Turning Heads in Japan

Photo Credit: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

April 19 2013, Katie Ann Robinson
Years ago in Japan, playing professional golf would have seemed to be a farfetched and impractical dream for youngsters who were remotely interested in the game.

In fact, juniors weren’t even allowed on the course during practical hours to drill or get in a decent round before daybreak, according to Ai Miyazato.

“Junior golfers couldn’t get on the course regularly,” said Miyazato. “I’d have to wait until it was in the afternoon behind all the members.  So it wasn’t seen as a sport many kids played back then.”

But Miyazato, along with numerous others, became the exception to the impossibility of becoming a professional golfer.

Her passion for golf derived from being the only daughter and youngest of three children in a household that lived for the sport. Her father was a teaching professional, while her brothers took up golf at a young age. But her mother was the biggest influence of all.

“I just naturally followed their footsteps and began going to practice with them,” said Miyazato said of her brothers. “My father is still my swing coach and my brothers play professionally in Japan.  But my mother introduced the game to my father so without her, maybe we won’t be playing golf right now!”

Miyazato proved to be quite the competitor among the junior and amateur ranks in Japan, notching her first-career victory on the LPGA of Japan (JLPGA) when she was in high school at the age of 18. Following her win, she turned professional in 2004 and went on to record 11 additional wins in a two-year span, including the Japan Open Championship where she became the youngest player to win a major at age 20.

It was at that point in her career that heads were being turned her way in Japan, giving the notion that she could be the next Ayako Okamota – who had been a superstar on both the JLPGA and LPGA Tours.

Needless to say, Miyazato had revived the JLPGA Tour single-handedly with her major championship win, drawing the largest crowds in JLPGA history during the final round of her major championship win. 

Her fan following in Japan is still prevalent each year as the LPGA Tour ventures to Japan for the Mizuno Classic. As she enters her eighth season on the LPGA Tour with nine victories to her name, there’s not a doubt that she’s helping change the state of golf in her home country.

But the modest Miyazato says she can’t take all the credit.

“It is certainly very popular with many good juniors coming out and the professional tours for both men and women doing very well,” said Miyazato. “Japanese people love golf and it is always a great feeling when I go back and play since many spectators come out and support us. 

“I’m not sure if I’ve made big impressions but I’ll say that it is very fun to have seven Japanese players on the LPGA tour right now and three are from my hometown of Okinawa.”

Although she was looking to carry her success on to the LPGA Tour immediately, it took three years for Miyazato to earn her first-career LPGA victory, the 2009 Evian Masters. But winning on the Tour wasn’t the only difficult task for the 26-year-old.

“I had always wanted to play on the LPGA since little so I was really looking forward to coming to the U.S.,” said Miyazato. “It was everything that I had hoped for but very difficult to adjust to the new surroundings, people, language, travel distances, etc. Making friends on Tour was difficult because I couldn’t speak English, it was difficult to adjust to the American culture as some things that were normal to me in Japan didn’t apply, so I really worked hard until I can feel as part of the tour and enjoy the life in the U.S.”

Now nearly fluent in English and having adjusted to Tour life, Miyazato is most recognized for her generous spirit, congenial manner and infectious smile on the course. Ask her playing peers and they will say her behavior and deeds best exemplify the spirits, ideals and values of the LPGA. In fact, that is the exact criteria in which they measured who to select for the William and Mousy Powell award at last year’s Rolex Awards.

Miyazato won.

“It was such an honor to have won the award, especially when it was voted from other players on Tour,” beamed Miyazato. “And to be included amongst the past winners whom are not just great players but people, I can’t feel more honored.”

Looking to tally her fifth consecutive season with a win, and her second season with multiple victories, Miyazato is optimistic about her 2013 campaign, especially after a runner-up finish at the RR Donnelley LPGA Founders Cup.

“I feel good about my game so far,” said Miyazato. “I had a very restful offseason and it is always important to have that to have a successful season.  It’s a long season and if I can keep playing my game, I think I’ll be able to contend at tournaments that are coming up.”

Topics: Player Feature, Miyazato, Ai

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