Thursday, June 12, 2008

Top Japanese Under-22 Golfers Facing Tough Choices

Unlike South Korea, Japan's contribution to the LPGA tour has not been tsunami-like. Until recently, it couldn't even be characterized as a wave. Even now, in the midst of Ai Miyazato's 3rd year playing full-time in the U.S., Momoko Ueda has been the only JLPGA player to meet with any comparable success on the LPGA. Pamela Miyasato, Mayumi Hirase, Akiko Fukushima, Shinobu Moromizato, Riko Higashio....nobody who's crossed the Pacific over the past decade--including Miyazato and Ueda--has come close to matching the achievements of World Golf Hall of Fame member Ayako Okamoto.

In fact, they have yet to catch Hisako Higuchi, the first Japanese golfer to enter the Hall and winner of the 1977 LPGA Championship, much less Hiromi Kobayashi, who won twice in both 1993 and 1998. To be fair, Fukushima did win in the U.S. in 1999, which improves upon wins in LPGA events in Japan by LPGA non-members Tatsuko Ohsako in 1980, Yuko Moriguchi in 1987, and Nayoko Yoshikawa in 1983 and 1984--feats that Ueda matched last year. And Miyazato has made it into Hound Dog's 2006 ranking of the top 30 LPGA players--admittedly, not as high as Okamoto and Kobayashi did regularly in the 1990s, but better than Hirase did in 1996.

We can debate the reasons why there has been no obvious Okamoto effect, at least on the scale of the well-known Se Ri Pak effect--I'm with Hound Dog that simple economics has a lot to do with it--but the facts are clear: right now, there are more Taiwanese than Japanese golfers on the LPGA tour. And with Ya Ni Tseng's win in the LPGA Championship last week, Candie Kung's return to form, and Teresa Lu's emergence as a top Junior Mint this season, they are arguably having more success than Ai-chan and Momo-chan, combined.

Well, that may change sooner than people might expect. Expect Ueda to come on strong in the second half of the Rookie of the Year race (where she currently sits at 3rd, well behind Tseng and Na Yeon Choi) and Miyazato to finally emerge from a yearlong slump that began with a minor leg injury incurred during her runner-up finish to Seon Hwa Lee at the HSBC Women's World Match Play Championship.

Even more important, they probably will not be alone for much longer on the LPGA. Mika Miyazato (no relation to Ai-chan, although she, too, hails from Okinawa) has been widely hailed as Japan's top amateur since she won the Junior World Golf Championship in the girls 15-17 age group in 2006 (over none other than Ya Ni Tseng, among others!). This season, as in the past several, she has retained her amateur standing and competed on the JLPGA on sponsors' exemptions to prepare herself for the LPGA's Q-School in December. Earlier today, she tied the visiting Ueda and sits at 8th place heading into the 2nd round of the Suntory Ladies Open, 4 shots behind leader Sakura Yokomine.

Another top Japanese amateur, Yuki Sakurai, turned pro at the end of 2007, has played 5 events on the Ladies European Tour schedule and 2 on the Ladies Asian Golf Tour, and has won enough to be #32 on the LET's Order of Merit (thanks to a 5th-place finish in Australia) and #2 on the LAGT money list (thanks to a 2nd-place finish in India) thus far in 2008 (plus, she recently got featured on the LET's player spotlight page). As a non-exempt member of the Futures Tour, she is clearly gearing up for another shot at their Q-School (along with the LPGA's) at the end of the year.

Other prominent under-22 Japanese golfers--like Erina Hara, Chie Arimura, Maiko Wakabayashi, Yuki Ichinose, Mayu Hattori, and Ritsuko Ryu--have chosen to begin their careers in the traditional way, on the JLPGA. No doubt they'll be watching closely to see if the most successful 20-somethings on the JLPGA--Sakura Yokomine, Miki Saiki, Miho Koga, and Ayako Uehara--will attempt to follow Ai-chan and Momo-chan to the LPGA next season.

That's a dozen players with a legitimate shot at getting an LPGA card by 2010. With the LPGA creating more events in Asia, look for the Japanese glacier to start melting by the beginning of next decade and raise the level of play on the LPGA in the process.

[Update 1 (7/8/08, 4:28 am): Thanks to Amaebirah at Seoul for calling Kumiko Kaneda to my attention. Check out the big names she beat in the 2001 11-12 Girls Junior World Golf Championship! She couldn't defend in 2002, but again rose to the occasion when she won the 2003 13-14 Girls against many of the same people she beat in 2001 and successfully defended her title in 2004. But then she disappeared from the world stage for a few years, WDing from the 2006 15-17 Girls JWGC and not even showing up in the years before and after it. So it was nice to see her shoot the round of the day, a 65, this past Saturday at the Belluna Ladies Cup. Like Miyazato, she's been playing in JLPGA events on sponsor's exemptions as an amateur for years. Another one to watch!]

[Update 2 (11/23/08, 6:06 am): Keep an eye on 18-year-old Sakurako Mori, who's done respectably in several late-season JLPGA events. She's a 2-time winner of the Japan Ladies Amateur and tied Cheyenne Woods for 16th at age 17 in the 2007 Junior World Golf Championship (but finished well behind Rikako Morita, whom she beat this season to win her 2nd JLA title). Morita, by the way, was the low Japanese player on the 5th-place team in the 2006 World Amateur Teen Championship (beating Erina Hara and Mika Miyazato), took Kimberly Kim to 20 holes in the 2nd round of the 2007 U.S. Women's Amateur, but could only manage a 76-76 at the Fields in '08. Still, let's add her to the list, too.]

[Update 3 (4/15/09, 6:12 am): Add Asako Fujimoto to the list, even if I can't figure out how old she is just yet. She's represented Japan in major regional and world amateur team competitions and played well on the JLPGA in 2008 and recently this season, so I assume she's gearing up to turn pro fairly soon.]

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