Miyazato earns rock-star status

LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England – Two years ago a Japanese reporter gave me a newspaper that featured an up-close picture of Ai Miyazato on its front page. Everything in the Sports Nippon was written in Japanese, but no translation was necessary.

Miyazato’s story was written all over her face.

She had just lost to Seon Hwa Lee in the final of the 2007 HSBC Women’s World Match Play Championship, and her larger-than-life cheeks were stained with tears.

Last week in France, there were more tears. These tears, however, were happy ones, for they signaled the end of a drought that had dominated the past 3 1/2 years of her life.

“My confidence is back,” said Miyazato, who suffered from shaking hands and legs in her playoff victory against Sophie Gustafson at the Evian Masters. She finished ninth here at Royal Lytham in 2006 and seemed business as usual July 28 in the interview room at the Ricoh Women’s British Open.

Miyazato, 24, has carried the weight of a country on her shoulders since joining the LPGA in 2006. Her youthful smile is plastered in subway stations and on billboards all across her native land. She’s a genuine rock star.

With fame comes expectations, and Miyazato was expected to win big and early. Ninety LPGA events came and went. Still, no victory.

“I got very emotional,” said Lorena Ochoa of watching Miyazato’s win. “She’s been a good friend, and I know how hard she works, how much pressure she has from the media back home in her country.”

The Japanese media follow Miyazato’s every move. Rain or shine, good or bad, they religiously gather around her for a post-round interview, even when there’s not much to say.

So when Miyazato finally broke through last week, it was disappointing to learn that only three Japanese newspaper reporters and a handful of photographers were on hand for the celebration. They stayed home the wrong week.

“Can you believe this?” said Sachie Miyashita, who covers the LPGA for Sports Nippon. “I have been here for four years, and I missed her first win.”

It’s difficult to say what this victory will do for Miyazato’s game. The 5-foot, 1-inch player probably isn’t powerful enough to contend week in and week out. But she likely won’t be a one-hit wonder either.

What is incredibly clear is that Miyazato moves the needle. The LPGA reported page views for the Evian Masters were up 50 percent from the previous year, and the tournament now ranks as the second-highest for a non-major in overall page views with more than 6.5 million.

Miyazato, who plans to head back to the Japan LPGA after the British Open, had more than 2,000 comments on her personal Web site after her victory. The Okinawa native is the 11th Japanese player to win on the LPGA and the first since Momoko Ueda in ’07.

Miyazato wasn’t the only one who shed tears Sunday. Her longtime caddie, Mick Seaborn, wiped his eyes on the 18th, as did her road manager, Tak Zaoya, and Miyazato’s parents back home in Japan.

“When I won in Japan, I was basically not scared of anything,” Miyazato said. “But coming over here to the States, like I said, I went through a lot, so (the win) it certainly is very valuable to me.”

More Japanese journalists than British media members were present Tuesday for Miyazato’s interview. Photographers captured her every move, and through it all, she managed to keep that same sweet smile.

Few on the LPGA can understand the stresses involved with being an A-list celebrity. None of the American players live in that kind of bubble. Ochoa gets it, as does Se Ri Pak.

While the LPGA desperately needs an American player to rise to that level of fame, the tour also needs the Miyazatos of the world.

Pak’s pressures are now spread over the shoulders of 46 other Koreans on tour. Japan, in contrast, has four players who compete on the LPGA regularly, two of whom are rookies.

Needless to say, Miyazato carries the brunt of the load. Though, these days, it’s considerably lighter.

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