both the Kraft Nabisco followed by the Masters the week after historically have provided us with some incredible battles and excitement.
Both Majors are unique in that they are played at the same venues every year – the Dinah Shore course at Mission Hills in California and Augusta National.
Both are immaculate and become a sterner, more difficult challenge with each passing year.
I had the privilege of playing in the Nabisco Dinah Shore, as it was then known, on five occasions in the late 70s and 80s. I’ve returned there to watch the championship several times since.
The course bears absolutely no resemblance to the one that I played. Apart from being considerably longer, the tiny eucalyptus trees that were planted in the 1960s are now enormous. Combine that with the rough being severe and the fairways very much narrower there is a very high premium on getting the ball in the fairway. The speed of the greens and the subtleties mean that it is rare for players new to the championship to contend.
The 18th is one of the iconic finishing holes in women’s golf. It’s a par 5 with water along the entire left side, bunkers, thick rough and trees if you miss the fairway to the right, and an island green trying to tempt you to go for it if your drive is long and on the fairway.
The 18th has often proved to be pivotal producing everything from eagles to the leaders dropping shots when a par would have secured them the title. Then there’s always the intrigue about how the winner will jump into Poppie’s Pond.
So who will win the first Major of 2014? It is difficult to see the winner coming from outside the current top four in the world – the defending champion and World No 1 Inbee Park; Norway’s Suzann Pettersen who had such a spectacular last third of 2013; Stacy Lewis, a former Kraft winner and surely the most consistent player at the moment; and in fourth place, a newcomer to the professional ranks and previously the best amateur in the world by a mile, Lydia Ko.
I might be slightly biased, but based on her performances in the Kraft over the last five years and the fact that surely she will win one of these championships sometime in her career, it would be great to see Suzann add to her two Major wins.
Three players who as yet haven’t won a Major, and who I think could capture the Kraft, are the Americans Lexi Thompson and Lizette Salas, and Korea’s IK Kim.
Lexi is statistically the longest hitter in women’s golf, which gives her a huge advantage. I was so impressed with Lexi last year when I saw her play at Evian where she finished third and at the Solheim Cup where, as an 18-year-old, she made her first appearance. Lexi is statistically the longest hitter in women’s golf, which gives her a huge advantage.
Lexi’s one weakness is her putting, but the really strong finish that she had to her season last year with two wins in her last four tournaments tells me that she is putting better.
If she starts to putt well, everyone else will need to watch out, because she is right at the top as one of the best ball strikers of all time in women’s golf.
In contrast, Korea’s IK Kim takes almost three shots to catch up with Lexi’s two. However, she is ranked 11th in the world, just two places behind.
IK has come close to winning Majors on two occasions: she was runner-up to Inbee Park in the US Women’s Open last year, and sadly lost in a play-off to fellow Korean Sun-Young Yoo after somehow missing a 14-inch putt on the 18th green – the shortest in the history of all the Majors, two years ago at the Kraft.
What she lacks in distance, she makes up for in accuracy, being one of the great fairway wood and hybrid hitters in golf. IK’s putting too can be deadly when she gets on a roll. For sentimental reasons, I would be delighted if her first Major victory came in April.
My last tip to do well is another American who is yet to win her first event as a professional, but who has been knocking on the door for some time and, who for the first three rounds at this championship last year, looked as if this could be the week to do it. So my final pick is Lizette Salas, the player who counts Nancy Lopez as her mentor and with whom she has so much in common with.
Both come from Mexican American parentage and possess the same smiley expression when they play golf. Nancy’s Father, Domingo, told her to ‘play happy’, which is something that Nancy has managed to do throughout her career.
Lizette appears to do likewise, so why not join an elite group of players such as Morgan Pressel, Stacy Lewis and Helen Alfredsson who have made the Kraft their first win on the LPGA. Whatever happens it will be dramatic.