When Ai Miyazato was a rookie on the LPGA in 2006, Christina Kim and Jennifer Rosales invited her out to dinner. Miyazato didn’t speak much English at the time, so she brought a dictionary to the restaurant.
That sweet memory must seem like a lifetime ago to Miyazato, who plans to retire from competitive golf after 12 seasons on the LPGA. The fact that Miyazato agreed to dinner and took a dictionary speaks to both her sparkling personality and determination to make life work on a Western tour. Miyazato, a sporting icon in Japan, quickly endeared herself to players and fans alike.
“It feels like my family over here,” she said from the Walmart Northwest Arkansas Championship, her first LPGA press conference since announcing her decision to retire last month.
The feeling, of course, is mutual. When Lorena Ochoa competed in her final LPGA event seven years ago in Mexico, she handpicked Miyazato to play in her group.
“I think she’s the nicest girl on tour,” Ochoa said back then. “She’s my favorite.”
Miyazato won nine times on the LPGA and 15 times in Japan. In 2010, she spent 11 weeks as World No. 1, becoming the first Japanese player – male or female – to hold the top spot.
Dozens of media came to chronicle Miyazato’s domination of LPGA Q-School in 2005. Japanese media interviewed Miyazato every day of her LPGA playing career around the globe. When she ascended to No. 1, it was the interviews in English that became a burden.
“I used so much energy like outside of the golf course,” said Miyazato, “so it was like I was trying to be too perfect.”
(For the record, Miyazato’s English is quite good.)
Miyazato’s last victory on the LPGA came five years ago in Arkansas. She felt she was at the peak of her game. Her confidence was high, but she couldn’t win majors.
Miyazato pushed herself to work harder and harder.
“I put so much pressure on myself and all of a sudden looks like, I don’t know where I’m going,” she said. “Starting to feel like this is not enough and I’m not enough. It just went in the wrong direction, I think.”
Eventually, Miyazato’s motivation began to wane. For the past four years, she has wrestled with the decision to keep playing. Last August, she listened to her heart and decided that 2017 would be her final season.
More than 300 people packed a press conference in Tokyo last month to hear the 32-year-old explain her decision to retire. Massive crowds came out to support Miyazato at the Suntory Ladies Open in Japan two weeks ago.
“Usually most of the people are saying ‘good luck’ and ‘all the best,’ but this time was totally different,” said Miyazato, “because most of the people say ‘thank you, congratulations on your career.’ It just makes me very emotional, but it was really nice.”
Miyazato isn’t sure what’s next for her but wants to remain active in the game she loves. The Japanses superstar said she’s inspired by the work Ochoa and Annika Sorenstam have done in retirement.
“I think I can do anything,” Miyazato said.
Of that, there’s no doubt.