Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Ai Miyazato on Preparing for the Wegmans LPGA Championship

Ai Miyazato's is among the very few names that first come to mind when knowledgeable commentators try to identify who's the best player without a major on the LPGA.  (She's going to be at the top of my list when I post it later today.)  So when I followed her and Na Yeon Choi for 10 holes yesterday during their practice round for the Wegmans LPGA Championship, I was particularly interested in how she approached preparing for the 2nd major of 2012 on tour. 

Having played in a Wegmans-sponsored event since her rookie season, Miyazato knows Locust Hill very well and for the most part has done very well on it:

2006 MC (75-72)
2007 T21 (73-71-73-71)
2008 T6 (68-68-71-72)
2009 T15 (72-69-70-71)
2010 T3 (76-71-70-66)
2011 MC (75-73)

With its tree-lined, hilly, and super-narrow fairways, small, contoured, and super-fast greens, and thick, deep, and super-nasty rough, Locust Hill seems to favor a precision player like Miyazato.  Even with the fairways damp from a recent week of rain (after a month of very dry conditions), the course is not so long that it puts her at a big distance disadvantage (especially with its longest par 4s playing downhill, except the 18th), although she told me she's hoping it dries out as the week goes on.  After all, if the fairways are running out and the greens are fast and firm, it's not just that the shorter hitters get to hit shorter clubs into the greens and take full advantage of their accuracy, it's also that it becomes that much easier for longer hitters to find the rough.  Whatever the conditions, though, Locust Hill provides a fair test.  The quintessential precision player Ji-Yai Shin won here in 2009 in soaked conditions, Jeong Jang did it in 2006, and Eun-Hee Ji in 2008, but when a longer golfer is playing well (as Lorena Ochoa did in 2007) or out of her skull (as Cristie Kerr and Ya Ni Tseng did back-to-back in the 1st 2 times it was played as a major), they can take advantage. 

With Tuesday's cool, windy conditions, Miyazato's ball wasn't flying all that far off the tee and it wasn't getting much if any roll, so her typical drive was in the 230-yard area.  This meant that she had a lot of mid-to-long irons and hybrids into greens, which made distance control all the more difficult.  However, with all the pins tucked in the front and the caddies placing plastic cup-shaped discs in the general areas you'd expect the pins to be on Thursday through Sunday on each green, both Miyazato and Choi focused most of their efforts on playing as many putts and chips and sand shots from places they expected to be if they didn't stick their approach shots.  Having watched only pro-am pre-tournament rounds the last couple of years, I was interested in seeing how the #2- and #4-ranked players in the world refamiliarized themselves with Locust Hill without the distraction of a trio of amateurs and the inevitable molasses-like "speed" of play.  And it really was a refamiliarization process:  neither were really grinding over putts, trying to figure out breaks and contours, but were instead systematically moving from spot to spot--probably spots they had been in many times before--to see if the speed of the greens and the difficulty of the rough had changed any from the previous season.

It's probably that sense of familiarity that lead to a typical Miyazato interview moment (with me, at least).  Everything I'd gotten from the LPGA and seen with my own eyes suggested to me that the tee box they were using on the 16th hole, 15 yard back and to the right of the usual tee box, and at ground level rather than heavily elevated, was being used for the 1st time in the tournament.  But Miyazato insisted they'd played it before last year and that it didn't change the hole much, except to narrow it and force you to play more to the left side of the fairway.  In one sense, she's absolutely right, as lengthening a 341-yard hole to 356 yards is not such a big deal when the drive is straight uphill and trees make any landing area beyond the top of the hill extremely difficult to get to and dangerous to try for.  Sure, a long hitter could try to thread the needle with a fade to give herself a wedge or less into the green, but most players would be playing to the top of the hill no matter how far back the tee were pushed, accepting that they'd need a short-to-mid-iron in. 

In another sense, though, even if she were wrong about playing that tee before, Miyazato's answer shows how positively she's always thinking.  She's so confident and familiar with the course it's as if she's played that tee before.  Similarly, in response to another question of mine, the subtext of which raised the issue of whether playing a resort course before a major was the best preparation for it, she focused on how Seaview's narrow fairways and small greens were good practice for Locust Hill, while acknowledging that the rough in Rochester would be much tougher.  Finally, when Japanese reporters danced around the topic of whether she felt any additional pressure to win this major (from Japan), she emphasized that she accepted the challenge as part of her job, that she had to focus on what she could control (her practice and preparation), and enjoyed the process of trying to bring her A-game to actual competitive conditions (both external and internal).  In short, she's always thinking in a way that turns challenges into opportunities and is very diplomatic and media-savvy in all her public statements.

So I don't know if Ai-sama will win this week--certainly, Stacy Lewis and Azahara Munoz are coming in hotter (and perhaps even Karine Icher), Tseng has performed better in majors, Lexi Thompson has turned her season around, and Choi looked very strong during the practice round--but if she can get off to a good start tomorrow, she'll radically increase her odds of doing so (as her 3 worst rounds at Locust Hill have come on Thursdays). 

I'll be there all day and will definitely be following her, In-Kyung Kim, and Morgan Pressel for most of the afternoon (although I'll try to start with the Mika Miyazato, Jeong Jang, and Kris Tamulis group that goes out 20 minutes before them).  Among the morning pairings, I'll probably follow Hannah Yun's group for the front 9 and the Momoko Ueda, Vicky Hurst, Mina Harigae group for part of the back (that way I'll get to see glimpses of the Cheyenne Woods group without getting caught in the scrum)....

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