Tuesday, June 29, 2010

On Following Mi Hyun Kim, Mina Harigae, and Ai Miyazato

Last Sunday morning at the LPGA Championship, I followed, in turn, Mi Hyun Kim (and Juli Inkster), Mina Harigae (and Stacy Prammanasudh), and Ai Miyazato (and Brittany Lang), for the 1st 4 or 5 holes of their final rounds before I had to leave Locust Hill to pick up the Full Metal Archivist, onechan, and imoto from the hotel to eat lunch (at a great Korean place) and return to the course Sports Zone/Wegmans tent area. I'm happy to report that onechan learned both the dog paddle and a rudimentary backstroke that weekend at the hotel pool, but that's not the subject of this post. No, what I want to get at is how small the differences are between a bad (Harigae), good (Kim), and great (Miyazato) round and to share some insight I gained into Ai-sama's mental approach to the game from what I observed and what I asked her (embarrassingly incoherently) at the media center after her round.

Let me make clear from the start that I didn't see anything all that amazing from anyone in those early holes. I saw a lot of routine pars, some great par saves, several bogeys, and a few good birdie putts. Inkster was the only player under par in the holes I watched; Harigae was the only one over par. Of course, as soon as I left, Ai-sama rattled off birdies on 4 of her remaining 5 holes on the front and Kim birdied 4 of her last 11 holes. But it's not so much the results I want to focus on here as it is on how they came about. There were definitely similarities in the ways the players attacked each of the 1st 4 holes, along with some subtle differences.

I got to the course early enough to watch Mi Hyun Kim, Shanshan Feng, and Chella Choi on the driving range until Kim left for the putting green. Choi was hitting hybrids like a hybrid-hitting machine, but having a little difficulty losing drives to the right every so often. Kim was working up from hybrids to fairway woods to driver. I noticed that her left wrist was lightly wrapped, that she wasn't using a golf glove, and that every so often she's be looking at and touching the tip of her left thumb, like it was bothering her or something. But she was still hitting the ball consistently well. Feng was working on irons. I wasn't as impressed with her swing as I was with Choi's; it seemed to be too compact in a way, as if she wasn't extending her left arm in her initial takeaway as much as I would have expected.

The scene at the 1st tee was pretty cool, although it would have been cooler if the starter hadn't butchered Kim's name ("My Hoon") and had remembered to mention she's an 8-time winner on the LPGA! Miyazato actually took the time in the minute before she was due to hit her drive to hug a male fan she recognized and get introduced to his wife--she was the only player I saw that day who interacted with individual fans right before starting her round. As you may have read in my scouting report of Locust Hill, I expected most players to be able to fly their tee shots on the downhill 1st hole past the corner of the dogleg and give themselves a good look at the green and pin, despite the hole having been lengthened by about 30 yards. But to my surprise, Kim couldn't reach the corner, Harigae and Miyazato were only right at it, and even Inkster and Lang didn't go far past it. So the shorter hitters I was focusing on, who all ended up on the left side of the fairway (or in Harigae's case, the 1st cut of the left rough), faced fairly intimidating 2nd shots with fairway woods from downhill lies, with the left pond definitely in play and perhaps even some overhanging branches from the trees to their left interfering with their lines to the green. It looked to me that each of them attempted the same shot--start the ball at the right bunker and draw it back toward the back-left pin--although in retrospect, it's entirely possible that Kim and Harigae were intentionally laying up short of the right bunker to give themselves a neat little angle on their chips. In any case, that's where they ended up, whereas Miyazato's ball failed to draw and she ended up in the back of the right trap, almost pin high. Kim chipped to about 6 feet and surprisingly missed her par save. Harigae fluffed her pitch a little, ending up about 11 feet short right of the cup and forcing herself to make a tough little comebacker for bogey. Miyazato seemed to leave her shot from the sand behind and to the right of the hole on purpose (unless it just slipped away from her a little), perhaps because it gave her a straighter and flatter par putt. In any case, she sunk the 9-footer. Of everyone, the only player to really attack the 1st was Inkster. She overcooked a hybrid from the right rough and ended up on the back left fringe, a little past pin high, from where she just missed chipping in for birdie. Prammanasudh and Miyazato were the only players to save par. The 1st was definitely playing tough for this group of 6 players.

