A Fond Farewell for Ai Miyazato, the Pride of a Nation July 16, 2017 | BEDMINSTER, N.J. By Lisa D. Mickey

A former world No. 1 and winner of 25 tournaments worldwide, Ai Miyazato is ready for the next chapter in her life. (USGA/Darren Carroll)

U.S. Women's Open Home

Standing in the shade of a maple tree, diminutive Japanese superstar Ai Miyazato stood larger than life for at least 30 minutes, facing media with a smile on her face.

She had just played her third round in the U.S. Women’s Open Championship and was tied for 36th at 2-over-par 218.She wasn’t near the top of the leader board, but it didn’t matter to the dedicated writers and photographers – mostly from Japan – who document every tournament she plays, every day she competes and every milestone in her career.

It was that way back home, where she won 15 tournaments on the Japan LPGA, and it has continued since she joined the LPGA Tour in 2006, leaving behind her adoring homeland to test herself against the best in the world – and winning nine times.

Following her round on Saturday afternoon, Miyazato was engaged and interested. She listened to reporters’ questions, thoughtfully answered each and looked directly at her interviewer as she spoke. And as always at the end, her courtesy was punctuated by mutual bows of respect.

For the 5-foot-1 player from Okinawa, the May 29th announcement of her intention to retire at the end of 2017 smacked her golf-mad country hard. More than 300 members of the media attended her press conference in Japan. They knew when they broke the news to her homeland, they would also break some hearts of Japanese golf fans.

“There are a lot of young players in Japan who are very good, but she is really going to be missed,” said veteran Japanese golf writer Reiko Takekawa.

Miyazato achieved rock-star status back home, but it wasn’t until her 11 years of playing the LPGA Tour that she established herself as one of the world’s top players. It was during LPGA competition that she won in France, Thailand, Mexico and America, and in 2010 spent 11 weeks ranked No. 1 in the world.

When she first arrived in the United States, Miyazato struggled to balance tournament preparation with the massive demands on her time. But even after difficult rounds that sometimes sent her to the locker room in tears, she would still make the effort to issue a statement through a player representative to the assembled media.

“Ai has been under a lot of pressure ever since she got out here,” said Juli Inkster earlier in the week when asked about the Japanese player.

“After every round, every practice round, she had to answer a lot of questions,” added Inkster. “I usually just walked off the golf course and went to the locker room, but there was a lot more pressure on her. She’s really playing for the nation.”

Ai Miyazato is not only beloved by fans in her home country of Japan, but has also has gained tremendous respect from the media there. (Lisa D. Mickey)

That national pride in women’s golf started in the late 1960s with Hisako “Chako” Higuchi, who was the first woman from Japan to come to the United States to play on the LPGA Tour. She won the 1977 LPGA Championship and was saluted with a ticker-tape parade in Tokyo. Higuchi was enshrined in the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2003.

Next came Ayako Okamoto, winner of 62 tournaments worldwide, including 17 on the LPGA Tour and a runner-up finish alongside JoAnne Carner in the 1987 U.S. Women’s Open in Plainfield, N.J. Okamoto also became a Hall of Famer.

And then there was 1990 LPGA Rookie of the Year Hiromi Kobayashi and Akiko Fukushima, followed by Miyazato, Mika Miyazato (no relation) and most recently Haru Nomura, a 2017 LPGA Tour winner.

To their fans back home, each of these players represented more than just the name on their golf bags, and for Miyazato – whose brothers Kiyoshi and Yusaku play on the Japan PGA Tour – her daily results were always daily news.

“We write about her every single day, whatever happens – good day, bad day,” said Takekawa.

Miyazato was painfully honest in her May press conference back home. She told the gathered media that she had struggled with motivation for three or four years. She admitted she was scared to make a decision, but that she was finally at peace with leaving professional golf.

And when asked about that decision under the maple tree this week at the Women’s Open, Miyazato smiled.

“It feels right and I’m just following my heart,” she said. “If you don’t have really strong motivation, you can’t compete on this tour. I’m glad I made the decision to retire.”

Miyazato, 32, does not have immediate plans about her future. She will play the LPGA’s 2017 schedule, but her retirement announcement has prompted something of a “goodbye tour” from American friends who have embraced the gentle spirit of the fiery competitor.

Former LPGA Tour member Meaghan Francella, who lives in nearby Westchester County, N.Y., attended the Women’s Open on Saturday to seek out her friend.

“I really wanted to come say goodbye to Ai because I don’t know when I’m going to see her again,” said Francella.

A two-time LPGA Tour winner, Francella recalled a difficult time during her own career when she was struggling with her driver and losing confidence. She opened up about her problems to Miyazato, who had gone through similar experiences. Francella was surprised to receive an encouraging three-page, hand-written letter from Miyazato, carefully detailing what she had gone through and how she got over her problem.

“Most people would never take the time to do something like that,” said Francella. “I’ll never forget it.”

Perhaps that ability to encourage others will enable Miyazato to further impact women’s golf back home. She is interested in working with juniors and young professionals. She is especially interested in keeping the pipeline busy between Japan and the United States with top women pros.

“They need experience on different kinds of golf courses in different kinds of weather to improve their skills,” Miyazato said. “It would help to have more Japanese women in the top world rankings. They can learn these things if they leave Japan – even just for some weeks of competition here.”

Miyazato loved competing at home, but she knew if she wanted to improve as a player, she had to leave. Some of that ambition came from watching the U.S. Women’s Open telecast while still in Japan.

“It was one of my dreams when I was a kid,” she said. “I always watched Juli [Inkster], Karrie [Webb] and Annika [Sorenstam] and dreamed that I wanted to compete with them and win against them. That motivated me so much to come over here.”

And even when the intense media coverage of the Japanese star followed her across the Pacific, Miyazato also made peace with that.

“I’ve been doing this since I was 18 and I guess I’ve mastered it by now,” Miyazato said with a laugh. “I have so many golf fans back home in my country that this is the only way I can talk to them, through the Japanese media. They want to hear what I’m thinking and what I’ve done today.”

When asked if she felt pressure or support from the constant interest in her life on and off the golf course, Miyazato said, “A little bit of both, to be honest.”

But she added, “I’ve learned that you need to find a joy to do what you do every day, even if it’s just an interview. Sometimes, I don’t want to talk, but I still need to do it. One day I’m really solid and one day, I’m not. Golf is always up and down like life, and I accept that.”

Miyazato also accepts that the life she has known as a 14-year touring pro will soon change.

“I’m very happy and I’m so excited to take the next step in my life,” she said. “I still don’t know what I’m going to do, but I’m excited about the future.”

And if Miyazato’s future looks anything like her past, chances are good there will still be plenty to talk about.

Lisa D. Mickey is a Florida-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to USGA websites.

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