EVIAN-LES-BAINS – Tuesday, it was standing room only in the media center.
Ai Miyazato waded through a crowd of photographers and journalists for a press conference at the Evian Championship, her final event on the LPGA Tour. It was the latest in a series of surprising retirements over the last decade by the game’s superstars including Annika Sorenstam, Lorena Ochoa and Se Ri Pak, who all either walked away to start a family or pursue interests away from golf. Ai, on the other hand, hasn’t yet decided how she’ll spend retirement.
“I think it’s a different situation how we made the decision,” Ai said. “For myself, it’s about motivation, so it’s more personal.”
In May, Ai surprised the sporting world when she announced her plans to retire at the end of the 2017 season due to a lack of motivation. Rather than competing in the Tour’s swing through Asia, which includes a stop in her home country of Japan, Ai chose to say farewell in Evian, two months ahead of the season’s end. It’s where she won on the LPGA Tour for the first time in 2009.
“I feel very happy right now and I’ve felt this way since I made the decision to retire, so there really haven’t been any mixed emotions or regret,” she said.
Ai is a 15-time winner on the JLPGA and nine-time winner on the LPGA. She won two majors on the JLPGA and none on the LPGA. When asked if there was anything she wished she would have accomplished during her time on Tour, she said there was just one.
“I have always wanted a pet, but couldn’t because of all the travelling I do,” Ai told LPGA.com via email. “I’d like to bring a dog or a cat, maybe both[!!] in to my life and I’m definitely going to adopt!!”
That answer is key to understanding the absence of normalcy in Ai’s life over the last decade.
From the beginning of her career, more than three-dozen Japanese media traveled the world following Ai, documenting every round she plays. Whether a putt to win on Sunday or an inconsequential one on Thursday, Ai’s career has been under a microscope.
Saturday, her compatriot, Ayako Uehara, spent 90 minutes answering questions from the Japanese media after playing her way into Sunday’s final group in Evian. That’s the sort of obligation Ai has endured in every round, every week, at every tournament she played.
“I've never seen any single LPGA player get the media attention Ai got since Nancy Lopez was a rookie,” said veteran golf writer Ron Sirak.
By 2010, Miyazato Mania had engulfed Japan. It was the height of her dominance on the LPGA Tour. She won the 2005 qualifying tournament by 12-strokes to earn her LPGA Tour card for 2006, where more than five-dozen Japanese journalists were on hand. Ai amassed seven top-10s in her rookie season and crossed the million-dollar mark in career earnings the following year. In 2009, she defeated Sophie Gustafson in a playoff for her first career win at the Evian Masters.
Ai’s breakout year was 2010. She opened the season with back-to-back wins, which hadn’t been done on Tour in more than 40 years, and picked up three more victories that season to become the first player from Japan, male or female, to ascend to No. 1 in the golf rankings.
“Ai is like Tiger Woods in Japan,” said Golf Channel Japan reporter Mitsuki Katahira. “Everyone said she is like a god.”
As a young up and coming golfer from Japan, Katahira was pursuing a playing career at the time. She wasn’t able to schedule a practice round in her first LPGA Tour event in Canada so, she went out and followed Ai’s pro-am group. When Ai learned of her compatriot’s plight, she immediately took her under her wing, showed her around and taught her about the course.
“She is so tiny, but she was winning, so gave all of us hope,” said Katahira. “She is very sweet to everyone.”
As her popularity soared, Ai’s fame rivaled baseball’s Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui, and she further cemented her superstar status when she outdueled Tiger in the TV ratings when the pair played the same week in Japan. There’s nowhere Ai can go in Japan without being recognized and has often taken shelter in the United States where she has been able to live a relatively normal life without a disguise.
“Even people [who] don't play golf, they will recognized her,” said Katahira.
The grind has certainly taken its toll on the 32-year-old, who has handled the week-to-week demands with a grace not often seen among professional athletes. But among the spectacle, pressures and expectations, Ai has never outwardly expressed her frustration, if she had any. Instead, she has greeted fans and media alike, always with a smile and a kind word, even when she didn’t play her best.
“Through it all, Ai remained the nicest, kindest, most cooperative athlete I have ever dealt with,” said Sirak. “She has the most amazing heart and brain combo I've ever encountered. And, oh that smile!”
That’s the Ai the Tour has grown to know and love, and Ai will miss them too.
“It’s kind of a little bit bittersweet. I feel happy, but I’m kind of sad to leave at the same time because I’m going to miss all my friends on the Tour.”
What Lorena has done with her philanthropic work in Mexico appeals to Ai, it may serve as a guide for her in the future.
“What she's doing right now is inspiring. She's done so many things for the LPGA and for her country, too…I want to do something similar.”
But that’s a conversation for another day. Today, Ai walked away from the game. And as she stepped off the 18th green, the legendary Gary Player greeted her with a bouquet of flowers, as if to welcome her to a new group of golf’s elite. In Japan, Ai is already a legend in her own right and what she decides to do from here will only further inspire a generation of players back home.
“I hope that people can see me and say, ‘if Ai Miyazato can do it, so can I.’ Even if you’re not the tallest or the most powerful person, the possibilities are still endless!!”
Ai’s excitement for the future oozes from the answers she sent in an email for this story. She used six exclamation points, each one almost jumping from the screen.
She will take that enthusiasm forward, for as much as this week was an ending to her career in golf, it was a beginning to the rest of her life.