Although the 2nd was theoretically a birdie hole, the front left pin position, right behind the deep trap guarding that side of the green, was not only tough to get to, but presented the players with tricky birdie attempts from just about every angle. The only ones not to give themselves a good look for birdie were Prammanasudh, who flared her tee shot into the right rough and did well to hit the green from there, and Kim, who fluffed her approach shot a bit and ended up on the false front to the right of the trap, from where she easily got up and down. But everyone else was within 20 feet, Harigae about 11 feet above the hole after nearly holing her approach and Miyazato about 12 feet to the right of the cup. And everyone except Inkster found a way to miss her birdie attempt. It looked to me like Ai-sama pulled hers from the start, although she might have been fooled by the way the ball refused to break right from the mound behind the trap. In any case, whereas the sixsome was +3 on the 1st hole, they were -1 on the 2nd, but it felt like being over par to me.

To my surprise, the 3rd hole gave up the most birdies of any that I saw. Except for Inkster, who ticked some leaves on the trees overhanging the right side of the tee boxes and ended up short right in the fairway, and Lang, who pulled her drive into the left rough, everyone was in prime position to attack the back-left pin. The only one of them not to hit a good approach shot, sadly, was Miyazato, who had needed a ruling because she and her caddie were uncertain what to do when her ball had plugged in the fairway. (Since everyone was playing lift, clean, and place, they wanted to clarify whether they could do that as usual or whether they had to first take relief from the plugged lie and then do LCP.) Coincidentally, while waiting for the rules official to arrive, Ai-sama was able to watch Sakura Yokomine's tee shot on #2. After that delay, which gave Lang a chance to walk to the green and survey her putt from the back fringe, Miyazato left her approach shot in the front right corner of the green, about 35 feet from the pin. Whereas Kim sank a 20-footer from almost pin high to the right of the cup and Harigae and Prammanasudh each made great 15-footers from the center of the green, Miyazato knocked her birdie attempt almost off the green, maybe 7 feet past the cup. But she calmly sank the uphiller as if there were no doubt in the world that she was destined to save par. The group ended up -3 on the 3rd. Not bad! At that point, only Lang was over par and Inkster was under par.

On the 3-shot par-5 4th, a pond to the left of the fairway about 220 yards out that I hadn't noticed in my scouting report added an extra wrinkle to the drive. I had been focused on the big trees overhanging the right side of the fairway about 225-265 yards out from the tee, thinking that you could play a small draw to take them out of play. But instead Kim couldn't even reach them with a drive that Inkster outhit with a hybrid, Harigae blocked her drive into the deep right rough underneath them (after being left her 1st 3 drives, although no worse than 1st cut on her 1st 2 holes), and Miyazato played what appeared to be a fade to end up on the right side of the fairway. From there, everyone's strategy diverged. Inkster, Miyazato, and Lang attacked with their 2nd shots, trying to get up the fairway as far as they could and as close to the left rough as they could to get the best angle into the front right pin. Kim and Prammanasudh laid back a bit, just trying stay in the fairway. Harigae looked like she was trying to play a low draw under the trees with a hybrid, but instead hit a grounder and had to punch out to about 190 out. Everyone from farther out kept their approach shots below the pin (and sometimes short of the green, where Inkster's shot from the left rough ended up, as well). Maybe the fact that it started drizzling while Kim and Inkster were teeing off and actually got raining pretty hard for most of the hole had something to do with their inability to hit the green. In any case, the only really good approach shots I saw were from the twosome who started latest. Lang stuck her approach about 8 feet below and to the left of the pin, while Miyazato put hers inside Lang's, about 3 feet to the left of the hole. But whereas Lang's putt was more uphill, Miyazato's was on a sidehill, and after Lang made hers, Ai-sama couldn't follow up on it, missing on the short side. Kim and Inkster just missed chipping in for birdie, Prammanasudh made a routine par, and Harigae saved her bogey, so the group was again a rather disappointing E on the hole.

I was able to stick around for all of Harigae's 5th hole, where she stuck her approach on the uphill par 3 7 feet right of the pin, after just barely carrying the front right bunker, and missed the birdie putt, forcing herself into a little tester to save par (Prammanasudh failed to get up and down from that trap)--and see her drive on the downhill 6th, which again found the left side of the fairway--before heading back toward the 1st tee to catch Ai-sama's pairing. About an hour later, I saw Miyazato hit a great approach shot to #5, but couldn't stick around to watch her putt, as it was time to make my way to the other side of Jefferson Road where my car was parked near the driving range to check out of the hotel (the fact that the walk from tee to green was probably the sharpest grade on the front had absolutely nothing to do with that decision!). But I came away feeling that Miyazato was in total command of her swing, had amazing distance control, and was so due to start making birdies, while it felt like Kim's round could go either way and Harigae was having small problems with both her driver and her putter.

