Ben Gibson takes a look at Ai Miyazato's LPGA career for bleacher report and gets a lot wrong. It's not just basic facts like her number of wins on the JLPGA in 2005 (6, not 5), her total number of JLPGA victories (14, not 15), or which peers from the JLPGA moved or are moving to the LPGA (Momoko Ueda already joined her in 2008, and it's Shiho Oyama, not Yuri Fudoh, who's coming in 2009) that Gibson butchers, but the reasons for her struggles since leaving the JLPGA.
Where Gibson rightly praises Miyazato's putting and attributes much of her difficulties to her low greens in regulation rate the past 2 seasons, he fails to note that injuries played a major role in her ballstriking problems in the 2nd half of 2007 and the 1st half of 2008. It's not so much her ball flight that's to blame (Gibson's hypothesis) as the swing flaws and loss of confidence that contributed to her downward spiral following the leg injury she sustained while getting to the finals in the HSBC Women's World Match Play Championship (where she eventually lost to fellow '06 rookie Seon Hwa Lee). I'm still searching the JLPGA site to see if I can find stats on her driving and approach shots from 2004 to 2006 (her bio page isn't as informative as the LPGA's 2006, 2007, 2008 performance charts), but I already have good evidence to support my argument. In 2006, when she was adjusting to life on the LPGA (and winning twice in 7 events on the JLPGA) she averaged 253 yards off the tee, hit over 75% of her fairways and 69% of her greens in regulation, and averaged 3.71 birdies per round and 1.78 putts per green in regulation. Those numbers dropped to roughly 240, 62%, 57%, 2.87, and 1.82 in 2007 and only improved slightly to around 243, 67%, 62%, 2.78, and 1.83 in 2008. When you're driving the ball shorter and wilder, of course you're going to hit fewer greens and find yourself further away from the hole when you do. (Keep in mind, too, that at her lowest point in her sophomore season, she stopped using her driver altogether.) To understand the size of the cliff Miyazato fell off, particularly on her tee shots, consider that she ranked outside Hound Dog's top 100 in total driving in 2008, but if you plug her 2006 numbers into his formula, she would have placed among the top 5 this past season.
Given this context that Gibson misses, it's no surprise that Miyazato has fallen so far in the world rankings since 2006. But she's already fought her way back from the brink, having broken back into the top 50 of the Golfweek/Sagarin Performance Index after nearly falling out of its top 100 at her worst. Along with her difficulties on the LPGA, her inability to add to her JLPGA victory total in 2007 and 2008 helps account for the fact thatFudoh and Ueda have remained well ahead of her on the Rolex Rankings, that she's been passed by Sakura Yokomine and Miho Koga, and that Mi-Jeong Jeon, Oyama, Ji-Hee Lee, Akiko Fukushima, Yuko Mitsuka, Hyun-Ju Shin, and Eun-A Lim from the JLPGA are all in her league. But when you consider that she made my top 10 on the JLPGA last season despite playing a limited schedule--after falling off the map the season before--I expect to see her climbing both the Sagarin and Rolex charts in 2009.
In fact, as Miyazato enters 2009 both injury-free and with plenty of time to have shaken off its after-effects, the real question is how close she can come to her peak performances from 2004 to 2006? I don't see any reason for her not to surpass her rookie season in the next few years. If she can get the driver working for her again like it was before her injury, look for that to happen sooner than later.
[Update 1 (1/18/09, 10:33 am): Check out the exchange between Gibson and me over at b/r. I certainly could have done more to highlight our areas of agreement, and for not doing that, I apologize. We both think Ai-chan is overdue for an LPGA win and that it could come sooner than many people think.]
[Update 2 (1/20/09, 10:36 pm): The JLPGA's stats don't have everything I'm looking for, at least as far as I can see, but I'm finding more indirect support for my belief that it's a combination of driving and approach shots that are most to blame for Miyazato's recent struggles. In 2005, she averaged 3.70 birdies per round (tied for the best on the JLPGA), which is very close to her 2006 LPGA average, and had the lowest scoring average of her career, 70.59 (over a half-stroke better than her 2006 LPGA average of 71.22, and even better than her 2004 JLPGA average, 70.85). In both 2004 and 2005, she averaged under 1.77 putts per green in regulation, #1 or #2 on the JLPGA, and in only 7 events in 2006, had an incandescent 1.728 PPGIR rate but "only" a 70.63 scoring average. To give herself so many good birdie chances, she had to be an excellent ballstriker. Now if only I can find direct evidence of that! More later....]
[Update 3 (1/22/09, 1:50 am): Hound Dog has more on Miyazato and total driving.]
[Update 4 (7/27/09, 4:15 am): Well, it took a bit longer than I hoped for, but Ai-chan's win at the Evian Masters was well worth the wait. The thing I find most heartening from it is that she didn't have to play out-of-this-world fantastic to win. She just put together 4 good rounds--not great ones, but good enough to pull it out. She doesn't seem to be riding a hot streak to me; she just seems to be playing very well. I don't see any reason why this can't continue for a long while.]