Miyazato Mania Headed for LPGA

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She says that she is 5-feet, 2-inches tall. Thats if shes standing on cement, wearing golf shoes with those super-long Phil Mickelson spikes.
 
More so, shes a legit 5 feet ' 60 inches from head to toe.
 
And yet shes bigger, at the moment, than most of us can possibly imagine.
 
Ai Miyazato
Ai Miyazato expects a large following during her rookie season on the LPGA Tour.
She is Ai Miyazato, a 20-year-old golfing prodigy from Japan who will make her debut as an LPGA Tour professional in this weeks SBS Open at Turtle Bay (TGC, Thurs. 6:30 PM/ET).
 
While much of the American attention in this event will be spread between Paula Creamer and Morgan Pressel and Natalie Gulbis, there will be Miyazato. She will be there with about 30 media members and hundreds of Japanese followers in tow.
 
Shes going to feel like shes at home, said Andy Wada, a commentator for The Golf Channel in Japan.
 
Miyazato is sporting royalty in Japan, on par with baseball icons Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui in terms of popularity ' the magnitude of which is almost shocking.
 
She has 11 different sponsors, is the star of no fewer than nine different television commercials, and cant as much as go to the mall without having to wear a disguise.
 
She really draws no comparison to any player in the U.S. Tiger Woods has about the same amount of sponsors, but he receives about half the television exposure as does Miyazato. And, aside from wearing a ball cap and maybe some sunglasses, Woods is easily recognizable when he makes a coffee run around his Orlando home.
 
In fact, the tournaments in which she competes in Japan regularly receive double the ratings of mens events contested the same week. In 2004, a tournament she won was seen by nearly three times the viewing audience as was the Dunlop Phoenix Open, which was won by Woods.
 
According to Wada, her manager says that shes bigger than soccer star David Beckham. That might not mean too much to many in the States, but thats BIG TIME.
 
She is probably bigger than the game itself right now in Japan, Wada said without a hint of hyperbole. People who dont know golf know Ai. Like when Tiger came out. He brought in people who were not fans of golf.
 
People dont want to know who won the golf tournament; they want to know how Ai did.
 
In baseball, the term three-tool player is used to describe a talent who can hit well, throw well and run well.
 
Miyazato, a native of Higashi in northern Okinawa, is a three-tool player in the world of popularity and marketability: young, cute and talented.
 
Its not just from a professional athlete standpoint ' shes like a pop star, Wada said. Shes just always smiling ' people in America say, The girl next door. Thats her. That has attracted many fans.
 
As has her success.
 
She has won 12 times on the Japan LPGA Tour over the last two-plus years, thus giving rise to Miyazato Mania, which reached a fever pitch last December when she won the LPGA Tour Qualifying Tournament by a record 12 strokes.
 
The media crush that week in Daytona Beach, Fla., was astounding, like something reserved for only major championships in womens golf.
 
Miyazatos gallery often numbered in the hundreds, with most of them ' more than 70 ' being members of the Japanese press. All for one person. By comparison, according to LPGA media officials, only about 10 reporters total covered the Q-school finals the year prior.
 
One of those reporters last year at LPGA International was Reiko Takekawa, who writes for Kyodo News, a Japanese wire service much like the Associated Press in the U.S.
 
Takekawa, whose primary job was to follow the likes of Shigeki Maruyama on the PGA Tour, has now been assigned to focus on Miyazato. She said that she expects to be one of dozens of reporters from various Japanese news outlets to tag along with Miyazato at each and every U.S. stop.
 
Again, all this for one person.
 
There is good reason for all the fuss. Japanese fans are clamoring for their next golfing great, to join the likes of Hall of Fame members Ayako Okamoto, Hisako Chako Higuchi and Isao Aoki.
 
Maruyama has won three times on the PGA Tour, but while many Asian-born players have found success on the U.S. womens circuit ' particularly Korean players ' there hasnt been a Japanese-born winner on the LPGA since Akiko Fukushima in 1999.
 
Should Miyazato end this drought, it would not only be wonderful for her homeland; it would likely lead to a financial windfall for the LPGA. The tours biggest cash cow is currently Korean TV. LPGA commissioner Carolyn Bivens would love to strike similar financial deals with the Japanese.
 
In Asia, as we all know, womens golf oftentimes will have higher ratings than the mens golf, she said at Q-school. I think we are going to see some of that over here.
 
