Golfer Ai Miyazato Seeks Validation in 2009
It has certainly become commonplace to hear of an Asian golfer taking home the trophy in LPGA events lately.
Last year, three of the four majors were taken home by golfers who were born and learned the game in Asia including Inbee Park who took home the U.S. Open to the dismay of America's young phenoms like Paula Creamer and Stacy Lewis.
It certainly is no surprise that golf has become a global game, but what is surprising is that one of the biggest international stars is now going into her fourth year still seeking an elusive victory on the LPGA tour.
Her name is Ai Miyazato and if you don't know her, all you have to do is go visit Japan.
Miyazato is not treated like a golfer in her home country, she is treated like a rock star. She has buses and trains pasted with her face across it. She has a camera crew following her at every tournament across the globe and a legion of adoring fans.
She has some of the biggest galleries at any LPGA event and it something she has experienced since her late teens.
In fact, for a blossoming sport that is still seeking mainstream recognition, she has an entourage and a national buzz/obsession only matched by Tiger Woods in America.
Take that Ichiro!
Why all the hype?
Well Miyazato came out as an incredibly young superstar in Japan, notching 14 international victories before the age of twenty!
In the first ever World Cup of Golf, Miyazato teamed up with fellow countrymen Rui Katada to bring home the trophy in an improbable upset.
In her best year, 2005, Miyazato won six times including the top prize in her country, the Japan Open Championship, becoming the youngest winner in the tournament's history.
This success cantapulted Miyazato to the LPGA tour as one of the big names to watch for in 2006.
Well it's nearly 2009, and the eyes of Japan and the rest of the world are still watching.
In three years as a professional on the LPGA tour, Miyazato has registered four top-tens in majors, but never a win.
Her closest victory in any tour event came in the HSBC Women’s World Match Play Championship where she lost in the championship match which featured the top 64 golfers in the world.
Still, close but no cigar is not going to cut it for a woman carrying the weight of a country's high expectations on her back.
Can 2009 be the year where she finally breaks through?
Miyazato certainly has reason to hope, in the final major of the year, she finished fifth her second best result ever in a major.
She was in good position in the back nine until the wind and pressure forced her into a bad finish which included a double-bogey on the final hole which prevented her from posting a tie for second.
So what is holding Miyazato back?
It certainly is not her putting. Miyazato is far from a long hitter, ranking 101st on driving distance and yet she is tenth on tour when it comes to eagles and scored over 200 birdies in 2008.
That is because Miyazato has proven to be a master with the short stick and her experience in match play and big tournaments in Japan has made her a strong competitor mentally.
Instead, it is the fact Miyazato is not getting enough opportunities to make a run on the greens. She currently ranks 97th in greens in regulation.
2007 was even worse, she was ranked 126th in greens in regulation, only staying on 57% of the time.
The result was that a great putter was being used to save pars instead of making birdies, a mental strain that takes it toll on a golfer.
Golfing experts have debated part of the problem is that her ball flight is one that is more conducive to the international golf courses than the ones in America where high ball flights are the ones rewarded with golden birdie opportunities.
Her ball's trajectory makes it harder to stay on the greens once they land and that results in missed chances.
That might explain why the British Open has given Miyazato her most success on the LPGA Tour. Outside of the United States remains the best showings Miyazato has put up during her career.
Still, it has been three years on tour and the grumblings are beginning to get louder.
Many other Asian superstars have come on to the LPGA Tour and found immediate dividends. Now with other Japanese players like Yuri Fudoh and Momoko Ueda entering the scene, Miyazato must feel more pressure than ever to live up to the incredible hype that still surrounds her.
Perhaps that is part of the reason for her recent struggles.
Despite the close call at the Ricoh British Open, Miyazato has played only five LPGA Tour events since then, missing the cut twice and not finishing better than 40th.
Her average scoring round during that stretch has been a 73.8.
The result, Miyazato, a usual stalwart in the Rolex Rankings has fallen all the way to 36th while her fellow Japanese compatriots are ranked 12th and 14th respectively.
Guess Miyazato really is hoping things are really darkest right before the dawn.
After all, that is the glory of golf. Whoever can string together the four best rounds on any given weekend can go home calling herself champion.
How many times have we written someone off only to find them rise from the dead like Lazarus?
Perhaps the competition from Ueda and Fudoh will do Miyazato some good. It will take some of the pressure off of her being the only Japanese player on tour and it may inspire her competitive juices to show her country why they believed in her to begin with.
She certainly has the short game to win a major, now it is a matter of bringing in the other aspects of her game.
Annika Sorenstam, the torch-bearer for the LPGA, did not win her first major until age 24, Lorena Ochoa was 25.
Time is still on the side of Ai Miyazato. So don't worry if you have no idea who she is.
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