Ai Opener


The atmosphere was surreal. Cameras clicked at rapid-fire pace. Video rolled from all angles to capture every moving image. And when she emerged, they engulfed her like ants on an intruder.
It felt like Paris Hilton leaving a Manhattan night club at 4:00 a.m. But this was closer to 4:00 in the afternoon. And this was no attention hungry hussy.
Ai Miyazato
Ai Miyazato is the center of Japanese sports media attention.
This was Ai Miyazato exiting the scorers tent after winning the LPGA Tour Qualifying Tournament.
Doesnt seem like that big of a deal ' even considering that she won by a record 12 strokes.
But at 52 ' a generously listed 52 ' Miyazato is among the biggest sports stars in all of Japan.
According to one Japanese media member, she is second only to New York Yankees leftfielder Hideki Matsui in terms of popularity in her home country.
Her popularity, according to this reporter, is such that she is the star of nine different television commercials back home, where she is the winner of 11 Japan LPGA Tour events over the last two seasons.
Think about that. Nine different television commercials. Thats about double the exposure of Tiger Woods here in the States.
Woods got a chance to examine her skills last month as he played a practice round with her prior to his repeat victory at the Dunlop Phoenix Open in Miyazaki, Japan.
Ai has got a lot of talent, he was quoted as saying. Her game is very sound and she is only 20 years old, so it will be exciting to watch her develop.
To further show her star power, when she won a tournament last year, the TV ratings were three times higher than that of Woods winning the Dunlop Phoenix.
LPGA Tour commissioner Carolyn Bivens doesnt expect that kind of enthusiasm for womens golf to get lost in translation upon Miyazatos arrival.
In Asia, as we all know, womens golf often times will have higher ratings than the mens golf. I think were going to see some of that over here, she said.
Its easy to see why Miyazato is so celebrated. She is young, cute and talented ' the great trinity of marketability in women athletics.
She appeared Sunday to be easygoing and carefree, plenty of smiles and laughs; of course, she did have a 12-stroke lead to start the final round.
She ultimately shot even-par 72 at LPGA International to finish the 90-hole endeavor at 17-under 343.
Im very relieved about the tournament, but I didnt play too well today so Im a little disappointed, Miyazato said through a translator.
I was trying to go for 20 under, but I was overcome by pressure. So I need to work on that.
She won a five-round tournament by 12 strokes and she still sees room for improvement. Sounds like the makings of a champion.
Miyazato will soon call the U.S. her home away from home, as this 20-year-old is reportedly looking for a place in the Southern California area. She will need an American base now that she is an official member of the American tour.
Though she will have tournament obligations next year in Japan, she will play primarily on the LPGA Tour.
Ai Miyazato
Miyazato reacts after winning Q-school by a record 12 strokes.
And she will have plenty of support, as Team Ai consists of among others, a manager, a trainer, a translator and an English-speaking caddie.
Shell also have plenty of attention, as one Japanese media member speculated there would be at least 10 different reporters ' some of who will be PGA Tour converts ' covering her at each and every stop.
Not covering the tournament. Not covering Annika Sorenstam. Just covering Ai Miyazato.
A year ago, according to a tour media official, there were only about 10-12 reporters covering the finals of Q-school. They didnt even bother to issue credentials, the turnout was so minimal.
This year, though, there were roughly 100 credentials issued to media outlets around the world ' more than 60 of which went to those from Japan.
While most of the field played Sundays final round in near anonymity, with only their playing competitors and forest creatures baring witness, crowds three-to-six people deep followed Miyazato.
On the 12th hole, by count, there were 17 still cameras and six video cameras to capture her tee shot ' as well as a child on her fathers shoulders holding a poster-board encouraging Miyazato in Japanese: 'Ai-Chan, go for it!'.
In the same year as when Japanese legend Ayako Okamoto was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, Miyazato earned her card on the LPGA Tour. And thus symbolically, the generational torch was passed.
Miyazato, who helped Japan win the inaugural Women's World Cup in January, wont be the only Japanese rookie on tour next season. Teenager Shinobu Moromizato also advanced through the final stage.
Riko Higashio was a rookie last year, finishing 96th on the money list. But Higashio didnt have nearly the scrutiny that will face Miyazato.
This will, however, be nothing new for the diminutive starlet. Shes well accustomed to being the center of attention ' and delivering under the pressure.
Having all but aced her latest exam, Miyazato will next test her talents at the Okinawa Open, where she will become the first Japanese female to compete in a mens event in Japan.
Her brother, Kiyoshi, just happens to be the defending champion. Hes one of two Miyazato brothers competing on the Japan Golf Tour.
I want to make the cut, the native of Okinawa said with a big smile.
That would certainly seem doable.
As for her goals for next season, she just doesnt want to have to defend this title.
I want to keep my card, she said.
That certainly doesnt seem like a problem either. Miyazato played in six LPGA events this past season and had a pair of top-10s and a tie for 11th in the Weetabix Womens British Open.
Those six results alone netted her over $100,000, and would have been enough to secure her card for 2006 had she been a tour member this past year.
Sunday, Miyazato officially became a member of the LPGA Tour.
After signing her scorecard and doing her interviews ' with the Japanese press and the American press ' and posing for pictures and signing autographs, she took a triumphant stroll from the 18th green to the parking lot.
She was followed step-for-step, every step of the way.
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