Sunday, February 14, 2010

Ai Miyazato's Prospects in 2010

The last few months, I've been telling anyone and everyone who will stick around here for longer than a paragraph that Ai Miyazato is poised to have a breakout season in 2010. I'm talking Player of the Year quality here: multiple wins, including a major, in the running for the money-list title and Vare Trophy, near the top in most statistical categories.

Why am I so high on Miyazato's chances this coming season? Let's review what I said last January about her prospects for 2009 to see why I'm so confident about her 2010. Here's a good place to start:

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....

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.

Well, last season, her comparable numbers were 254.3, 75.7%, 71.6%, 3.90, and 1.76--I'd say she returned to her norms in the 2004-2006 stretch when she was one of the best female golfers in the world. Some might argue that after posting the lowest scoring average of her career (70.33) last season, she's due to come back to earth this season. But what makes me think she still has room for improvement is how much worse most of last season's key JLPGA stats were--63.8% GIR rate, 3.26 birdies per round rate, 1.76 PPGIR rate--yet she still managed a 70.70 scoring average. Compare that to her best years on the JLPGA:

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.

Her GIR rate in Japan improved from 69.3% in 2004 to 69.9% in 2005 but fell to 66.4% in 2006. What she learned from those lost half-seasons in 2007 and 2008 was how to hold it together with her short game, how to scramble, and how to be mentally tough when things weren't going her way. That's why her GIR rate, birdie rate, and scoring average improved together on the LPGA in 2009 and part of why I think she'll surpass her career peaks in those areas (71.9%, 3.90, 70.33) in 2010. But only part. Ultimately, my argument is not statistical.

The 1st, and less important, part has to do with how she can put together her worldwide schedule this coming season. I think it would be fair to say that jet lag and the other rigors of international travel help account for her relatively worse ballstriking during her returns to her home tour since joining the LPGA in 2006. But this season, Miyazato can avoid quick jaunts to Japan and instead play for several weeks at a time on the JLPGA on more than one occasion, yet still return to the States with plenty of time to spare. Check out this potential plan:

18-21: Honda PTT LPGA Thailand (LPGA)
25-28: HSBC Women's Champions (LPGA)

5-7: Daikin Orchid Ladies Open (JLPGA)
12-14: Yokohama Tire PRGR Ladies Cup (JLPGA)
[skip JLPGA event to rest for run-up to 1st LPGA major]
25-28: Kia Classic Presented by J Golf (LPGA)

1-4: Kraft Nabisco Championship (LPGA major)
[skip JLPGA event to rest for run-up to 1st JLPGA major]
16-18: Nishijin Ladies Classic (JLPGA)
23-25: Fujisankei Ladies Classic (JLPGA)
30-5/2: Cyber Agent Ladies Cup (JLPGA) [instead of Tres Marias on LPGA]

6-9: Salonpas Cup (JLPGA major)
13-16: Bell Micro LPGA Classic (LPGA)
20-23: Sybase Match Play Championship (LPGA)
[skip 2 JLPGA events to minimize international travel and allow for rest, tune-ups, and preparation for the LPGA's major season]

10-13: LPGA State Farm Classic (LPGA)
18-20: ShopRite LPGA Classic (LPGA)
24-27: LPGA Championship Presented by Wegmans (LPGA major)

1-4: Jamie Farr Owens Corning Classic (LPGA)
8-11: U.S. Women's Open (LPGA major)
[skip JLPGA event for run-up to the LPGA's European swing and her debut as an LET rookie]
22-25: Evian Masters (LPGA/LET)
29-8/1: Women's British Open (LPGA/LET major)

6-8: Ladies Irish Open (LET)
[skip last LET event on the British Isles to prepare for return to the LPGA]
20-22: Safeway Classic (LPGA)
26-29: Canadian Women's Open (LPGA)

