Safeway Classic winner Miyazato looks for her old form
by: Becca Quint LPGA star Ai Miyazato, who was ranked No. 1 in the world after winning the 2010 Safeway Classic at Pumpkin Ridge, signs hats for campers at the Hillsboro Boys & Girls Club during a visit on Tuesday.

The trouble with being a champion? It creates great expectations. When Ai Miyazato reached No. 1 in the world last year, it meant she was no longer just another good young player on the LPGA Tour.

The native of Japan didn't go into freefall after winning her fifth and final tournament of 2010 in the Safeway Classic at Pumpkin Ridge, but she admits that it has had an effect on her performance since then.

Miyazato, who finished last season ranked No. 6 in the world, hasn't won since Portland. And she hadn't played up to her usual lofty standards until the last two months, when a pair of top-10 finishes have vaulted her back up to 22nd on the LPGA money list.

'I feel like I've been playing pretty good, but it has not really come together,' Miyazato, 26, said Tuesday during an appearance with media and sponsors for the 2011 Safeway Classic Aug. 19 to 21 at Pumpkin Ridge. 'But I played good last week, so hopefully I can get back in balance.'

Miyazato finished tied for sixth in the U.S. Women's Open at Colorado Springs, Colo., two months after a fifth-place finish in the Sybase Match Player Championship at Gladstone, N.J.

Since her 11-week reign as No. 1 on the LPGA money list last year, though, the pressure has taken some edge off her game.

'Yeah, yeah, I think that is true,' she said, flashing her engaging smile. 'But it was a great experience to be at the top of the world.'

Compounding Miyazato's challenge was the March 11 earthquake in Japan that registered 9.0 on the Richter Scale and triggered a devastating tsunami. The epicenter was in the northeastern coastal city of Sendai - Miyazato's hometown.

In Sendai, 740 died or are missing. The death toll reached 20,000 nationwide.

'To be honest, yes, a little bit,' said Miyazato when asked if the aftermath impacted her performance on the golf circuit. 'I went to high school in Sendai. I know the area, know a lot of people there.

'All my friends are safe. A couple of friends lost their houses. That was too bad. It was difficult to concentrate on my game for a while.'

The victory drought began to weigh on Miyazato's mind in recent months.

'It was,' she said, 'but not anymore. I stopped thinking about so many things. I finally realized I need to focus on things I can control.'

Miyazato spent some time with her swing coach - her father, Masaru - and with her two mental coaches, who convinced her she has the stuff that can get her to No. 1 again.

'Oh yeah, I think so, definitely,' she said. 'There are a lot of us right now with that same goal. It's very competitive.

'You need to be not perfect, but on top of both the mental and physical game. I'm still in the process. Hopefully I can get back there.'

The queenpin of the tour right now is Taiwan's Yani Tseng, who has won three times and has earned $1,329,383 in 11 events to rank as No. 1.

'Yani is head and shoulders above everyone else right now,' Miyazato said.

The 5-2, 115-pound Miyazato ranks seventh on tour in driving accuracy but is only 77th in driving distance (249.9 yards) and tied for 76th in greens in regulation. She is tied for 48th in putting in greens in regulation, a category in which she finished first a year ago.

'I'm not really a long hitter, so I need to work on my short game really hard,' she said. 'I got a good feeling about it this last week, though, and everything is getting better with my putting.'

Miyazato flew from Colorado Springs to Portland Monday night after the finish of the rain-delayed U.S. Women's Open, much to the delight of Safeway Classic Director Tom Maletis.

'Ai could have canceled, and I wouldn't have blamed her,' Maletis says. 'But she wanted to fulfill her obligation here. Shows you what kind of person she is. She is special.'

Part of it, perhaps, was the fondness she holds for Portland after her win here last season.

'This tournament is well-organized and always has big crowds,' she said. 'The people treat you very nice. I enjoyed everything about it.'

Miyazato, who has a home in Irvine, Calif., will spend a few days in Seattle before flying to Europe for the Evian Masters in Evian-les-Baines, France, and the Women's British Open. A few weeks later, she'll be back in Portland, trying to defend her title.

By then, she hopes, she'll be working her way back up the ladder toward No. 1.

'I'll get there again,' she said. 'There is still a long way to go in my career.'

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