Miyazato plays on while thoughts on tragedy at home

Ai Miyazato during her Golfweek For Her photoshoot in early 2011.

Ai Miyazato during her Golfweek For Her photoshoot in early 2011.

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. – Ai Miyazato spent 11 weeks as World No. 1 in 2010. Players can do everything they know to prepare for the moment when they realize a lifelong dream, but nothing can prepare them for the pressure that follows. Getting there is one thing; staying there is another dimension of difficulty.

“I felt really big pressure toward the end of the season,” said Japan’s Miyazato, 25, who won five times through August. “It was really tough to control myself because I’ve never had that situation before.

“I wanted perfection.”

Miyazato, of course, fell short of that goal.

For now, however, thoughts of perfection have been pushed to the side. It’s safe to say that Miyazato and her entire country has a changed perspective in the aftermath of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that devastated northeast Japan. Much of the damage was near Sendai, where Miyazato attended high school.

With compatriots Mika Miyazato (no relation) and Momoko Ueda, Ai Miyazato developed a logo that says “Never Give Up” in Japanese and is raising funds through a website (justgiving.com/makerunanippon).

“All I can do is just stay in the present and do something like playing really good,” Miyazato said of helping those struggling in Japan. “One of my responsibilities is to provide hope and courage to the Japanese people.”

Miyazato was safe at home in Okinawa when the 9.0-magnitude quake struck. She lives there with her parents when she’s not at her U.S. home in Irvine, Calif.

Miyazato’s father, Masaru, a respected teaching professional in Japan and Ai’s only swing instructor, traveled to the U.S. in January with his daughter so he could be a part of her two weeks of mental training at the Vision54 school in Phoenix.

Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott, Vision54’s founders, focused on what went right during the five weeks when Miyazato won in ’10. Miyazato began to recognize that toward the end of the year, her focus had turned to results.

Meanwhile, Masaru noticed that Ai’s epically slow backswing was laid off. Team Miyazato got to work, and she came to a photo shoot the next week with the carefree, quiet confidence that carried her to golf’s peak.

“First, you have to get to No. 1 to see the extra things that go with it,” said Nilsson, who coached Annika Sorenstam for decades.

Miyazato arrived at the shoot on Newport Beach looking Bohemian in an oversized checked top, leggings and black leather boots. She soon climbed a lifeguard stand, shed the boots and snacked on a strawberry ice cream cone to capture the playful, fun-loving spirit the Japanese star exudes when she’s not dialed into competition.

Californians who were enjoying the sunshine watched the spectacle of cameras and lights, but no one approached Miyazato or asked for an autograph. Even when she took a yellow beach cruiser down to the shoreline, she was left alone.

The anonymity must be nice for Miyazato, whose game is scrutinized more than any other player on tour. No other LPGA player is as relentlessly followed and chronicled as Miyazato, though almost entirely by Japanese media. They circle around her after every round, no matter her score.

In fact, Miyazato’s recent success ultimately is what Japanese fans expected from the beginning. Her fame exploded when, at age 18, she won the JLPGA’s Miyagi TV Dunlop Ladies as an amateur in 2003.

The media came to her high school the next week to capture the senior in her school uniform. From that moment, Miyazato was a media darling, catapulted into Japan’s A-list celebrity orbit.

“It is not easy to explain just how famous the top female golfers are over there,” Miyazato’s longtime English caddie, Mick Seaborn, wrote in an email.

Miyazato won 12 titles on the JLPGA before joining the LPGA in 2006. As she neared the end of a second winless season on the LPGA, she hit what Seaborn considers her low point at the 2007 Mizuno Classic in Japan. Thousands lined the fairways to watch Miyazato hit her driver 50 yards off target. She had developed the yips off the tee. In ’08, she slipped to 46th on the money list.

Asked if she ever got tired of the media attention and simply put on a brave face, Miyazato said, “No, I’m not faking it.”

During the slump, however, she did quit reading her own press clippings.

“Reading some of those articles, as well as comments made by fans, makes me want to live up to those expectations and work harder than I should be,” she said. “So I stopped reading.”

Now, every time Miyazato gets in contention, she’s asked what changed in the 31⁄2 years it took her to finally win on the LPGA, at the 2009 Evian Masters. Her answer never wavers: It was mental.

Masaru was familiar with Vision54 and was the first to encourage his struggling daughter to seek its help.

“It was clear quite early that one of the things contributing to the slump was focusing too much on the technical,” Nilsson said.

During the course of the mental training, Miyazato’s technique got better without her even having to think about it. She worked diligently on “staying in the present.” Her mantra these past several years: “tension and tempo.”

Miyazato has had that same rhythmically slow swing since age 4. Her father saw no reason to change it. Vision54’s Marriott said many players lose energy when they take the club back. In terms of conserving energy for the downswing, Marriott likens Miyazato to Nancy Lopez – never a bad comparison.

Nilsson predicted Miyazato’s success long before she won in France, as she listened to her talk in private about finally knowing the “true meaning of being present.”

She certainly was present at plenty of awards ceremonies the next year. Back-to-back victories to open the 2010 season suggested that Miyazato was beginning to show the world what Japanese fans had known all along.

“If she had won in her first year on tour, she’d probably be doing this three years ago,” Seaborn said after her win in Singapore last year. “Because the pressure built and built and built, it broke her in the end. I think what we’re seeing now is the real Ai Miyazato.”

photo

Miyazato is greeted by Japanese media wherever she goes, such as here, at an airport near Tokyo.

South Korea’s M.J. Hur finished second to Miyazato on June 20 at the ShopRite LPGA Classic, where Miyazato rose to No. 1 for the first time. With her limited English, Hur aptly described what LPGA players now see from Miyazato.

“She’s just gorgeous,” Hur said. “I think she plays really simple.”

Said Paula Creamer: “It’s confidence. That’s all golf is, so much confidence and believing in yourself.”

Nothing says more about what Miyazato’s peers think of her than Lorena Ochoa’s endorsement: “I think she’s the nicest girl on tour. She’s my favorite.”

Ochoa, of course, handpicked Natalie Gulbis and Miyazato to play alongside her at her farewell tournament last year in Morelia, Mexico. Ochoa didn’t win, but a Miyazato triumph was the next-best thing.

“I’ve never seen anyone who has so much control in her game,” Ochoa said after watching Miyazato during her opening 10-under 63. “She’s definitely not the longest hitter, but she knows what she’s doing, and she needs to be proud of that.”

One might think Miyazato’s next goal would be a major title. She has tied for third at majors three times in her career, twice at the LPGA Championship and once at the Women’s British Open. Actually, while a major would be nice, Miyazato has her sights set on Player of the Year. It’s the same goal she set at the start of 2010.

Nilsson said Miyazato is clear about what she can be the best in the world at: managing self-talk and emotions; balance; swing tempo and tension; committing to decisions; and staying in the present – the core components of Vision54.

“If I were to face a similar situation to what I did in 2010, I feel I would be able to play like myself,” Miyazato said. “I could use the experiences I have from 2010 and be able to handle myself better.”

Seaborn agrees, saying that he thinks Miyazato is “just reaching her maturity as a player” and will continue to improve in the next two to three years.

Last year, Miyazato was asked who she thought was her biggest competition in terms of staying put at No. 1.

“I feel like I am my only rival,” she said.

Fighting a battle only she can see.

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