3-5: Golf5 Ladies (JLPGA)
9-12: Konica Minolta Cup (JLPGA major) [instead of NW Arkansas on the LPGA]
[skip JLPGA event to recover from tough travel schedule the past few weeks and get ready for the JLPGA's biggest major]
24-26: Miyagi TV Cup Dunlop Ladies Open (JLPGA)
30-10/3: Japan Women's Open (JLPGA major) [instead of Acapulco LPGA Classic]

[skip Navistar LPGA Classic for last off-week for the rest of the season]
14-17: CVS LPGA Challenge (LPGA)
22-24: expected Malaysia event (LPGA)
29-31: LPGA Hana Bank Championship (LPGA)

5-7: Mizuno Classic (LPGA/JLPGA)
11-14: Lorena Ochoa Invitational (LPGA)
18-21: LPGA Tour Championship (LPGA)
25-28: Ricoh Cup (JLPGA major)

That would give Miyazato 12 JLPGA starts, which may sound like a lot but actually includes only 3 difficult transitions from or to the LPGA, one in early May, one in early September, and the last in late November, so that she could play all 4 JLPGA majors this season. It would involve choosing the JLPGA over the LPGA only 4 times (including 2 majors and 1 prep week and 1 rest week around the others), which would still give her 21 LPGA starts and plenty of r'n'r before most every one of them. Even her 3 LET starts in her rookie season on that tour (thanks to her Evian Masters win last season) would only bring her total number of tournaments in 2010 to 31, which is a pretty normal load for elite Japanese players. And as with her JLPGA starts, those LET ones would allow her to make new fans, maximize her income, keep her game sharp, and build momentum and confidence for her LPGA campaign.

Which brings me to the 2nd, and more important, reason I see Miyazato having a POY-quality season in 2010. Although her game was world-class in 2009, she had trouble closing the deal--and not just at the obvious places, like when Catriona Matthew outplayed her at the Women's British Open, Na Yeon Choi beat her at the Samsung, or Nikki Campbell made a miracle playoff putt to deny her her 2nd JLPGA win. As I've mentioned once or twice before, she played well enough to win a total of 13 times last season on the LPGA and JLPGA, but only came away with 1 win on each tour. That's a far cry from when she was winning in bunches on the JLPGA in 2004 through 2006. Sure, the competition on the LPGA is much tougher, and even in her best seasons she never unseated the JLPGA's dominant player of that era, Yuri Fudoh, but you have to figure that she's going to learn from both those earlier experiences and the more recent ones of being back in contention regularly. Given how solid every aspect of her game is heading into 2010, there's no reason to believe she won't give herself even more chances to win this coming season. I believe she's ready to take advantage of those opportunities. She's played a lot with Lorena Ochoa over the course of her LPGA career and was watching her and Ji-Yai Shin quite carefully last season, particularly during last season's stretch run. Having written in her blog last November about how impressively they carry themselves and handle every aspect of their games and fame, she's spent the last several months adjusting her mindset and training her body. She turns 25 this June 19 and has bought a home in Phoenix, so she has the ideal combination of youth and maturity to start reaching her goals.

