Miyazato Mania Returns for Sophomore Season

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LPGA logo for LeaderboardsKAPOLEI, Hawaii -- Ai Miyazato is everywhere in Japan: on billboards at the airport, magazine covers, TV commercials and daily sports pages. But Miyazato isn't satisfied with just being a superstar in Japan -- she wants to be a winner in the U.S.
 
In the first two LPGA Tour events of the year, the pint-sized shotmaker commanded the largest galleries and media attention. There were more than 50 Japanese reporters and photographers in Ai's Army following her every move in the Fields Open, which ended Saturday with Miyazato closing with a 66 to tie for third.
 
Ai Miyazato'I get so much exposure in the Japanese media that (American) people see me not for my golf but as this person who is famous in Japan,' she said. 'But if I win here and move up, I think they'll respect my golf. I'd like people to start to see my game.'
 
The 21-year-old Miyazato is entering her second season the LPGA Tour after a winless rookie season. She had seven top-10 finishes last year, including a third-place tie in the LPGA Championship.
 
'Playing in each tournament last year was a really good experience,' said Miyazato, who lives part-time in Orange County, Calif. 'It was my dream to improve my game and then come play in the United States. I had some tough times last year but it was really fun.'
 
Many challenges confronted Miyazato.
 
'First, English. Next, the level of play is much higher than Japan. Everyone here is very competitive, so to win, you need a lot of concentration,' she said.
 
She's still working on her English, which has improved greatly with the help of manager Takumi Zaoya, but it isn't as smooth as her effortless swing.
 
Her goals this year are simple: to win soon and finish in the top-10 on the money list. She finished 22nd last year with $532,053 in 21 events.
 
It's not as though Miyazato hasn't experienced winning. It seems she adds to her trophy collection almost every time she returns to Japan, winning twice last year, giving her 13 victories in three years.
 
So why not stay in Japan and keep winning?
 
'I want to be more strong like Tiger Woods,' she said. 'There's a lot more I can learn in Japan, but it's been my dream to win over here, and I want to fulfill my dream.'
 
At 5-foot-1 and maybe breaking 100 pounds after hitting an all-you-can-eat sushi bar, Miyazato rivals South Korea's Mi Hyun Kim for the most diminutive player on tour.
 
But she has no problem off the tees and rarely gets herself into trouble. She ranked ninth on tour last year in rounds in the 60s and 13th in rounds under par.
 
Miyazato grew up in Okinawa and learned the game from her father, Masaru Miyazato, a golf pro. She has two brothers who play professionally in Japan.
 
After Miyazato missed the cut in the season-opening SBS Open because of her woeful putting, her father came to Hawaii to give her a slight tuneup. After adjusting her grip, Miyazato was back in form and finished tied for third at the Fields Open in Hawaii, matching her best finish since joining the tour.
 
Miyazato said the thing she loves the most about golf is: 'You can practice and practice and there's no limit to how much good you can get.'
 
No limits is what Miyazato is all about. Her web site is ai-miyazato54.com and she also signs her autograph 'Ai 54.' The 54 represents the vision of a round of 18-under par -- or one birdie per hole.
 
She said the most challenging part about golf is that even with the physical ability and technical skills, you need the right state of mind.
 
'You can't just practice, you also have to care about the mental aspects of the game. That's very difficult,' she said.
 
Dealing with the media, on the other hand, is a breeze for her.
 
Morgan Pressel, first got a glimpse of Miyazato mania at Q-school in 2005 where the Japanese star won by a record 12 strokes. She said the media circus was 'crazy.'
 
At Miyazato's rookie debut at last year's SBS Open, tournament officials had to open a separate banquet hall for the media. The previous year, there were only about a dozen reporters even with hometown hero Michelle Wie in the field.
 
There were several other LPGA events where the media rooms had to be expanded.
 
'It's amazing that so many come,' Miyazato said. 'It's a mystery to me.'
 
To others, it's not so mysterious. Miyazato is dedicated, personable, articulate and possesses a smile as famous as Mount Fuji.
 
Her popularity is so strong that TV ratings for a tournament she won a few years ago were three times higher than the men's event in Japan that week, which featured Tiger Woods winning wire-to-wire at the Dunlop Phoenix.
 
'She's mentally strong,' said Yukiko Naruse, a 39-year-old office worker from Tokyo, who watched Miyazato in the Fields. 'Of the young generation of players, she's the first to make it to the majors. That's why I think everyone watches her.'
 
With the cameras and reporters always in tow, Miyazato realizes that a nation is watching her every move and anxiously awaiting her first LPGA Tour victory.
 
'I'm here because it's my dream, so it's for me. But I have a lot of fans in Japan. They have great expectations for me and I also want to win for them,' she said.
 
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