Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Ai Miyazato: The Road to #1

I've been following Ai Miyazato's career ever since she won the 2005 LPGA Q-School by as many shots as she had racked up JLPGA victories to date (12). Before each of the last 2 seasons began, I offered what turned out to be some pretty good predictions as to where her game was heading. But as optimistic as I thought I was being at those times, even I didn't expect that her career trajectory would lead to the #1 position in the Rolex Rankings (and in my own Best of the LPGA ranking) in time for her 25th birthday!

So when I got a chance to interview Ai-sama as we walked with her agent/translator Takumi Zaoya from the putting/chipping area to the driving range at Locust Hill Country Club on Monday morning at the LPGA Championship, what was uppermost on my mind was what she thought and felt about the road she's taken to fulfilling one of her dreams. My first set of questions centered on her decision to come to the LPGA. I was surprised to find out that she had America on her mind long before she turned pro:

I played the World Junior Championship when I was 13 years old [she finished 5th, I believe at Torrey Pines] and it really inspired me. It was so many things--the practice environment, people were nice and warm.... The environment was so different from what I experienced in Japan--shocking, in a good way.

After she turned pro at age 18, she was surprised that "It was coming really quick together. I didn't have a real expectation that I could come to America very quickly." Even as her ability to win in bunches on the JLPGA was turning her from one of several heralded junior golfers (including Miho Koga) to bigger-than-Tiger Woods-in-Japan, she was most impressed by Annika Sorenstam, who won the Mizuno Classic 5 consecutive times, from 2001 through 2005. That last year, Ai-chan finished 11 shots behind Annika, with whom she was paired in the 1st round. Having that front-row seat on Annika's greatness was a huge influence:

She was my textbook. She could control everything, her playing, and, you know, outside of the golf course, too.

I've wondered for years why Se Ri Pak's 1998 U.S. Women's Open victory inspired so many young Korean golfers to pursue their dreams on the LPGA but why neither Hisako Higuchi's taking the LPGA Championship in 1977 or Ayako Okamato's impressive LPGA career (17 wins on tour and Player of the Year in 1987 to go with her 45 international wins) had a comparable effect on young Japanese golfers. So I asked Ai-sama about being the 1st Japanese player since Okamoto to commit to playing the LPGA full-time. Her reply was interesting. She called Okamoto "my idol," but emphasized (in Japanese) that

The influences I got from Annika were bigger than Okamoto-san. I didn't realize how great Okamoto-san was until after I came to America, all she accomplished here. Both gave me great influences, but that first time playing with Annika was so big.

From there, it was natural to ask her how she felt about being paired with the next #1, Lorena Ochoa, so often by the LPGA, early in her career.

I felt lucky to have the same pairing with Lorena so many times. From the beginning, we seemed to have a good understanding of each other and get along.

Noting that she's now played longer on the LPGA than JLPGA, Ai-sama told me that "To have experienced everything that has happened in my career, in terms of accomplishments, this quickly, it's been very humbling." Because she had to go to the driving range, I didn't have time to follow up on that comment. Her American experience was very humbling, not least because of her struggles from the 2nd half of 2007 through the 1st half of 2008 that made many wonder if she would ever live up to the expectations her play from 2004-2006 raised. I had heard that it all started with a minor leg injury suffered during the old HSBC match play event (where she lost to Seon Hwa Lee in the championship match), morphed into swing problems, and grew into confidence issues (so much that she benched her driver for a long time), but I had also read that the swing issues arose when she tinkered with her swing in an effort to gain more distance. On the fly, however, I couldn't think of a diplomatic way to find out more about that time, and in retrospect there was probably no way to do it right then. Who wants to remember bad swings just before heading out to hit some balls for the 1st time during a major week, eh?

But I would like to take the opportunity to correct some misinformation that I've seen here and there in overviews of Miyazato's career. From what I been reading lately, it's sounded like she accomplished very little on the LPGA until her win at the Evian Masters last summer. In fact, her rookie year was pretty darn good--she made over a half-million dollars, finished in the top 10 in one-third of her starts, broke 70 slightly more often than that, had a scoring average of 71.22 (13th on tour) and very good performance stats in every area of her game--so it should come as no surprise that she finished 3rd at the LPGA Championship, 9th at the Women's British Open, and 4th at the ADT Championship that season. The 1st half of 2007 was even more impressive: in the 14 starts that culminated with her silver at the HSBC, she made the top 10 6 times, including 2 bronzes, for winnings of over $700K. So even though she couldn't find a way to win, she was making great progress as she was adjusting to life on 2 tours (in 7 JLPGA starts in 2006, she won twice, added 2 silvers and a bronze, and never finished outside the top 10 and she opened the 2007 season in Okinawa with a 4th-place finish), international travel, new courses, languages, cultures, and so on.

So not too long from now I'm hoping we'll look at that 1 bad calendar year as a blip on an otherwise Hall of Fame-level career. I'm not too worried about the apparent dip in her 2010 performance stats that seems to go along with her improved driving accuracy, because they leave out those from 3 of her wins (the LPGA apparently can't afford keep many stats in events outside the U.S.). Her core stats--69.96 scoring average and a rate of 4.12 birdies per round--which do cover all her starts suggest that Ai-sama's just getting started. She clearly has her sights set on the money list title, Player of the Year, and her 1st major victory this season. No time like the present for that last one. Locust Hill fits the profile of courses she's won at: it has something of the elevation changes of Evian and Tres Marias, the small greens and premium on precision and good judgment at Seaview, and the pressure and level of competition at the HSBC Women's Champions in Singapore. Would following in the footsteps of Hisako Higuchi (who won the LPGA Championship in 1977), Ayako Okamoto (who won in Rochester in 1983), and Lorena Ochoa (who won the Wegmans in 2005 and 2007) be too much to ask of Ai-sama this week? Not in my book!

[Update 1 (6/25/10, 5:06 am): Randall Mell gets it! (Although he still doesn't get what happened halfway through her 2nd season and in the 1st half of her 3rd.)]

[Update 2 (5:27 am): Top-notch job by Steve DiMeglio in his Miyazato profile!]


LPGA Fan said...
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LPGA Fan said...

Enjoyed the updates on Ai, Mika, and Mina. Great work. Any chance you will get with Momo, Sukura, and Chie?