2 years in a row now, Ai Miyazato has been in the thick of the races for all the major end-of-season awards on the LPGA, but in both 2009 and 2010 she came just short. Both years, however, she met or exceeded my already-high expectations for her. Like last season, I'm picking her to end this one atop the LPGA. Why? Let me count the reasons.
(1) In 2009, it was her ball-striking that was her strength, while in 2010 it was her putting. I believe she's due to have a season where her ball-striking and putting are equally strong. As Steve DiMeglio reports, she's been working on squaring up her clubface at the top of her backswing. If she can get her driver working for her like it did in the 2nd half of 2009 and 1st half of 2010, she can attack courses, make birdies in bunches, and go low often in 2011.
(2) In 2009, she was consistently excellent but had trouble closing the deal, getting only 2 wins in 13 legitimate chances on the LPGA and JLPGA. In 2010, she was awesome at closing the deal when in contention and spectacular in opening and closing rounds for most of the season, but wasn't that consistent when she wasn't in the mix. I believe she's due to combine the consistency of 2009 with the results of 2010.
(3) In 2009, she was 1 of many players chasing Lorena Ochoa. In 2010, she was 1 of a half-dozen players suddenly trying to fill her shoes. I believe she's going to get more comfortable with all the demands that come from being #1 in the world for 11 weeks and the pressures--often self-imposed--that come with every round mattering more because it's in more of a spotlight. DiMeglio reports she's been working as much on the mental game as the technical and spending a lot of time decompressing from what seemed like a bit of burnout at the end of 2010.
(4) She benefits from having membership on the LPGA, JLPGA, and LET, so she can pretty much play whenever and wherever she wants in 2011. I believe she's going to get better at putting together a schedule that maximizes her chances to play at her best, week in and week out. For instance, she might benefit from staying in Japan all April in the lead-up to the Salonpas Cup, the JLPGA's 1st major, in early May. With the cancellation of the Tres Marias event that she would have had to defend at, I'm not sure she would benefit from flying out just to play 1 week in Alabama in late April.
(5) Like the other Asian players in the game's super-elite, she benefits from not having to worry about qualifying for or playing in the Solheim Cup. She can get acclimated to Asian time zones and climates in September by concentrating on the JLPGA, then wait for the LPGA to rejoin her in October and November.
Admittedly, she enters 2011 with a lot more uncertainty and less confidence than the new #1 Ya Ni Tseng and the former #1 Ji-Yai Shin, and she certainly didn't finish last season out in style like Na Yeon Choi and In-Kyung Kim did, so it's possible she'll struggle this winter and early spring. But I think at the very least she's poised to have another multiple-win season on the LPGA and JLPGA, contend in majors on both tours, and be in the mix for all the end-of-season awards on the LPGA for the 3rd year running. If she can get 4 or more LPGA wins and play well in all their majors, I expect her to do what she was never able to do on the JLPGA and hasn't yet been able to accomplish on the LPGA: take either the money-lost title or Player of the Year.