Sometimes you have to lose the lead to find your putting stroke. At least that's what happened yesterday to Ai Miyazato on the back 9 at Ko Olina, when she fired 3 birdies in her last 5 holes to move from 1-down to 4-up and nail down her 8th career LPGA victory and 1st of 2012 in the inaugural LPGA Lotte Championship.
In retrospect, the turning point of the day came with Ai-sama's great bogey save on the par-3 12th, a fantastic up-and-down from the rough after a botched bunker shot from a fried egg lie, which kept her within 1 shot of the charging Meena Lee, who had made 4 birdies in her 1st 7 holes to climb to -10 and gotten back there with a birdie on the 10th. It was the 1st time Ai-sama had fallen from double digits under par in 13 holes and the 1st time she found herself out of the lead (in a tie for 2nd with 2010 Rookie of the Year and playing partner for all 4 rounds Azahara Munoz) since the end of the 2nd round. So when she skipped a little wedge well past the pin on the par-5 13th, it seemed her luck was running out. Shades of her giving up the lead in Phoenix and getting passed by Ya Ni Tseng must have been haunting her. But she laid them to rest with what must have been a 30-foot downhiller on the 13th that hit the dead center of the back of the cup and went down with authority, followed it up with another long and firmly-struck downhill birdie on the 15th, and capped it all off with a delicate downhill 8-foot birdie on the 17th. Even though the main weakness in her game had cropped up in the final round--she only hit 9 of 18 greens in regulation--and she definitely opened the door to her lead chase pack, Ai-sama was saved by her putter, as she needed only 24 strokes on the short grass on Saturday and 107 for the week.
By the time she made a great sandie from behind the green on 18 to finish at -12, Ai-sama's 4-shot win over Lee and Munoz consolidated her position as Tseng's most consistent challenger on the LPGA in 2012. Sure, she's down 3 wins to 1, 7 top 10s to 5, over $958K to just under $630K in winnings, 118 to 65 points in the Rolex Player of the Year race, 69.54 to 69.75 in scoring average, 15 to 10 rounds in the 60s, and 4.65 to 4.29 birdies per round, but she's 1st in rounds under par and every putting stat on the planet it seems. With the rest of the challengers to the Tseng dynasty still trying to find their A-games consistently--Cristie Kerr got to -8 with 9 holes to play but bogied 3 in a row to start the back; Ji-Yai Shin got it to -8 on Friday afternoon with 3 birdies in a row but after a double down the stretch that day was never a factor again; Suzann Pettersen moved backwards on Friday's moving day and had to gut out a top 10 with a sweet Saturday 69; Na Yeon Choi couldn't even snag a top-30 finish; In-Kyung Kim WDed with a wrist injury; Stacy Lewis missed the cut; and Paula Creamer couldn't come close to "defending" her 2008 Fields Open title at Ko Olina--it's pretty clear that nobody else not named Ya Ni has come close to matching Ai-sama's play so far in 2012 (even with her terrible Kraft Nabisco Championship results).
With both Ya Ni and Ai-sama sitting out the Mobile Bay LPGA Classic next week, though, and Inky resting her wrist, the spotlight will shift to these players, along with such up-and-comers as 2012 Rookie of the Year race leader So Yeon Ryu (who racked up another top 10 this week), Sun Young Yoo (who played respectably following her KNC win), Shanshan Feng (who didn't), Amy Yang (who struggled), Brittany Lang (who got a top 10), Lexi Thompson (who missed the cut in Hawaii but loves Alabama), and Natalie Gulbis (who's playing her best golf in years). Me, I'll also be keeping a close eye on Mariajo Uribe, who would have been a factor this week were it not for an opening 77 (she matched Ai-sama's Thursday 65 and closed with the best round of the day on Saturday, a 68), Pernilla Lindberg (who continued to show some signs of life with a 66 and a 68 in her even-numbered rounds), Tiffany Joh (who's been playing terribly but matched Uribe's and Lindberg's Saturday 68s and has good memories of Alabama to boot), Mina Harigae (who interrupted her solid start to the season with a MC), Hannah Yun (who missed the cut badly but has plenty of time to turn her rookie year around), Moira Dunn (who earned her 1st paycheck of 2012), and Jee Young Lee (who was -5 through her 1st 10 holes this week but fell back to her struggling ways the rest of the way). You know, not to mention always-dangerous vets like Karrie Webb, Angela Stanford, and Karen Stupples, who played good golf this week.
So Ai-sama gets to enjoy her win, Ya Ni gets to rest and recover from 2 disappointing events in a row, and the rest of the LPGA gets to try to steal the spotlight from them next week. Sweet!