Mizuno Classic Saturday: Mamiko Higa and Yuki Ichinose Catch Shiho Oyama at -8

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The story of the JLPGA in the 1st half of 2013 was the rise of a new breed of Japanese young guns on a tour that had been dominated by South Koreans for several years.  23-year-old Rikako Morita won the season-opener, followed by 24-year-old Yuki Ichinose two weeks later.  The next week 20-year-old Natsuka Hori got into the act, followed by then-19-year-old Mamiko Higa.  Sense a pattern here?  Well, Morita won again in May, and again in June, Higa won again in June, Hori won in June, and 20-year-old Misuzu Narita joined them in August.

True, the Japanese young guns haven’t been the only story out of Japan, as Miki Saiki (29) and Yumiko Yoshida (26) have stepped it up a notch in the middle of their careers with 2 and 3 wins in the middle of the season, respectively, and the big guns–Sakura Yokomine (27), Sun-Ju Ahn (26), Bo-Mee Lee (25)–have struck back in recent months with multiple wins.  Oh, yeah, and Koreans have won 9 of the last 15 events on the JLPGA, with 25-year-old Na-Ri Lee, 26-year-old Da Ye Na, 33-year-old Young Kim, and 37-year-old Soo-Yun Kang breaking through for their 1st-ever wins on tour (Lee followed up her inaugural victory over Ai Miyazato with a rain-shortened win 4 weeks later).

So why am I recapping the JLPGA season on moving day at the Mizuno Classic?  Well, Yoshida fired the low round of moving day, a bogey-free 65, to move to -5 for the week.  Saiki joined her with a 7-birdie 66 of her own, and would have passed her if she hadn’t bogeyed her final hole, the 390-yard par-4 9th.  But they weren’t the only ones to make noise today–in fact, the young guns treated the Kintetsu Kashikojima course like their own personal playground today.  Morita‘s bogey-free 66 moved her into contention at -4.   66s by Higa (sparked by 3 birdies in a row late in her round) and Ichinose (sparked by a 4-hole birdie train in the middle of her round) allowed them to chase down 1st-round leader Shiho Oyama, who fired her 2nd-straight 68 to move to -8.  23-year-old Asako Fujimoto, who’s been trying to get her 2nd JLPGA victory since breaking through in 2011, caught Brittany Lincicome at -7 with a 6-birdie 67.  And Hori, 20-year-old Harukyo Nomura, and 24-year-old Kumiko Kaneda stayed within 5 shots of the lead with a trio of 69s.

So, yes, the JLPGA’s kids are alright.  Now who besides Oyama (who at 36 and hampered by injuries since giving the LPGA a go in 2009 keeps plugging right along) and Lincicome (who doesn’t sound confident in her game but is nonetheless is a great position to win for the 6th time on the LPGA) has the best hope of raining on their parade?  Well, 26-year-old ex-LPGAer Teresa Lu is only 2 behind the co-leaders, as is 39-year-old Junko Omote, 24-year-old Eun-Bi Jang, and the LPGA’s own Chella Choi, who’s still seeking her breakthrough win on tour so her dad can stop caddying for her (among other reasons to want to win!).  3 shots back with Saiki and Yoshida are defending champion Stacy Lewis, 26-year-old Ah-Reum Hwang, and Julieta Granada.  Eun-Hee Ji fired a 66 of her own today to join Morita at -4, along with Brittany Lang, Gerina Piller, LPGA rookies Austin Ernst and Lisa McCloskey, and LPGA veteran Hee-Won Han.  And Ji-Yai Shin and Na-Ri Lee are lurking at -3 along with the Hori, Nomura, and Kaneda.  Meanwhile, Karrie Webb, So Yeon Ryu, and Yuri Fudoh at -2 (not to mention Hee Young Park, who bounced back with a great 67 today after a terrible 1st round) and Shanshan Feng, Mika Miyazato, and Sakura Yokomine at -1 will need career days tomorrow to have a hope of getting in the mix.

OK, enough about the JLPGA’s young guns and their rivals this week.  How’s the LPGA’s Rookie of the Year race shaping up?

-4 Ernst, McCloskey (need to win to stay in the race for ROY)
E Uehara (needs to finish high enough to be motivated to stay in the race instead of staying on the JLPGA)
+1 Jutanugarn (can pass Caroline Masson for the lead with a great final round and a T17 or better finish)
+4 Masson, Arimura (looks like Arimura will be eliminated from the race without a career round tomorrow)

Masson can afford a bad week, so there’s not too much pressure on her tomorrow.  But everyone else needs to be great.

Speaking of great, I’d be so happy if Mamiko Higa were to prevail tomorrow.  To have both Miyazatos, Uehara, and Higa–Okinawans all–on the LPGA in 2014 would be amazing (and Higa would add further spice to next year’s ROY race!).  Plus it might help the JLPGA compete for media attention against the NHK Trophy, Daisuke Takahashi, and Mao Asada!  Japan’s female golf contingent has a long way to go before they’re as dominant in their sport as the Japanese men and Asada are in figure skating.  Let’s see if they can take a step in the right direction tomorrow!

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