After lunch and some time at the Sports Zone (onechan chose the golf simulator over the bounce house, maze, and climbing tower while I was there [yay!] and was almost impressed when I put my wedge on Pebble's tiny downhill par 3 5 feet from the pin), I made my way back to the 18th just in time to miss Michelle Wie and Haeji Kang finish out their rounds, and was pleasantly surprised to see on the hand-lettered scoreboard that Kim had shot a 69, but disappointed by Inkster's 74, Harigae's 75, and Prammanasudh's 77. I was shocked to see that Miyazato had turned in a 31 on the front, and even happier when I made my way to the 9th-green scoreboard to see that she had gotten to -5 on her day through 14, then -6 through 15. I didn't get to see that she had gotten to -7 through 16 until I had made my way back to the Sports Zone to let the ladies know what Ai-sama was up to and see if they wanted to watch her play 17 and 18. But they were having fun and I didn't want to jinx her, so after the Full Metal Archivist got the girls to the Wegmans tent, I headed to the 18th green, where I was too late to see her finish. Still, I was in time to watch her get interviewed by Rich Lerner live on Golf Channel, to eventually decide to cross the ropes and join the Japanese media interviewing her afterwards (in the sense that I tried to tape the conversation and stay out of the way of the photographers), to find out from Heather Daly-Donofrio that she would be interviewed at the media tent in English, to stupidly leave for it too soon and lose everyone, to wander back to the putting green trying to find them, to find out from a Japanese reporter in line for an autograph from Paula Creamer that she had only shot a 66, to chat with her caddie for a bit, and after all that to return late to the media tent, where her interview was already in process.

And that's when I got to ask Ai-sama my Embarrassing Question that Inadvertently Revealed Something Important about Her Mindset. What was going through my head was something a lot less coherent than this: if I had started my reign as #1 in the world with a 5-bogey 76, fought my way back to +3 to make the cut (but still offset my 5 birdies with 4 bogeys that day), hit the 45-hole mark at +3, and after making 2 birdies in a row to start my Saturday back 9, followed them up with 11 straight pars to remain at +1, I would have been, well, the slightest bit impatient--ok, frustrated and worried--wondering when I would see results from my improved play. So I wanted to know what she was thinking and how she was feeling before she began her birdie barrage. What came out of my mouth was something even less coherent, although somewhat more so than LPGA.com's transcript (my corrections/additions are in [square brackets]):

Q: Ai, when those birdie putts were[n't] dropping earlier in your round what were you thinking?

AI MIYAZATO (via INTERPRETER): Earlier in the round today?

Q: Yes, the second and fourth holes.

AI MIYAZATO: [Um...] [long pause] Did I have birdie putts on the first few holes? Maybe the fourth, [no,] 3. [No,] I think I made a good [par] putt[s, actually,] the first few holes. I had a good opportunity on No. 5, I guess, on the par-5. After that, but I made birdie, and...

(via INTERPRETER) Up until that hole it didn't feel like I had that many chances.

She was genuinely confused enough by my question that some people in the room laughed nervously after that long pause, during which she had been looking at me in a sympathetic but taken aback kind of way. She literally could not remember anything except her par saves from early in her round!

Come to think of it, that's probably one of the keys to her success. Although she missed a birdie chance at 17 and bogeyed 18 for the 4th-straight day, she played her last 27 holes in 8 under par and her last 14 holes in 6 under par. I suppose she's realized that your chances of going on birdie barrages like that are reduced if you remember the putts that got away or worry about when they'll start dropping. She simply knew she was hitting on all cylinders and that the birdies would come. In her interview with the Japanese media, she emphasized how important her par saves on 10 and 11 were, in terms of keeping her momentum going. I guess that's the way she was thinking about those saves on 1 and on 3--they allowed her to extend what would end up being a 26-hole bogey-free run.

When I contrast Miyazato's finish with Harigae's (+2 over her last 13), Inkster's (+3 over her last 14), Prammanasudh's (+5 over her last 13), and Lang's (birdieless 42 on the back after a bogey-free 33 on the front), I'm so impressed by the results of that calmness and that confidence. But when I consider that fellow Okinawan Mika Miyazato was 3 shots behind Cristie Kerr after 47 holes but ended up losing to her by 18, I'm blown away by Ai-sama's resilience, persistence, and patience. (And I'm even more impressed with Kerr's week: she put together bogey-free streaks of 8, 28, and 22 holes on a tough Locust Hill layout when she wasn't even hitting that many fairways--12 fewer than Miyazato in all!)