Finally, look where Miyazato's top competition stands coming into this season. Let's start with Lorena, who recently got married, moved to Mexico City, and became the mother of 3 (ages 7 to 14). I don't think for a second that we're going to see any letdown on the course from her. From the sounds of her pre-season press conference, she's been training as hard as ever this off-season and will put the down time on the LPGA schedule to good use. The only event she's definitely skipping is the State Farm, although she might sit out the NW Arkansas tournament, as well. So she'll be fit, rested, and ready to rumble. The fact that she talked about focusing on her short game means that she's got to be feeling pretty confident about her driver again. So she'll be even tougher to unseat than Yuri Fudoh was. Why, then, do I think Miyazato will do it this year? 1st, nothing against training and practice, but there's nothing like stretches of competition to really hone your game and prepare your mind for crunch time. With her memberships on the LPGA, JLPGA, and LET, Miyazato will be accustomed to playing 3-to-5-week runs all year, not just during the LPGA's summer stretch. 2nd, I believe the equipment changes that all the players will be dealing with this season thanks to the new grooves rules will affect the bombers in the women's game much more than everyone else. They'll be hitting irons out of the rough more often and will have to re-learn how to deal with flyer lies (if they ever learned in the 1st place). They'll be adjusting to different trajectories and spin rates with their wedges, which they'll be using more often than the shorter hitters. And finally, Lorena will have the added pressure of knowing that her career clock is ticking. She'll only be turning 29 this November 15, but from the way she's been talking she's been seriously considering whether to have kids of her own before she meets the last requirement for entry into the LPGA Hall of Fame during her 10th season on tour in 2012. Even if she decides to wait, that's only 3 seasons left to realistically expect to remain the most dominant player on the LPGA. And she's already been near or at that level for 7 years. She's already outlasted Se Ri Pak, who could keep it up only for 6 seasons, but even Karrie Webb could maintain that kind of pace for only 9 straight seasons. If any cracks are going to appear in Ochoa's armor before she has kids, they're going to show up in the near future. She knows that as well as anyone, which puts additional self-imposed pressure on her on top of the pressure she's facing from a lead chase pack that won't let up and a media that wants to see her winning majors.

So we know that Lorena's going to have a lot to deal with and overcome this season. What about Ji-Yai Shin? Thanks to Tim Maitland, we know that she's in boot camp in Australia, trying to get into the best shape of her life so that she can play closer to her peak levels over the course of the season and particularly at its end. But the quest to get leaner, stronger, and longer has pitfalls of its own, as Christina Kim and Morgan Pressel (among many others) can attest. Changing your body means changing your swing, but when your bread and butter is precision play, that can take its toll. I wouldn't put it past Shin to come out hot this season, but I think it's more realistic to expect a little bit of an adjustment period in the late winter and early spring. In a sense, Shin is trying to catch up to where Miyazato already is with her driver--completing the transition from precision player to straight shooter. Moreover, she's been talking about cutting back on her international schedule so she has more left at the end of the LPGA season, but I think she's foregoing a big competitive advantage if she actually were to do so.

Similarly, Paula Creamer is getting reacquainted with her increasingly healthy body and trying to regain her distance while maintaining her accuracy and improving her putting in 2010. Like Shin, I think she's 1 year away from a real breakout season. And if Miyazato can improve her iron play this season, she'll be a step ahead of both of them from the start, with a lot more momentum from the 2nd half of 2009 than they have. True, she's not as explosive as bombers like Michelle Wie or Ya Ni Tseng, but she's much more consistent week in and week out and won't playing from out of the rough nearly as often. It remains to be seen whether youngsters like Na Yeon Choi and In-Kyung Kim, whose games are very similar to Miyazato's, can sustain their great play from 2009 and put together even better 2010s, or whether Song-Hee Kim can break through into the winner's circle at all next season, much less more than once. Now, if Suzann Pettersen and Angela Stanford can stay healthy in 2010, they'll pose significant challenges, as will Cristie Kerr, who could prove to be the toughest of the bunch if she ever goes beyond talking about "zen golf" and actually putting it into practice when she's in contention. But as you can see from my top 30 predictions, I'm confident that this is Miyazato's year, not theirs. What that means is 3-6 wins on the LPGA and 2-5 on the JLPGA, including at least 1 major on each tour. If my projected top 5 snap up 12-18 wins in 2010, as I expect, then it's going to be very difficult for anyone in my next 5 to win more than twice, or for anyone in the following 5 to win more than once.

Bottom line: the time is right for Ai Miyazato to start reeling in Ayako Okamoto. If she's going to go down in history as the best golfer from Japan, she's going to have to do something very special over the course of this decade, starting next week. Should be fun to follow!

