Thanksgiving is the time of year when everyone looks back and finds reasons to be thankful. The same is true for many of the players on the LPGA Tour and the Symetra Tour (formerly known as the LPGA Futures Tour). So as we all gather together this Thanksgiving, the LPGA is taking time to explore why we are thankful this holiday season. Today is part four of our five-part series and next we feature Ai Miyazato.
Ai Miyazato's career on the LPGA Tour seemingly goes back and forth from the spotlight to the microscope.
It started in the spotlight back home in Japan, where she won 11 times on the Japan LPGA before she ever came to the United States. That glare of the spotlight continued at the American-based LPGA Final Qualifying Tournament in 2005, which she won by 12 strokes to earn her full LPGA playing status for the 2006 season. She also did that with more than 50 members of the Japanese media following her to Florida and documenting every move.
And Miyazato's career continues to share both the spotlight and the microscope as she emerges as a rising LPGA star in the United States. She handled the Japanese media's questions with patience and grace when asked about her 2011 season "with only one LPGA win" during her return home to Japan in November for the Mizuno Classic.
"I remember when she was still a teenager, how she came to Australia to play and this horde of media followed her," said Hall of Famer Karrie Webb. "I've always felt for her because she's had the weight of Japan on her shoulders. The way she has handled it has been amazing."
Since her 2006 rookie season, Miyazato worked hard to adjust to life in the United States and to the competition on a deeper U.S.-based LPGA Tour. She recorded seven top-10 finishes that first year, six top-10s in 2007, and finally became a Rolex First-Time Winner on the LPGA at the Evian Masters in 2009.
She also largely mastered a new language, accepted her role as Japan's central focus, and worked hard in 2010 to win five LPGA titles and contend for top honors alongside the LPGA's best players. The diminutive player from Okinawa even held the Rolex Rankings' No. 1 spot for 11 weeks during the 2010 season.
"Physically, she's 5-foot-1 and she doesn't smash the ball out there like Yani Tseng or Suzann Pettersen, but she still finds a way to win," added Webb. "She's just a fighter and she has this great demeanor, especially when you think about the great burden she's had with so much media pressure."
Webb said one of the things that has impressed her the most has been Miyazato's interest and determination to learn English now that she is playing a full-time schedule in the United States. During her rookie season on the LPGA Tour, Webb said the Japanese player took a studious approach to her daily conversations with English-speaking players.
"She carried around a notebook with her and every new English word she learned, she wrote it down, along with the word's meaning in Japanese," said Webb. "It was so cute the way she did that. That's how she learned."
As for her fellow Japanese members of the LPGA Tour, they also paid attention to how Miyazato approached her budding career in the United States.
"Ai came here first, so she's really respected," said LPGA tour member Mika Miyazato (no relation). "We want to play good golf together over here and we talk a lot. She's like a sister to me."
Ai Miyazato's success continued in 2011. She won the Evian Masters again this year, tied for sixth at the U.S. Women's Open Championship and posted six top-10 finishes.
With a steady fourth-ranked LPGA putting average of 27.17 putts per round, Miyazato finished the 2011 season ranked No. 8 in LPGA earnings at over $1 million. She also finished the year as No. 9 in the Rolex Women's World Golf Rankings.
Here is what Miyazato had to say recently about her 2011 season on the LPGA Tour:
How do you view your 2011 season in golf?
My highlight was definitely winning the Evian Masters. In the beginning of the season, we had the earthquake in Japan and it was really difficult to focus on my game after that. I started to pick up my game after the U.S. Women's Open. I finished tied for sixth place in the Open and after that, I started playing better. I was really ready for the win at the Evian. I love that place because it's so beautiful there. That tournament was my first win on the LPGA Tour, so I have good memories there. It was a real highlight this year.
Last year, the race for all the LPGA honors was really tight. How much pressure did you put on yourself this year, based on how you finished in 2010?
Last year, I played really, really solid. It almost exceeded what I thought I could potentially do, but also, I was inspired a lot by the other players. I wanted to take the time to grow up and become a strong player, so I didn't feel like I needed to put pressure on myself to have as good a result as I had last year. My goal was just play good golf. I had a really busy off-season last year and I didn't have time off. At the beginning of this season, I wasn't ready to win. Then the earthquake and tsunami in Japan happened in March and I didn't have very good momentum. Considering all that happened, I just wanted to grow and just let the season happen.
What did it take to get your mind in a place to win after the earthquake in Japan?
It was tough not to think about Japan, but what I decided to do was to think about the good things I can do for Japan. Playing well was something that could motivate me on the golf course. Before I decided to do that, I tended to put a lot of pressure on myself and that didn't help anything.
Obviously, 2011 has been a tough year. How did the events that happened in Japan affect you personally?
I lived in Sendai when I went to high school - for almost four years. I went back to that area in September and saw the damage. It was very shocking and very sad. I felt powerless. I couldn't do anything to help right away. I know many people there.
When and how did you find out about the earthquake and tsunami?
