Miyazato hoping to claim her first Major title

Ai Miyazato

Japan’s Ai Miyazato has high hope of claiming her first major title when she tees up in this week’s Ricoh Women’s British Open at Carnoustie.

The 26 year-old from Okinawa won the seventh LPGA Tour title of her career at last week’s Evian Masters in France and has now set her sights on becoming the first Japanese golfer to win the Ricoh Women’s British Open since Ayako Okamoto at Woburn back in 1984.

“Yes, I have huge confidence right now, and I’m ready for this week,” said the diminutive 5’ 2” Japanese star who has a fine pedigree in this Championship, having finished 5th in 2008, 3rd in 2009, the last time she won the Evian, and then 9th last year at Royal Birkdale. “I like the course, it’s an amazing golf course and I’d love to be contending on Sunday afternoon.”

Miyazato is currently wearing a button on her hat to publicise the Foundation she set up, together with fellow Tour players, Mika Miyazato and Momoko Ueda, to raise funds for the victims of the huge earthquake which devasted her home country earlier this year. She has also vowed to give a large percentage of last week’s winner’s cheque to the victims.

“I haven’t decided yet what to do exactly, whether it will be all of the amount or a sum (part) of it, but I will definitely be making a donation,” she said.

“I’m wearing this button because I want to get as much support, not just from Japan, but all over the world. By wearing this button and playing, I have Japan in my thoughts, and it gives me motivation to play as well.”

Miyazato is not the only competitor to go into this week’s Championship with thoughts of her homeland at the forefront of her mind. Another is Norway’s Suzann Pettersen, the 2007 LPGA champion, who was also competing in France when she heard the news of the mass killings in her country last Friday.

“It’s heartbreaking,” she said. “Yesterday, they held a fantastic ceremony in Oslo. It was meant to be a parade, but there was actually too many people to walk in the parade, so they had to cancel the parade and hold a tribute instead. 150,000 gathered for it. There are only 500,000 people living in Oslo, so it was as crowded as anyone has ever seen the place.”

“Really what’s amazing in all of this is how we all stick together,” she added. “We stay strong together. Obviously, no-one can do anything about what actually happened, but we can all stay together for the future. It’s just so sad, so very, very sad.

“From my perspective it’s a bit like our 9/11 and, because of the size of the country, so many people have been affected one way or another. In Norway they actually cancelled all sports events throughout the weekend. Friday night, every bar, restaurant, public place was closed. It was a ghost town.

“Sport means nothing when it comes to situations like this. You go out there and you fight for your friends and all the kind Norwegians at home.”

Pettersen begins the quest for her first Ricoh Women’s British Open title at 11.37 (BST) on Thursday morning when she goes out alongside America’s Paul Creamer and Japan’s Sakura Yokomine. She is followed in the next group by 2008 champion Jiyai Shin, Juli Inkster and Beatriz Recari and at 12.10 by defending champion Yani Tseng, Morgan Pressel and Mika Miyazato.

Ai Miyazato is out in the fifth group, at 07.14 in the company of Michelle Wie and the highly rated Korean, Na Yeon Choi, while another of the pre-Championship favourites, Cristie Kerr goes out even earlier, in the third group at 06.52 in the company of Japan’s Momoko Ueda and home hope, Catriona Matthew, the winner of the Ricoh Women’s British Open title at Royal Lytham & St Annes in 2009.

Kerr has done everything but win during a successful 2011 campaign during which she was runner-up at the Sybase Match Play Championship, second at the LPGA State Farm Classic and the Shoprite LPGA classic and third at the Kia Classic and the Wegmans LPGA Championship. She also has an excellent record in the Ricoh Women’s British Open having finished 6th, tied 8th and tied 5th on her last three visits.

“I been playing very well and I might have had another top-5 finish last weekend (at the Evian) if I’d had a good Sunday,” she confirmed. “I suppose it has been a bit frustrating, but I’ve just got to keep plugging away and my time will come.

“I love the golf course,” she added. “It’s challenging but fair and I’ve always enjoyed playing over here. It’s my favourite kind of golf, you know. I like golf where you don’t have to be perfect, where the bounces are going to be different. It’s interesting every day.”

The privilege of hitting the first shot of the Championship goes to Swede, Caroline Hedwall, who tees up at 06.30 in the company of compatriot, Anna Nordqvist, and amateur, Sophia Popov from Germany, the reigning European Ladies’ Amateur champion.

Both Hedwall and Nordqvist are now successful professionals but have warm memories of competing in this Championship as amateurs. Nordqvist won the Smyth Salver, awarded to the leading amateur who competes 72 holes in 2008, while Hedwall claimed the same award while finishing tied-12th behind Yani Tseng at Royal Birkdale twelve months ago.

Hedwall has subsequently gone on to make a spectacular start to her career in the professional ranks and currently holds a substantial lead on the LET’s Rolex Rookie of the Year table, having won twice in eleven starts at the Allianz Ladies Slovak Open and the Finnair Masters.

This year, Popov, who is currently ranked No. 6 on the official Women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking and is a student at the University of Southern California, is one of six amateurs in this year’s 144-woman field. The others are England’s Lauren Taylor, who earlier this year became the youngest-ever winner of the Ladies’ British Open Amateur Championship at the age of 16, 2010 US Women’s Amateur champion Danielle Kang, Scot Pamela Pretswell who won the 2010 British Women’s Open Amateur Championship, plus qualifiers Nikki Foster from England and Stephanie Meadow from Northern Ireland.

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