Now that I'm done celebrating Ai Miyazato's first LPGA win, I'm ready to take a look back at the last 6 months since I surveyed her prospects this season and look ahead to the next 4 months.
Obviously, at #4 on the money list with $921.4K already this season, she's doing better than I expected, winnings-wise. I picked her to finish #16 in the post-season rankings, which roughly translates to an expectation she would win between $750K and $1M. But now she's on track to break the $1M barrier in season winnings for the 1st time in her LPGA career. If she does it, she'll most likely pass World Golf Hall of Famer Ayako Okamoto in career winnings on tour and could well become the 2nd player in her rookie class and generation to cross the $3M rubicon (after Seon Hwa Lee).
The reason I'm hopeful she'll accomplish these feats is that all her key performance stats indicate she's playing at least as well as she was from 2004 until her injury in the middle of the 2007 season, when she took the golfing world by storm. Her current scoring average of 70.62 is very close to her career low of 70.59 in the 2005 JLPGA season and her 3.76 birdies per round rate slightly exceeds the 3.71 she averaged in 2006 on the LPGA. It all starts with her driving. She's averaging 256.5 yards off the tee and hitting the fairway 75.2% of the time this season, so it's no surprise that she's hitting 70.5% of her greens in regulation. The difference lately has been her putting. Her putts per green in regulation rate has been creeping downward all season, and now it's at 1.767, the lowest of her LPGA career (and it could go much further down--she putted the lights out in Japan in 2006, averaging 1.728 PPGIR). At Evian, she hit 76.4% of her greens, made 24 birdies, and averaged only 27.25 putts per round. Her overall putting average this season, 29.16, may sound high compared to her lows of 27.36 in 2007 and 28.04 in 2008, but she was hitting many fewer greens in regulation those years. The more apt comparison is to 2006, when she hit 69.3% of her greens in regulation and averaged 29.59 putts per round. When your ballstriking and putting are so solid, it stands to reason you'd go under par a lot (65.5% of the time, 6th on tour) and break 70 quite often (20 times, tied for 8th on tour; she needs 4 more to set her personal record on the LPGA). To put her improvement since her mid-2007 injury in perspective, she's breaking 70 far more often this season than she went under par in 2007. So it's not just in wins and winnings that this has already been the best season of her career. She's become a steadier and more explosive player than ever before on the LPGA.
Looking over her performance chart this season, several other things stand out. She's finished outside the top 20 only once in her last 9 events, when she couldn't go low enough at the Farr to keep pace with the leaders. But she was playing well enough to win the Corning, State Farm, and U.S. Women's Open. Looking ahead, I'm encouraged by the fact that she's broken 70 in 3 of 4 rounds in 4 of her last 6 events. And that she's gone under par on 6 straight Sundays and broken 70 in her last 2. She's getting comfortable putting herself in contention and performing under pressure late on Sunday afternoons again, against an even higher level of competition than before. It's not just her skills that have improved, it's also that she's mentally tougher, better at turning mediocre rounds solid, solid rounds good, and good rounds great. Right now, I would rank her with In-Kyung Kim, Eun-Hee Ji, and Angela Stanford as the players closest to the LPGA's Big 6 of Lorena Ochoa, Cristie Kerr, Paula Creamer, Ji-Yai Shin, and Ya Ni Tseng. She's not just riding a hot streak--she's worked hard to get her game back to this level and she's capable of taking it to the next one. If she gets used to putting 3 or 4 good rounds together per week, the sky's the limit.
Given that Ai-chan already knows how to win in bunches from her JLPGA years, I'm not ruling out more wins this season. I don't expect her to make the adjustment from mountain golf to links golf well enough to win the Women's British Open, but I do expect her to contend again--and to win on the JLPGA when she decides to tee it up there in August. In fact, I expect her to stay in Japan through the Konica Minolta Cup (the JLPGA's 2nd major), jet to California for the late-September Samsung and CVS events on the LPGA, return to the JLPGA for the Japan Women's Open in early October, and not rejoin the LPGA until they come to Asia in late October, perhaps even as late as the Mizuno Classic in early November. She could play the last 2 LPGA events and still make the Ricoh Cup (the JLPGA's last major) at the end of the month. Which means we may see Ai-chan only 6 more times on the LPGA and only 3 more times in the States. But she could play as many as 12 more times on the JLPGA. She's 75th on their money list right now, and if Momoko Ueda, Shiho Oyama, Mika Miyazato, and Ji-Yai Shin decide to play schedules at all similar to hers, it would be very interesting to see how high she and they could rise on it. Sakura Yokomine (who's passed up all opportunities to play outside Japan this season), Shinobu Moromizato, Mi-Jeong Jeon, Yuko Mitsuka, Ji-Hee Lee, Chie Arimura, Miho Koga, Erina Hara, Yuri Fudoh, Akiko Fukushima, Ayako Uehara and the rest of the JLPGA's finest will not make things easy for them.
Bottom line, though, Ai-chan has given herself a chance to do something truly special this season. She's never won on the LPGA and the JLPGA in the same year. There are still 1 LPGA major and 3 JLPGA majors for the taking. As she said in her post-round interview, "my dream has almost come true." Here's hoping she makes it happen over the rest of this season and beyond.
[Update 1 (7/28/09, 8:38 am): Here are Brian Heard and Hound Dog on Ai-chan's win and other matters.]
[Update 2 (9:09 am): And here's Stephanie Wei.]