In 2004 Ai Miyazato (below), only 19, won the Elleair Ladies Open in Saita, Japan. That same week Tiger Woods won the Dunlop Phoenix Open. In the battle of TV numbers Ai made Tiger look tiny (6.1 rating to 5.3). A year later Ai won the LPGA's Q school by a record 12 shots, and her popularity soared even higher. Photographers and film crews began following her every move, to the point that in Japan she would wear a disguise to shop. Three good but not spectacular LPGA seasons followed—her best finish was a second at the '07 HSBC Match Play. The pressure to win, especially from home, became a burden. Her usually upbeat mood soured, and golf didn't look like fun for her. But this spring I noticed a new confidence in her walk, as if she had come to terms with all of the expectations and cultural difficulties. I told a friend that I thought she would win before long. At the U.S. Women's Open she looked even looser than she had earlier in the year, and two weeks later she took home her first LPGA title, the Evian Masters. During that event LPGA.com had its second-highest number of visitors for a nonmajor (35% of them from Japan), which made it clear how big a piece of the LPGA puzzle Ai could be going forward—especially since Japanese companies have been loyal sponsors of the tour. And now that the pressure's off, Ai could become a regular winner. She almost made it two in a row at the Women's British Open (tie for third; one-over 289). That success is a long time coming and well deserved.
Dottie Pepper is a 17-year LPGA veteran and an on-course analyst for NBC and Golf Channel.
GOLF PLUS will next appear in the Aug. 24 SPORTS ILLUSTRATED.