This weeks tournament will be Miyazatos first official LPGA start as a rookie, but not her first-ever tour event. Last year, she competed six times on the LPGA, earning a pair of top-10s and a tie for 11th at the Womens British Open, as well as over $100,000. She also led Japan to victory in the Womens World Cup.
 
Ai Miyazato
Miyazato had a pair of top-10s in six starts last year on the LPGA.
Miyazato and compatriot Sakura Yokomine were unable to defend their countrys World Cup title this year, finishing 12th. There hasnt been much success on the course since her Q-school runaway. She missed the cut badly last December in the Okinawa Open, a mens event on the Japan Golf Tour. Two weeks ago in Australia, she tied for 49th in the ANZ Ladies Masters.
 
One Australian newspaper reported that more than 1,200 Japanese fans flew to the Gold Coast to watch Miyazato compete in the tournament which she lost the previous year to Karrie Webb in a playoff.
 
And according to Takekawa, who reported from the World Cup, there were around 30 media members and over 100 fans who made the trip to South Africa.
 
While in South Africa, Takekawa said Miyazato went on safari, and in Australia she was treated to an encounter with koalas, a swim with dolphins, and trips to expensive boutiques.
 
The kind of activities reserved for those of superstar status.
 
But while life is good at the moment, its not all sunshine and smiles.
 
Miyazato was criticized by fans and some media over her performance and preparation at the World Cup, according to Takekawa. And it wasnt much better after she failed to break 70 over four rounds at the ANZ and finished 14 strokes back of winner Amy Yang - a 16-year-old amateur, nonetheless.
 
But, as Wada pointed out, Miyazato didnt arrive in South Africa until the Tuesday night before the tournament began due to problems acquiring her U.S. visa, which she needs for this season. And she had only one round ' a pro-am ' to familiarize herself with the course and her partner ' both of which were different from the year prior.
 
While a little depressed in the aftermath of her World Cup performance (which may have contributed to her less-than-stellar play in Australia), Miyazato is neither sulking nor crumbling under the intense weight on her narrow shoulders, says Takekawa. Rather, shes looking very much forward to her foray into womens golf in the States.
 
Miyazato is expected to play about 20 LPGA events this season. It begins this week, where she has her two older brothers, Yusaku and Kiyoshi, both of whom play on the Japanese mens tour, on hand in Hawaii to help in her training.
 
In all, Team Ai consists of among others, a manager, a trainer, a translator and a veteran, English-speaking caddie who used work for Laura Davies.
 
Later this month, she will move into a home in Newport Beach, Cal., which will serve as her American base, and give her a better opportunity to explore American culture.
 
'I don't think she has any plans to go back to Japan until August,' said Wada.
 
Miyazato revealed at Q-school that she loves American music, American movies and even American food.
 
She has also befriended the likes of Finlands Minea Blomqvist and Swede Louise Stahle, both fellow rookies on tour this season, which will help make the transition a little smoother.
 
Her goal for the 2006 season is simple: I want to keep my card,' she said.
 
That wouldnt seem like much of a challenge for such a talent, but Miyazato says that she likes to take care of the little things, which, in turn, will lead to things bigger and better.
 
Though, many are anticipating the bigger and the better sooner rather than later.
 
Expectations from the media and also the public are very, very high, said Wada. People will be disappointed if she does not win on the LPGA Tour.
 
'There's a lot of pressure, but she handles the media very well. She's very level-headed, I've been told by a lot of other players.'
 
Such great expectations for such a diminutive, such a young lady. But Miyazato is not without great ambition herself. The cute girl, the one with the girl next door looks, and the omni-present smile, the one with the slow, hypnotic swing and the astute accuracy has considerable focus and drive.
 
She bypassed a chance to win last years money title on the Japanese LPGA, skipping the season finale to arrive early in the U.S. to prepare for Q-school, which was the following week. That worked out rather well.
 
But to get a real sense of her mentality one need only look at her signature. When granting an autograph request, she always pens Ai 54. The number even adorns her golf bag. Her website is ai-miyazato54.com
 
Anything is possible, she says. And when she says anything, she means ANYTHING. The 54 is in relation to her belief that shooting 54 ' making 18 birdies over 18 holes ' is possible. Its called the Vision 54 philosophy, which is shared by her idol, Sorenstam.
 
I will make it one day, she said while in Australia. I think its possible.
 
The world, not just Japan, is hers if she does.
 
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Related Links:
  • Full Coverage - SBS Open
  • Mercer Baggs - Ai Opener