Japan's Mighty Mouse flying high again

Ai Miyazato at CN Canadian Women’s Open's Championship Round 2 at Hillsdale Golf & Country Club in...

Ai Miyazato at CN Canadian Women’s Open's Championship Round 2 at Hillsdale Golf & Country Club in Mirabel, near Montreal on August 26 2011. (MARIE-CLAUDE FOREST/QMI Agency)

JON MCCARTHY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 7:33 PM ET

MIRABEL, Que. -- This is the story of a mouse, a frog and a grasshopper.

"Miyazato is at 11-under," one fan says to another during round two of the CN Canadian Women's Open Friday at Hillsdale Golf and Country Club outside Montreal.

"And look how short she is," responds his buddy.

This sums up what most North American golf fans know about Ai Miyazato.

It's Friday morning and Miyazato, the first-round leader, arrives to the tee wearing a yellow top, a short white golf skirt, and a pair of knee-high socks that might come up just past Michelle Wie's ankles.

Starting her round on the 10th hole, Miyazato makes four consecutive pars before getting hot and rolling in back-to-back birdie putts on 14 and 15. She sits at 9-under par for the tournament.

* * * * *

Last year, a Golf Digest headline dubbed the 5-foot-2 Japanese star Mighty Mouse. A fitting description, although it's been a very difficult year for the little superhero.

After winning five times in 2010 and holding the No. 1 ranking for a while, disaster struck.

Literally.

"I had great expectations coming into this year since I had a great season last year," Miyazato said. "But, there was the earthquake earlier this year, so that had a bit of an effect on me, both on and off the course."

* * * * *

Coming off back-to-back birdies, Miyazato arrives at the 16th tee -- her seventh hole -- as play by the groups in front of her grinds to a halt.

It's time to wait.

Miyazato's caddy pulls out his notebook and heads over to watch a few putts on the 18th green. After all, a little advance scouting can't hurt. And there could be a lot on the line Sunday when his player arrives at the final hole.

Miyazato keeps herself busy by checking out the shiny Audi on display behind the tee. Could our leader already be looking at things to spend the winner's cheque on?

"No," Miyazato said after her round, pointing to a Honda logo on her sleeve. "I have a Honda."

* * * * *

Miyazato was in Japan after playing in the HSBC Women's Champions event in Singapore when the March 10 earthquake and subsequent tsunami devastated northern Japan. Miyazato's family is from southern Japan but she went to high school in northern Sendai, near the quake's epicenter. She spent a gut-wrenching four days trying to track down all her friends to make sure they were alive.

They were. But trying to play world-class golf quickly became impossible.

"At first I didn't realize that the tsunami had that much of an effect on me, especially on the golf course," she said. "But, you know, when I was on and off the golf course, there were some times that the tsunami was always on my mind."

Miyazato broke 70 just once in the four months following the disaster. Her best stroke-play result was a tie for 20th at the Shoprite LPGA Classic.

* * * * *

The wait on the 16th tee is finally over and Miyazato has the honours. There's little reason to watch, though, because everyone in the gallery knows where the ball is going to land.

Miyazato's drives find the fairway more than 80% of the time and with the generous landing areas this week at Hillsdale, that percentage will only be going up.

This drive is no different but it lands 30 yards behind the balls of her playing partners, American Stacy Lewis and Sweden's Maria Hjorth. Nothing new for Miyazato, who is 78th on tour in driving distance and averaging just 230 yards off the tee so far this week while getting next to no roll on the waterlogged fairways.

"When I came on tour my first year, I did want to hit the farther," she would say after the round. "As a result, though, I lost my style of how I play golf. But now I feel confident about the way I play."

This time, however, she misses the green and makes her first bogey of the week.

* * * * *

During the difficult stretch in the months after the tsunami, Miyazato thought winning tournaments for her fans back home could help ease her country's pain. But the added pressure she placed on herself wasn't paying off.

"I tried to give back to the people in Japan with good results with my golf," she said. "But I found out that didn't really work because it's not the way I usually play."

Miyazato's game is based on tempo, as well as having one of the most graceful swings ever seen, so trying to press the issue was a recipe for disaster. It didn't take her long to figure it out and, after a tie for sixth at the Women's U.S. Open in early July, she won two weeks later at the Evian Masters in France.

Miyazato donated more than half her $487,000 US winner's cheque to the disaster relief fund.

* * * * *

After making the turn at 8-under, Miyazato begins her back nine just like her front nine: par, par, par, par.

She is now standing on the fifth tee when something on the ground catches her eye. She taps her caddie on the arm. Whatever it is down there, it is small and it is moving.

Miyazato has a phobia. She does NOT like frogs.

She did, however, tell Golf Digest in an interview that she is working with her coaches on how to deal with encountering frogs on the golf course.

Does your golf pro have a lesson for that?

Whatever they were looking at, it doesn't seem to bother Miyazato for long as she hits another drive down the centre of the fairway and makes her first birdie on the back nine.

"It wasn't a frog, it looked like a grasshopper laying an egg on the ground," she said afterwards. "It was something I wasn't used to seeing, that's why me and my caddie had to look at it."

* * * * *

With a win and three top 10s in her past four events, Miyazato's golf game is getting back to the level that saw her atop the Rolex world rankings for parts of 2010. The personal and professional struggles she has endured this year have helped her to put things in better perspective.

"I feel that nothing is really given to me very easily," she said. "So, by now, I do feel that I tend to appreciate things a lot more than usual, or than before."

* * * * *

Miyazato has learned over the past year life can sometimes get in the way of golf.

Today, however, wasn't one of those days. Miyazato birdies twice in a three-hole stretch and arrives at her final hole in first place at 11-under.

She hits her 13th out of a possible 14 fairways, has a quick but animated discussion with her caddy and strikes her approach shot to the elevated ninth green.

A fan tracking the flight of the ball watches it land and then describes the shot to his buddy.

"She's short," he said.

No problem. That's never bothered her before.

Miyazato gets up and down for par and heads to the weekend atop the leaderboard at the CN Canadian Women's Open.


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