Ai Eyes The Prize!

Japanese superstar Ai Miyazato is back. After suffering a demoralizing breakdown of her swing when wielding her driver, the 23-year-old sensation returns to Singapore for next week's HSBC Women's Champions with the spring returned in her step, the smile returned to her face and the self-belief oozing from every pore.

"I'm ready to win!" she says, her face beaming with a happy grin.

"I'm feeling good. I had that trouble with my driver last year but my confidence is back. My shots are getting better."

Miyazato returns to Tanah Merah, where her opening round 67 at last year's HSBC Women's Champions proved she has the game to compete, bubbling with enthusiasm.

"Oh, I love that course," she declares.

"Last year it was in such great shape. I think it was the toughest course I've ever played. I can't wait to play again. I'm not really a long hitter, but I'm a good putter and I'm hitting the ball straighter right now. I think I can play right now!"

And it's not just the pin-up girl of Japanese women's golf who believes it. Deane Herden, currently the caddie for British Open Jiyai Shin and a 17-year veteran on both the Japanese men's and women's tours, has seen such a significant improved in her game that he's predicting at least one, if not more, victories for Ai on the LPGA this year.

Such optimism is in stark contrast to the heartbreaking figure the one-time prodigy, who won the first of 15 victories on the Japan LPGA as a High School student in 2003, cut as she completely lost her stroke with the big stick in the back end of 2007 and the first half of 2008.

"My tempo is to have a really slow backswing and I kind of lost my rhythm last year. So that's why I couldn't hit. I'm more of an instinct player and I'd never had to think about things like that before, so I had no idea last year. I was like "What's changed?" but I've found it," she explained as she prepared for this week's Honda LPGA Thailand at Pattaya's Siam Country Club.

Ai's popularity among players and caddies was evident in the sadness and sympathy shown as she sometimes struggled to get the ball beyond the 200-yard mark off the tee. She admits that mentally and emotionally those times were torture for her: a player who had always found that the game of golf came to her naturally.

"Especially because I've been playing golf since I was four years old; a long time and I haven't had to think about my tempo, my rhythm and my swing before. That was really hard for me, but now I can fix it."

Ai credits her coaches Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott for getting her out of her funk by giving her training routines that completely broke the faulty rhythm she had fallen into.

"It was great; 25 per cent tempo and then 50 per cent tempo, something like that. It was really different practice for me," she explains.

"It was really great."

She's already backed up her recovery by finishing fifth in the LPGA's season-opener - the SBS Open in Hawaii - but the confidence that Miyazato is going to start winning, soon and big, isn't just based on the fact that she has finally put those problems behind her. Herden noticed a significant change in her game during the JLPGA events at the back end of last year.
"There's been a big improvement in her shot making. The flight of her irons is so much straighter; she used to be a big right-to-left player. She's driving the ball so much straighter now too," he said.

Miyazato agrees with that diagnosis, revealing the change came around the time that her driving came back to her too; around June last year, just as her results started to return to the high standards she had set earlier in her career which saw her single-handedly revive the popularity of the JLPGA when she became the youngest player ever to win a Major there.

"I still have a little bit of a right-to-left pull but I can hit a fade right now. I couldn't hit a fade two years ago. You know with the trouble I had last year I found suddenly I could hit the fade. I found where to put the club face, my arms, the shape to hit fade," she said.

The change in her game should help her at Tanah Merah. Her old swing, the draw, creates top spin which meant that the balls landed on the green and released. On Tanah Merah's elevated greens that can often equate to running through the putting surfaces, down the ample run-offs or into the choking greenside rough of the Garden Course. With the fade Miyazato can now land the ball softer and, with more back-spin, hold the putting surface better.

Having said that Tanah Merah might not be the ideal course for her to finally translate her record as a winner on the Japanese tour to the LPGA. That's not to say that she can't win, just that the long par fours and the par fives possibly suit a longer hitter and that the left-to-right dog-legs don't perfectly match her game the way they do someone like the world number one and defending champion Lorena Ochoa.

"For me that course is really hard, but she made it look easy and really simple. It didn't feel like we were playing the same course. She was textbook!" Ai says, recalling playing alongside the Mexican in last year's second round.

Still having grown up as a golfer on the greens of Okinawa, Ai is used to putting on grainy grass and she has the added incentive of trying to win a tournament that feels like her Major.

"It is! Asia's my home. I feel more comfortable here. Especially as Singapore is such a good place. Last year was my first time in Singapore; it's so beautiful, not only the golf, the town, the hotels, everything!"

Whether it's next week, or later in the year that the victory finally comes, the stars would seem to be back in line and, happily for anyone who has been charmed by Ai Miyazato, life and golf are fun again.

"I just need to trust myself more this year because my confidence is totally back," she says.

"And I feel so much happier to be playing my golf.

Topics: Player Feature, Miyazato, Ai, HSBC Women's Champions

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