I was in Tokyo on my way going back to the United States. I was on an airplane that flew from Okinawa to Tokyo and the earthquake happened while I was on the plane before it landed at the airport in Tokyo. So many friends sent me emails asking me where I was and if I was OK? My friends didn't know I was on the airplane. I didn't know what had happened. I was like, 'Yeah, I'm OK. What happened?' And then one of my friends told me about a tsunami approaching the Sendai Airport. It actually struck the airport. I still couldn't completely understand what happened. Tokyo shook a little bit, too, and all transportation just froze. In what would normally take me half an hour, it took seven hours to go from the airport to the hotel in Tokyo. Every TV channel was talking about the earthquake and tsunami and showing video footage of the disaster. Even after that, there were aftershocks in Tokyo from the earthquake -- so many times. It was scary.
When you went back to Sendai for a golf tournament in September, what did you see and what were your emotions while you were there?
I went to Sendai mainly to play in a tournament. I wanted to prepare myself to compete, so I tried not to think too much about what had happened. I was already emotional about it and I didn't want to get even more emotional when I got there. I thought that maybe if I played well in the tournament, I could encourage people in Sendai to feel better about their lives. That was my intention, just to encourage people through my play.
Does one memory that stand out from that visit to Sendai?
There were so many spectators on the golf course that week -- more than I ever thought would be there. It was unbelievable! So many people came to watch - more than 20,000 people that week, which is the most ever for that tournament. I really didn't think that many people would be able to come, but all the people who were there said to me, "Thank you for coming and thank you for playing in this tournament." In turn, I think it was me who was thankful. I received encouragement from them. They appreciated the players coming there to compete in that tournament in Sendai. Japan Airlines and other sponsors donated funds for the earthquake relief fund and a percentage of players' winnings also were donated. I think we were able to help many people.
You and fellow LPGA players Mika Miyazato and Momoko Ueda of Japan all decided to make and wear badges that said, "Never Give Up Japan" while you played in LPGA tournaments this year. How did that project happen?
I spoke to my manager in the United States. I called him and asked what we could do to help? I told him I thought we should do something. Then we talked about making badges and we came up with this idea. While playing in the United States, we would each wear a badge and people could see that on TV. The reason we made them in Japanese is we wanted people in America to see the Japanese characters and ask us about it. And we wanted the Japanese viewers in Japan to see the writing on the buttons. It would encourage them.
What do you think you were able to accomplish through these badges?
Many other people - like players, spectators, pro-am partners saw the buttons and donated money through the website. I'm appreciative that people acted so quickly. I haven't really had this type of charitable activity before, but I've always wanted to do something for other people. Because of the disaster, it helped me to start thinking about contributing to the world and to world organizations and being involved in charities.
Is there any comparison between winning tournaments and helping people?
Yes, I think they are similar, but not just in the money part of it. Just giving hope to others can impact people.
You dominated women's golf in Japan, and then you came to the U.S. How have things changed for you?
Everything is different - the language, culture and travel. I played two years in Japan when I was 19 and 20. Japan is not a big country and it's really easy to travel there. Most of the tournaments in Japan last three days and you can go back home between the tournaments. Over here, you travel a lot - almost every week. In Japan, everything is organized, like perfect, and you never get stressed, but over here, everyone does things in their own time and you need to be patient. If you go to the airport and there's a long line to check in or if you have to go through security or immigration, in America you need to be a little more patient. But overall, people are really nice and very friendly. Even though I couldn't speak English when I came to this tour, people tried to understand me and were very helpful.
Did you ever ask for advice from Ayako Okamoto, who was one of the first successful Japanese players on the LPGA Tour?
Yes, I talked to her at a tournament in Japan this year. At the time, my putter wasn't working too well. I went up to Ayako and asked her for some advice. She told me my putts would drop some day -- that the ball [will eventually] go into the cup. That's so true and it's very simple. It is going in some day. That simple thought helped me take off some of the pressure I was feeling.
Have any other LPGA players helped you in any way?
Karrie Webb is a really good friend. I have known her for a while. She always invites me to dinner when we are in Japan for the Mizuno Classic. I've learned so many things from her - especially when I was struggling with my driver three or four years ago. She gave me some good advice. She saw me play at the Mizuno Classic when I was at my lowest, as well as in Japan when I was at the top. She's seen many sides of me and she has given me helpful suggestions over the years.
Are you at peace with yourself in 2011 and happy with what you have been able to do this year?
I am happy, but also at the same time, there are some things I could have done different. Every year is different, but having won the Evian was very big. It's been a dream of mine to play on this tour since I was little and I love being in America. I get to experience a lot of things and I'm really satisfied in my life. I appreciate the LPGA Tour, as well as all the players I get to play with.
Will you change anything for 2012?
I thought about so many different things this year, but basically, I want to enjoy every single moment of my life. I want to find more things that will make me happy in both golf and in my life outside of golf. That's really my big goal for next year.
- LPGA senior writer Lisa D. Mickey
Tomorrow will be part five of the series where we take a look Alexandra Braga.