[Update 1 (3/12/10, 9:24 am): Well, well, well! 2 for 2 on the LPGA and a T7 on the JLPGA is an even better start than even I hoped for. Ai-sama's taking this week off on the JLPGA, which is probably a good idea, as it gives her 2 weeks to rest and prepare for the Kia Classic and Kraft Nabisco Championship. I wouldn't be surprised if she's already back in the States. In other scheduling news, Ai-sama has committed to the Bell Micro in the 2nd week of May, so it'll be interesting to see how many JLPGA events she plays in the run-up to their 1st major, the Salonpas Cup, in the 1st week of May--if any.]


Mike said...

So, have you emailed this schedule to Ai? I'm sure she'd appreciate you taking care of this very demanding part of her routine. ;-)

And just to be contrarian, I'm picking Paula Creamer to be the thorn in Ai's side this year. If she's really as healthy as she seems to think she is, and knowing how well she played last year when she was sick... ooh, Ai's gonna have some problems! (I like Cristie's chances as well -- I think she's the best of the women right now -- but I'm waiting to see if she gets out of her own way this year.)

The Constructivist said...

Hmmm, given that I questioned her scheduling sanity twice last season in pretty strong terms, I'm not sure she'd be happy about any emails from me, even if I have gotten a reputation as her biggest fan in the golfoblogosphere. Actually, if she ever does catch wind of this, putting that mock schedule in there was a preemptive strike against something she told the Japanese media. Not too long ago, she said she wanted to play less on the JLPGA so she can focus on the POY race in the LPGA. My thing is that by doing so, she'd be giving up one of her few competitive advantages on the other top players in the world. Let Shin do that this season, when there's so much dead time in the LPGA schedule. Even if Ai-sama plays 4 fewer JLPGA events than I listed and gives herself more 3-event months, playing 3-to-5-tournament runs more regularly than most of her competition on the LPGA will benefit her, IMHO.

A healthy Creamer would make my older daughter, onechan, quite happy, and I love Creamer's grit and drive. It's just that, like Shin, I see at least some early fiddling around until she finds her A-game with any regularity. And unlike Shin and Miyazato, she can only do the occasional trip to Japan (with all the jet lag problems that entails) to stay sharp this season. But, yeah, she's one of those players who can win in bunches, even against the best in the world.

I want to see how Kerr deals with so many great chances slipping through her fingers last year. Just about everything thing I said about career clock and Ochoa applies to her, in spades. She certainly has the talent to extend her run at the top for many more years--longer than many Hall of Famers--but she really needed 2009 to be her breakthrough year. Can she make a HOF run this late in her career? The time is now to get it started right!

Mike said...

I think you're right about Ai playing more "series." While I don't really buy into the idea of momentum in golf, I do think you can get into a playing rhythm. Your body knows it's time to play, so it jumps into gear faster. I think that's what happened for her in late 2009 -- she got into a groove where she was ready to play each week.

Unlike Shin, who I agree may have to make some adjustments after the "body overhaul" she's been trying, Creamer had to adjust constantly from week-to-week last year because of the yo-yo health changes... and she did just fine, wouldn't you say? I doubt that she'll need more than a week to knock off the competitive rust.

As for Cristie, I think 2009 was a breakthru year of sorts. She very nearly blew everybody out of the water... and she knows it. She also knows she sabotaged herself. With a prolonged break between 2009 and 2010, she's had a long time to think about that. That may be just what she needed.

The Constructivist said...

Mike, what you bring out in your recent comments is what I hope the golf writers out there appreciate and report on. It's not just Lorena vs. Ji-Yai in the running for world #1 anymore. We can easily identify a dozen or more world-class players who have taken serious steps in the off-season to upgrade their skills, equipment, and training. This could be the best year in LPGA history, competition-wise. So I'd love to see more on the players and less on the commissioner (as much as I like him and like what he's been doing and has already accomplished in such a short time on the job)!

Mike said...

But it's understandable. I don't think Bivens was horrible by any stretch of the imagination; her plans just didn't mesh with the economy's plans, and it nailed her. Whan is news until the LPGA gets rolling again. Hopefully the gals will come out swinging (pardon the pun) and force everyone to take notice.