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Turning back the clock: Ai Miyazato leads ANA Inspiration

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RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. – Ai Miyazato buried a 12-foot birdie putt at the 18th to close out her round Thursday at the ANA Inspiration and for a moment it felt like the clocks in the Coachella Valley rolled back.

With Miyazato’s name atop that giant wooden scoreboard at Mission Hills’ Country Club’s Dinah Shore Course, it felt like 2010 again.

With a 5-under-par 67, Miyazato walked off the course as the sole leader in the year’s first major championship.

It wasn’t all that long ago that Miyazato’s name was practically a fixture atop LPGA leaderboards.

She won five times in 2010 and rose to No. 1 in the Rolex World Rankings.

Of course, the clocks didn’t roll back. Miyazato isn’t 24 years old anymore. It’s hard to believe, but she’s 30 now. She isn’t No. 1 anymore, either. In fact, before her third-place finish at the Kia Classic last week, she wasn’t among the top 100 in the world. She was No. 157.

Coming off the 18th green Thursday, walking the bridge over Poppy’s Pond, Miyazato showed us all something that hasn’t changed. Her smile. It still lights up a gallery the way it always did.

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With a round of five birdies and no bogeys, Miyazato was the early story at Mission Hills from the morning wave, but she wasn’t about to get ahead of herself thinking about how her still legion of fans would like to see her name atop the leaderboard at week’s end. She wasn’t thinking about winning her first LPGA title in almost four years.

“I'm definitely happy to see my name on the board,” Miyazato said. “But it's just the first day, and there’s a long way to go ... So, I just want to keep it going. I’m just going to say to myself, `Just be patient, just have fun.”’

From back at their Vision54 base at Talking Stick Golf Club in Scottsdale, Ariz., Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott cheered Miyazato’s patient approach. They’ve been working with Miyazato since she joined the LPGA as a Japanese sensation 10 years ago.

“Ai’s had such incredible patience for such a long time,” Nilsson said.

Miyazato has needed it working through challenges to her game in her long slide away from No. 1. There have been injuries and struggles to stay motivated, and there have been surprising putting woes, the loss of the magic that once made her the best putter in the women’s game.

What happened?

“It kind of became one thing after another,” Marriott said. “And as we’ve seen with so many No. 1s, where they’ve reached that goal, there’s the motivation you need to keep going. She had to re-evaluate. She had to figure that out.”

The putting’s coming back for Miyazato. Back at the Founders Cup in Phoenix two weeks ago, where Miyazato missed the cut, Marriott and Nilsson helped correct something. Marriott noticed the ball skipping off Miyazato’s putter face.

“Ai likes to use that forward press, so Lynn asked her to check the loft on her putter,” Nilsson did.

Miyazato did, and she added 2 degrees of loft to her putter, taking her up to 4 degrees to compensate for the forward press. Miyazato finished third at the Kia Classic after making the change, recording her first top-10 finish in an LPGA event since 2013, when she tied for sixth at the Lotte Championship.

Marriott and Nilsson are happy to hear Miyazato focusing on patience, because they believed at year’s start that her game and mindset were back in a good place. They didn’t want to see Miyazato get frustrated with her sluggish start and then her missed cut in Phoenix.

“We said there’s nothing wrong with your game,” Marriott said. “You’re on a plateau. You’re doing all the right things. Just hang in there.”

Even in her struggles, Miyazato remains a superstar in Japan, where she doesn’t play that often. When she does, though, she’s still the largest draw in women’s golf.

“It’s amazing how much she’s adored and looked up to,” Nilsson said.

As much as all Miyazato’s fans would love to see her ascend back to the top of the game, Miyazato says she doesn’t think about that as much as she does trying to win again. She has won nine LPGA titles but is still seeking her first major.

“I know how hard it is to be No. 1 in the world, because I've experienced it before,” Miyazato said. “That's actually not my goal anymore, because I’ve been there before. But still I want to win. That's my motivation, especially this week. It has been my dream since I was a kid. So that, I think, pushes me so much.”