Raw Japan

Slices of Japanese business, politics and life

Ai, Ai, Ai!

July 27, 2009

The Japanese fairway is littered with golf stars who joined the U.S. or European game highly touted, but who found themselves decidedly unexceptional amid a wealth of international talent.

Indeed, “Japan’s next Tiger Woods” — a phrase tossed about more in hope than in fact ( by myself included) —  is a misnomer, as it really hasn’t seen its first Tiger, on the global tour at least. 

But Ai Miyazato’s maiden LPGA victory at the Evian Masters on Sunday, the first since her tour debut in 2005, is refreshing, not only for her in realising the tremendous potential she earlier displayed in 14 domestic wins, but for the rabid Japanese fans and players back at home.

Many of them also watched 17-year-old Ryo Ishikawa’s first day at the British Open, where he actually played with Tiger and bested the superstar with a two-under 68, only to see the media boy wonder crash out with a 78 the next day.

While there have been Japanese victories over the years as well as Shingo Katayama’s recent fourth at the U.S. Open, expectations remain lofty — and basically unmet — in a golf-mad nation where billions in real estate and consumer goods go towards individual attempts at mastery of the game.

Shortly before joining the LPGA, Miyazato was asked at a news conference I attended about overcoming what’s called the “Jumbo Ozaki syndrome”, an incredibly successful domestic player who just can’t seem to win overseas.

GOLF-MASTERS/

Not wanting to upstage a pantheon of Japanese heroes whom she watched since learning the game in Okinawa, Ai-chan, as she’s known, gracefully sidestepped the sandtrap like a seasoned veteran.

Even in her own subsequent dry spell, Miyazato has admitted that adjusting to a different language and culture has been a factor but is not an excuse for her U.S. play.

Now, after winning in France, the 24-year-old Miyazato has joined five other Japanese women as LPGA victors, including Hiromi Kobayashi, who won 12 years ago at the same tournament, also in a playoff.

As Japanese media carried news of her victory, as well as the gleeful reactions of Miyazato and Okinawa locals, it will be fun to watch whether she remains not only in fans’ hearts, but also on the 18th green with that beaming smile on the final day.

Photo credit: REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

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