I followed Ai Miyazato — Japan’s greatest player since joining the Tour in 2006, a nine-time winner and currently World No. 9 — on her back nine in Friday’s second round of the RR Donnelley LPGA Founders Cup at the Wildfire Golf Club at the JW Marriott Phoenix Desert Ridge Resort.
She had begun her round at 9-under and pushed it to 11 by the time I caught up with her. Within five holes she was 14-under and that was where she finished; she made two bogeys and two birdies over her closing four holes. That’s what the great ones do: not let a round get away from them when trouble arises.
But what impressed me once again this year was how she played in this incredible state of calm and grace. Even when she’s not smiling, she looks like she is. I can’t say I never took my eyes off her face, but I don’t remember ever seeing a frown, no matter what was happening. I asked her about it in the general media session:
I followed you on the back, Ai, and what I noticed is that you played with incredible grace and calm all day no matter what was happening. How do you do that?
[With a big bight smile] I think I had same question last year on this conference.
That was probably me.
Well, it’s not easy to be calm all day, but I just worked hard on just trying to control myself really well out there. Like I said, I’m just happy to be here and playing in the tournament again and just very thankful for all that. So that’s why I think I felt really calm out there. Of course I’m playing good, too, but I enjoy playing golf right now, so just make it simple.
And so I picked up on her answer in my immediately following exclusive interview.
My name is Bill Rand and I write a daily golf mastery blog called Eye On The Tour.com.
So basically I interview the players almost always about the mental side of the game, what I call the mastery side of the game.
Because there’s that point where you’re working on your swing and all of that —
But that doesn’t do you any good unless you have the mental side of the game.
Mmmm. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
So in your progression as a player, when did you feel like you’d moved beyond just the swing into that state of grace and calm I was asking you about in the media session?
I told you it was going to be esoteric. [Laughing]
[Laughing] Yeah. yeah. I don’t know, but it just depends on my year. Since the last three years, I think I’ve been playing really good. But I was a little bit of a struggle with my driver when I was, uhhhh, 24- 25-years old?
Right after that I met the Vision 54 ladies [Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott, Annika’s long-time coaches] and I figured out what I needed right now and, uh, trying to find out about myself. And now I know myself really well, you know, more than anybody.
Can you tell me a little bit about that? What did you discover about yourself?
Well because I worked on my swing because I wanted to hit more longer — used to be — so I changed my swing a lot and that was the problem. I changed my tempo and I lost my confidence and it wasn’t a very good feeling. But right after that, I just stayed focused on my tempo. My swing tempo is slower than anybody —
[Laughing] Yeah, but it’s something else.
So I realized that tempo was so important for my game. So the biggest thing was working on my tempo as well as enjoying my game.
But your original answer gave me the sense that it was something inside of you that you learned, not just about the golf with Pia and Lynn?
Yeah, yeah, of course, it was inside myself. And it’s really hard to explain, you know?
[Teasing] That’s why I’m asking you [laughing].
[Laughing] Yeah, I know, right?
All I can say, it’s just you need to know yourself pretty well, right? Like how I am when I’m playing well, the fine details of that.
So trying to find your way back to those fine details.
Yeah, yeah, yup.
So what kind of fine details?
You know, like what did I eat.
Or what did I talk to my caddie. Like how I felt, like heavy or light. Or my grip tension. Or my body feeling. Or my heart feeling. That stuff.
Wonderful. So are you able to control your heart rate out there while you’re playing?
Well, yeah. Kind of [laughing].
Well what I was amazed with watching you today is that you were pretty much the long driver in the group.
Well, yeah, I got a new driver since the first tournament and it seems like it’s longer than last year, so —
Yeah, but I don’t think it’s the driver.
No? [Laughing] You think? Oh, well. Good!
I was just watching how efficient your swing is. And when your swing is that efficient, you have to be playing with a lot of freedom.
So where does that freedom come from for you?
Well, you know, I got into a car accident in Thailand and I couldn’t play golf the last week or so. And now I’m just happy to be here and playing golf again. So that makes me more free [Perhaps like Yani Tseng who has learned to play the game in gratitude].
Play with gratitude now rather than taking it for granted?
Yeah. Mmm. Mmm. Yeah, exactly.
It’s funny when it’s taken away from you, right?
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
So you’re feeling okay now? That’s what I read yesterday.
Yeah. It’s [all] better.
Your putting stoke is just flawless —
It misses like everybody’s putting stroke does, but the tempo and meter of it is basically the same as your swing.
Uh, yes. When I work on my putting I work on my tempo as well as not having any doubts.
Yeah, same thing.
And how do you go about working on freedom since it’s such a big part of the game.
It’s not trying to be free. It’s more like working on commitment and working on things besides just trying to be free and end up actually giving me the freedom.
Kind of a circular thing.
Very great note to end on. You’re a great player. Thank you very much.
Thank you. Thank you. Appreciate it.
Unbeknownst to me, I almost created an international incident with this interview (not really). As a measure of Ai’s grace under pressure, the Japanese press was waiting out in the hallway. And not only were they restless to get their Japanese “gaggle” in, they were hungry.
Ai never gave me a hint that any of that was going on in the background and she was gracious and smiling her gentle smile, as ever, to the very end. This is one kind and loving human being.