Another key factor in Miyazato's performance was how committed she was to her pre-shot routine. Here the contrast to Harigae is telling. I've already noted how great Harigae's routine is for her full swings. But what became clear during the 5-and-a-half holes I watched of her in actual competition is that she doesn't have as effective or repeatable a pre-shot routine for her putts. In contrast to Kim and Miyazato, whose minds were clearly made up before even approaching the ball to begin taking their stances, Harigae seemed to be still deciding on her ultimate strategy even as she was taking her stance. There was a lot more twitching, setting and resetting of her feet and hands, even stepping saway from a putt from the rookie. Whereas Kim's and Miyazato's routines and rhythms never varied, Harigae's did. Plus, she never seemed as locked in on the speed of the greens as the more experienced professionals. Even when Miyazato rocketed her birdie attempt on 3 down the slope past the hole and almost ended up attempting her par save from the fringe, I got the impression that she had taken a calculated risk in an attempt to jump-start her round.

Finally, I'll reiterate the importance of pacing and rhythm that I noted the 1st time I followed Miyazato a couple of years ago at the Wegmans:

When I asked the FMA later what stood out to her about Ai-chan, what she focused on after her leanness and fitness was her rhythm. She was surprised to hear that Ai-chan had been talking about just that in her interviews the 1st 2 rounds. What I realized was that her emphasis even extended to the way she walked on the course, not just her rhythm on her full swings, pitches, and putts. She has a very long stride for such a short person, sets a brisk but effortless-looking pace, and kept to it on every hole. Even though she was struggling a bit while we watched her, she projects a lot of confidence and determination on the course.

Harigae was paired with a very fast-walking player in Prammanasudh, and she may just have picked up her pace a little, perhaps even unconsciously, in an effort to avoid slowing down the long-legged Okie in Tulsa orange (take that, Rickie Fowler!). It may just be a coincidence, but Harigae's timing on her tee shots was off that Sunday compared to the Monday pro-am when I had followed her. 4 of her 5 drives went left, and the one that went right was clearly an overcompensation, where she was protecting against going left and flirting with the pond. I wonder what the result would be if Harigae were to find her own pace and stick with it all round, every round, like Miyazato clearly does.

What I took away from the little time that I spent Sunday morning with Mi Hyun Kim, Mina Harigae, and Ai Miyazato was how big a difference all these little differences can make. While I was watching her, Kim was unfazed by her opening bogey, getting up-and-down easily when she missed the green and making her only birdie attempt. Even though she wasn't hitting the ball all that great by her standards, she was hanging in there and giving herself chances for good things to happen. Harigae was leaking oil on her tee shots, letting birdie opportunities slip away, and forcing herself to work harder than she needed to when it came to saving pars and bogeys. And despite my worries for her, Miyazato was actually this far away from getting into the zone. I think to a casual observer the differences between their starts wouldn't have been that noticeable. They were generally hitting the ball about as far and to about the same areas, after all. But the cumulative effects of those tiny differences--and what they did with their starts--make a huge difference in terms of strokes taken per round and dollars won per tournament.

[Update 1 (7:56 am): Check out Ruthless Golf for some interesting thoughts on getting out of your own way, something both Kerr and Miyazato did very well last week!]

[Update 2 (6/30/10, 4:46 am): Very kind words from Mike Southern, but one word of warning about trying to implement any of his advice or my speculations. Don't try for the first time on a cool day in a 2-club wind! I couldn't even break 85 on the Easiest Course in the World yesterday, and I never gave up on a single shot. Seems like I was remembering all my good putts on the Locust Hill putting green, which meant that I left a lot of birdie and par putts really short at tECitW. But the greens there were harder and faster than I remembered when it came to accepting approach shots, pitches, and chips, so I was going long all day on those. The wind didn't help with that, either, in my defense. So memories are all well and good, but actually adjusting to the reality of the conditions on the ground is highly recommended, as well!]


courtgolf said...

I can hear the comment to Onechan..."daughter, do your loving father a favor and NEVER wear anything that looks like what Ai-san is wearing today." :-)

Great stuff, Con !

The Constructivist said...

Hey, man, that was my favorite outfit of hers of the week! Maybe you just...had to be there....

courtgolf said...

lol - nah - the polka dots and long socks...hmmm...just didn't do it for me.