Mick Seaborn recalled a time he and Ai Miyazato pulled into a train station somewhere in Japan and people who were standing on the platform spotted the golfing icon and started banging on the windows. “Ai Mania” was a real thing in Japan, particularly at the height of the 32-year-old’s career when it seemed like she was in every other television commercial and rivaled Major League Baseball players as the country’s biggest sports star.
“If she gets recognized, chaos ensues,” said Seaborn, Miyazato’s longtime caddie.
Miyazato will play in her final tournament on the LPGA at this year’s Evian Championship, a special spot for the former World No. 1. Evian is where she finally broke through on the LPGA, winning in 2009 for the first time after joining the tour in 2006. She won it again in 2011 (before it became a major) and donated money from the winner’s check to help victims of an earthquake that devastated northern Japan.
Miyazato enters what could be the last professional golf tournament she ever plays with nine LPGA titles to her credit and 15 on the Japan LPGA. She made the decision last season to make 2017 her farewell tour. She’d lost the motivation required to compete, and after 14 seasons of professional golf, decided it was time to start a new chapter. What that means exactly, she’s not sure.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said. “I’m actually not making a decision on purpose because … until the last moment, I still want to focus on my game and I want to enjoy every single moment.”
Miyazato will play the first two rounds of Evian alongside friends Paula Creamer and Yani Tseng. Miyazato actually played with Lorena Ochoa in Mexico during her farewell tournament, along with Natalie Gulbis, and remembers Ochoa crying after Friday’s round because she knew it would be the last time they’d play together in competition.
“I think I (will) get that feeling too,” Miyazato said.
Miyazato credited Japanese media during her pre-tournament press conference for being kind to her even during the tough times. (She battled the driver tips for a spell.) No one on tour spent more time answering questions from the press than Miyazato.
She won five tournaments in her rookie season on the JLPGA and won six times in 2005. Karrie Webb was paired with Miyazato in Japan before she came to the LPGA.
“There were comfortably 10,000 people on the first hole alone,” said Webb. “It was crazy. So I’ve experienced Ai Miyazato the rock star.”
Miyazato has something else besides extraordinary talent – she’s spectacularly nice.
“Something you can’t put your finger on,” said Seaborn. “Everyone is just drawn towards her. There’s some people that just have that and she’s got it.”
Of course, that sparkling personality combined with world-class talent likely made things worse for Miyazato in Japan. It’s easy to imagine that all the attention ultimately wore her down.
On the eve of her final tournament, there seem to be no regrets. When her face broke out into that familiar smile, a chorus of camera clicks filled the interview room. For Miyazato, it must feel like the soundtrack of her life.
Perhaps the only disappointment of the week is that Miyazato’s parents aren’t here to celebrate the finish. Her father, Masaku, fell ill and was unable to travel to France. She’s here with longtime manager Takumi Zaoya and will no doubt have a long list of friends who want to share a meal.
On Monday, Miyazato dined with current World No. 1 So Yeon Ryu and former No. 1 Yani Tseng. When Ryu first learned of Miyazato’s retirement plans earlier this year she nearly cried. Miyazato was one of Ryu’s idols growing up, and she remembers the first time they met in 2009 like it was yesterday.
Miyazato played a practice round with Ryu at the 2011 U.S. Women’s Open, and Ryu went on to win that week in Colorado. They did it again at Evian later that summer and Miyazato won.
“She’s not just a great golfer,” said Ryu, “she’s a really great person. She always makes other players really happy, and she knows real sportsmanship. She’s the one always rooting for every player; she just wants to play a little better than them.”