There's something different about Mika Miyazato this year at the Wegmans LPGA Championship. Maybe it's because she's hitting the ball great coming into this week (Hound Dog ranked her 11th in total driving, plus she's 18th in greens in regulation), having gained both distance and accuracy off the tee from last season. Maybe it's because Locust Hill has been dry as a bone (at least until rains swept in overnight, have been coming in waves this morning, and may be with us on and off through Friday), which has really allowed her to attack the course from off the tee and put herself in position to fire at pins and go for par 5s in 2. Maybe it's because even though she hasn't been putting all that well this season she knows how to get the ball in the hole at Locust Hill (as evidenced by her T4 finish in '09 and chasing of Cristie Kerr here for most of the tournament last year until a final-round 76 knocked her back to 13th place). Maybe it's because she won the Japan Women's Open last year, going wire-to-wire after giving it away in the final round the year before and followed up her 1st professional win by contending seemingly whenever she competed in Japan in 2010. Maybe it's because she's getting more comfortable on the LPGA in her 3rd year as a member and as a professional golfer. Or maybe she's just more mature at 21 than she was at 20.
Whatever the reason, Mikan is carrying herself this week like someone who expects to contend. Yes, she's still the laid-back, somewhat unassuming player she's always been, but there's an underlying confidence and self-assurance I didn't see last year at Locust Hill. Following her from the 6th through 9th holes yesterday and watching her work on her short game for what seemed like 2 hours after her round, I noticed she's looser with her pro-am partners, more relaxed on the course and with the media, and practicing very intensely. She wasn't paired with the best amateurs in the world, but she outdrove every one of them every time while never missing a fairway on the holes I saw. The 6th is a long par-4 and the 8th is a short par-5; she was just short on the former in an effort to keep the ball below the front pin and just on the back-left fringe on the latter in 2 after perfectly executing a baby draw down the treeline from about 220 yards out. On both 170-plus-yard par 3s, the uphill 7th and the downhill 9th, she hit perfect mid-irons, making a 5-foot birdie putt to close out her round. Her group was -12--completely overshadowed on a day Brittany Lincicome's group went -19 net and Vicky Hurst's -18 gross (and the Japanese media was excited about Ai Miyazayo's group's -15 gross)--but I think Mikan's exactly where she wants to be heading into her 12:37 starting time on Thurday: locked-in on her long game and working hard at her short game.
The drill she was doing with her caddie on the putting green was very simple. He would put a pair of tees blocking the right and left edges of the cup, thereby closing the side door on her. Sometimes it seemed he'd even move one or the other a little more toward the center, dropping her target from 90% of the cup to 75% or less, depending on the length of the putt. She was sinking 3- and 4-footers with ease, and quickly moved from hole to hole doing the drill after making a specified number in a row. But when she came to a putt that gave her trouble--a downhill, right-to-left 10-footer that broke differently depending on the speed she hit each putt--they literally stayed there for an hour. I can't tell you how many tees she hit, but I'd say over 85% of her putts were either in or ricochets. Unlike last year here, when she was emphasizing chipping, she spent at least 4/5th of her time today putting rather than chipping.
Now, it's true neither she nor her caddie were satisfied with her efforts, and that she was having issues with her chipping and lag putts on the super-fast/-firm Locust Hill greens, but it's also true that we may get just enough rain to soften/slow the greens a bit but not so much that the fairways get really wet. Or the course may get soaked--it's been raining steadily since I've begun writing this and it just started to get a bit more intense! I think any moisture actually helps Mikan's chances this week. She's long enough off the tee to attack just about every hole--and with more receptive greens than I was seeing yesterday, who knows how many approach shots she might stick this week? I predict at least a top 10 for her and I wouldn't at all be surprised to see her in contention on the last 9 holes of the tournament.
[Update 1 (10:01 am): Nice job by the Futures Tour highlighting former UCLA teammates Ryann O'Toole's and Tiffany Joh's chances this week!]