2005: LPGA - The Ai has it

Daytona Beach, Fla.

Paula Creamer may have created a monster.

The landslide LPGA Rookie of the Year had a conversation with Ai Miyazato at the Japan LPGA’s Ladies Masters in late October regarding Q-School expectations. Creamer told Miyazato that she would find the most success if she approached the 90-hole grind with one thing in mind: victory. Don’t simply settle for earning exempt status, Creamer said. Instead, crushing the competition should be the only item on the agenda.

When Miyazato arrived at LPGA International several days before the tournament, she decided to rummage through the Q-School record books. She stumbled upon a page that displayed results from the 2004 Q-School in which Creamer shot 11 under par and won by five shots. Miyazato instantly added another goal to her list – to win Q-School while shooting a score better than 11 under.

For Miyazato to reach her magic number, she figured she needed to shoot in the neighborhood of 2 under par each day. That would give her a 10-under total and, with any luck, she might seize two more birdies somewhere along the way.

In hindsight, Miyazato may have set her sights too low. She reached 11 under par through 54 holes by shooting 66-69-70, then followed with rounds of 66-72. Her 17-under-par 343 total Dec. 4 was an astounding 12 shots better than her nearest competitors, Libby Smith and Lee Ann Walker-Cooper.

Seventeen-year-old Morgan Pressel tied for sixth with 19-year-old Julieta Granada and LPGA veteran Kate Golden and will be given exempt status as an LPGA member after she turns 18 on May 23.

“I’m a little surprised it was this easy,” Miyazato said through an interpreter. “But I’m very satisfied.”

She wasn’t the only one who left Daytona Beach happy. Throngs of Japanese media followed Miyazato’s every move for five days, something they dub “Ai-Chan fever” – a term of endearment for the cute, personable 5-foot-2 superstar who ranks as one of her country’s biggest idols along with baseball stars Ichiro Suzuki (Seattle Mariners) and Hideki Matsui (New York Yankees). The 20-year-old is more popular than male compatriot Shigeki Maruyama, and her presence alone has boosted women’s golf television ratings to astronomical proportions the past two years.

In Japan, it’s all Ai all the time.

The craze spilled over to Q-School, where more than 100 credentials were doled out to members of the media, and 25 Japanese media outlets sent staff to report on Miyazato’s journey. After each round, photographers rushed to get pictures of Miyazato as she spoke with Japanese television, Japanese newspaper reporters, then finally the U.S. media.

“And we’re over here (in the U.S.),” Golden said of the frenzy. “You should see her in Japan. The media loves her. You can only dream of that kind of attention.”

The past several years, Q-School was covered by a handful of reporters, most of them writers for daily newspapers who were following their local stories. This year the circus surrounding Miyazato was Tiger Woods-like, perhaps multiplied by two.

Look no further than Friday morning, when Annika Sorenstam was on site to watch her sister Charlotta play the front nine of her third round. Sorenstam, winner of 10 LPGA events this season and 66 overall, went virtually unnoticed as a member of the gallery while Miyazato was hounded like a rock star.

“Yes,” Miyazato said when asked if this type of atmosphere always surrounds her. “But I feel honored that this many people are following me and paying this much attention.”

The size of Miyazato’s romp was a surprise but her victory was not. She won five times as a rookie on the JLPGA in 2004 and recorded 15 top-10 finishes in 22 events. Those numbers helped send her to the inaugural Women’s World Cup in South Africa in February, where she teamed with Rui Kitada to win the championship for Japan. Two weeks later, Miyazato finished second behind Karrie Webb at the Australian Ladies Masters.

The remainder of this year was more of the same. Miyazato collected six more victories on the JLPGA and finished second behind Creamer at the NEC Karuizawa event in August.

Miyazato also played six LPGA events, tying for 10th at the Mizuno Classic, tying for 11th at the Weetabix Women’s British Open and making it to the third round of the HSBC Women’s World Match Play Championship after ousting Laura Diaz and Juli Inkster in her first two matches.

Miyazato, who began playing golf at age 4, does everything well. She combines a long, fluid swing with laser-like precision and makes nearly everything she looks at on the greens. Even more compelling is a charming personality that shines through in the form of a $1 million smile, an attribute that should make her marketable in the United States next year, when she plays a full LPGA schedule. She also plans to play a handful of events in Japan.

“She is unbelievable,” said Katie Futcher, who tied for fourth and played with Miyazato the final two days. “She’s so friendly and a great competitor. She’s very grounded, and it’s awesome to see.”

Futcher and Miyazato found a way to lighten the stress over the final 36 holes, although Futcher was the one feeling it most. In Round 4, Miyazato shared rice balls with the Texan, giving her a taste of Japanese cuisine. Several holes into the final round, Futcher reached into her bag and handed Miyazato a PB&J on whole wheat bread, a thank you of sorts for her treat the previous day.

“It’s a peanut butter and jelly,” Futcher said. “You can’t mess it up.”

Before the first round, it was Pressel who was stealing a majority of the headlines. The feisty teenager had just turned professional two weeks earlier and was looking to secure a card for 2006, although the LPGA already had told her she wouldn’t be able to use it until a few months into the season.

Pressel was the first-round co-leader with Miyazato after shooting 66, but consecutive 75s slid her down the leaderboard. She closed with 71-70 to tie for sixth, 14 shots behind Miyazato.

“It’s a relief, it’s definitely a relief,” Pressel said. “It’s been a long week, and I managed to hang on at the end there.”

Pressel and her grandfather, Herb Krickstein, are expected to meet with LPGA commissioner Carolyn Bivens in the next several weeks to revisit the issue of Pressel playing full time before her 18th birthday.

Pressel and Krickstein met with former commissioner Ty Votaw in June and asked for a waiver of the LPGA’s 18-year-old age requirement. Votaw allowed Pressel to attend Q-School but told her she would not be allowed to accept status until she turns 18. Now that Pressel has qualified, she hopes the new commissioner will have a different view.

“Everything they talk about to be an LPGA member she has except her 18th birthday,” Krickstein said. “I don’t think she’ll change between now and the time she turns 18.”

Brittany Lang, who tied Pressel for runner-up honors at the U.S. Women’s Open this summer, faced a much tougher road. Though she struggled with her game for much of the week, she closed with consecutive 73s to get into a seven-way playoff for the final three exempt cards. In the three-hole aggregate playoff, Lang, 20, knew she needed to birdie the 18th hole. She hit her approach on the par 4 to 20 feet, then rammed in the birdie putt to capture the 24th and final card.

“I’ve been trying to steer everything all week,” Lang said. “It finally came together for me in the playoff. A playoff is not what I wanted, but I came here to get my card, and that’s what I did.”

Seol-An Jeon and Christi Cano grabbed the other two cards in the playoff, leaving Mardi Lunn, Clarissa Childs, Teresa Lu and Erica Blasberg with nonexempt status, although all four should get into 12 to 15 events in 2006. Lu made double bogey on the 18th hole in regulation to back into the playoff, and Blasberg, who had fought back from the 97th position after Round 2 with rounds of 69-66, shot a final-round 77.

In the end, everything and everyone played second fiddle to Miyazato. She came, she saw and she conquered.

Message to Creamer: Next time be careful when giving advice.

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