As I mentioned last week, Ai Miyazato and Momoko Ueda are playing in the JLPGA's NEC Karuizawa 72 event this week. I was taking a look at the 1st-round pairings and quickly found Ueda's name right where you'd expect it, paired with defending champion Chie Arimura and Yuko Mitsuka (who's back on tour after her self-imposed exile for most of the summer and hoping to regain the form that had her in contention on the final 9 holes here last year), right after a group that includes leading '09 money winners Sakura Yokomine and Shinobu Moromizato. Meanwhile, Miyazato is paired with 20-year-old rookie Asako Fujimoto and...22-year-old Erina Hara?! What's going on here? Is the JLPGA out to get Ai-sama?
Don't get me wrong: it's great for these young prospects to get a chance to play with Ai-sama. It's not even a big deal that Fujimoto hasn't had a top 20 in her last 8 starts--at least she's in the top 30 on the money list. That's where Hara is used to being; in fact, in her 1st 3 seasons on tour, she never finished outside the top 25. But all that's a distant memory now. Over the 1st half of this season, she's made the cut a grand total of 5 times in 18 starts, failed to crack the top 40 in 4 of those finishes, and ended a tournament under par only once. Her scoring average is 76.07, she's averaging only 1.88 birdies per round, and she's hitting greens in regulation only 46.8% of the time. So what is she doing in the same group as Miyazato, who has a chance to regain the #1 spot in the Rolex Rankings with a win this week?
Consider that Yuri Fudoh, in the group ahead of Miyazato, gets to play with Rui Kitada and Rikako Morita, and that Akiko Fukushima, in the group behind Ai-sama, is paired with Ayako Uehara and Mayu Hattori. 2008 money list leader Miho Koga probably has the best pairing of them all; she gets to play with Mi-Jeong Jeon and Yukari Baba, who are both in the top 10 on the '10 money list and both seasoned veterans. Is it really just coincidence that of all the big-name players in this week's JLPGA event, it was Ai Miyazato who got the Erina Hara short straw?
Well, no. Hara did, after all, win this event back in her rookie season, when she went 67-63-65 for a 7-shot drubbing of Ji-Hee Lee. It was the 1st and only JLPGA victory of Hara's short career. So I suspect that the tournament organizers were looking for a way to honor her '08 performance and inspire her to play better in her 1st performance in the 2nd half of the '10 season. What better way to do that than pair her with the most prominent female Japanese golfer in the world?
I'm sure Miyazato doesn't mind the pairing in the slightest. There's no doubt Hara and Miyazato are friends. They've been teammates on the Pinx/Kyoraku Cup international team competitions against Korea for years. Hara was 1 of the 4 Japanese golfers who doused Ai-sama while celebrating her playoff victory at last year's Evian Masters (her 1st LPGA win). I just hope Hara can handle the pressure.