Yes, you can see something special in the elegant tempo of Ai Miyazato’s golf swing and the terrific rhythm of her putting stroke, but the reason she’s ascended to No. 1 in the world in women’s golf is in those blazing brown eyes.
Katherine Hull saw it as she tried to run her down Sunday in the final round of the Shoprite LPGA Classic.
“I turned to my caddie Vern [Tess] and said 'look at her eyes',” Hull said. “She’s burning a hole in the back of the cup.
“The biggest difference I notice in her is how determined she looks. She’s so focused.”
Miyazato closed with a 7-under-par 64 to win for the fourth time this LPGA season. The victory vaulted her ahead of Jiyai Shin atop the Rolex Women’s World Golf Rankings. She’s off to a scorching start as she seeks to succeed Annika Sorenstam and Lorena Ochoa as this new era’s dominant player.
Two years ago, LPGA players couldn’t see this coming. The Japanese phenom who dominated her country’s tour and looked poised to do the same here after winning the LPGA Qualifying Tournament had lost her momentum and her confidence.
“She’s really coming into her own from a time where it seemed like she couldn’t make a putt or hit a fairway,” said Morgan Pressel, who joined the tour as a rookie with Miyazato. “I love her game. She’s very consistent, fairways and greens, and she’s a great putter. She makes everything.”
“I first played with her in Australia five years ago,” Hull said. “She was like a movie star. I’d never seen anything like it.”
At just 5 feet 2 and not likely more than 105 pounds, Miyazato’s potential was at odds with her diminutive physical stature. She was a giant talent when she came to the United States.
A giant burden came with her.
“She came with a country’s expectations on her,” Hall of Famer Beth Daniel said. “She had a lot of pressure on her, and it’s an adjustment coming over here from Japan.”
Miyazato was winless on the LPGA her first two seasons but finished respectably on the money list, 22nd her rookie season and 17th the next year. Feeling pressure to make something happen, she tried to change her swing, seeking to add power. That led to a major plummet to 46th on the money list.
“She lost everything,” said Reiko Takekawa of the Kyodo News Service, who’s covered Miyazato since she won the LPGA qualifying tournament. “She’s come back, but there was a fear she would never get it back.”
Miyazato, 25, got it back returning to the swing that created all the excitement in Japan. She rebuilt her once fabulous short game. She also sought out the help of Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott and their Vision 54 program, billed as a philosophy of life as much as it is a mental tool for golf.
“I believe in myself and my game right now, and I feel like no matter what the situation is or the pressure is, I feel like I can play my game right now,” Miyazato said.
Her game doesn’t seem suited to domination. She isn’t the power player that Sorenstam and Ochoa were. She’s got middle-of-the-pack power, ranking 105th in driving distance (243.7 yards per drive). She crushes challengers, though, with her precision, her driving accuracy, iron play and especially her short game.
“What she’s got right now is a ton of confidence,” Daniel said. “As a player, when you think the ball’s going in the hole, you can do anything.”
Vision 54 has helped with that. It’s based on the idea that it’s possible to birdie every hole, but it’s a philosophy that’s more about breaking barriers in the mind. It’s also about enjoying the path to 54.
It’s funny, though, because as much as Vision 54 seems to be about the pursuit of perfection, Miyazato’s success can be partly attributed to her acceptance of her failures.
“Mistakes happen in golf,” she says. “So I've learned to accept those misses and move on and always think positively.”
Miyazato’s confidence came back in full when she won the Evian Masters last summer for her first LPGA title.
“It’s like another start, another beginning of my career,” Miyazato said. “I’m enjoying the process and seeing what’s going to happen.”
When Miyazato won Sunday, assuring her ascension to No. 1, the news in Japan overshadowed fellow countryman Ryo Ishikawa’s run at the U.S. Open.
“Ryo said he wanted to be like Ai someday,” Takekawa said.
He wants those blazing eyes.