Resurgent Ai Miyazato tied for lead in ANA Inspiration
RANCHO MIRAGE: Ai Miyazato rediscovered her game last week. On Thursday, the 30-year-old Japanese player found herself at the top of a major championship leaderboard at the ANA Inspiration.
“I was kind of struggling the last couple years,” Miyazato said. “It was really hard.”
She made it look easy in her morning round at tree-lined Mission Hills, shooting a 5-under 67 for a share of the first-round lead with Spanish friend Azahara Munoz.
“I’m definitely happy to see my name on the board,” Miyazato said.
It used to happen a lot, especially in 2010 when she won five LPGA Tour titles and was No. 1 in the world for 11 weeks. She’s ranked 90th now after climbing 67 spots Monday with a third-place finish Sunday in Carlsbad in the Kia Classic. It was her first top-10 finish since April 2013.
“That was huge,” Miyazato said. “I definitely gained my confidence and I really felt good with my game again. I was kind of really happy to play golf again.”
The nine-time LPGA Tour winner has no aspirations to return to No. 1.
“I know how hard it is to be No. 1 in the world because I’ve experienced it before,” Miyazato said. “That’s actually not my goal anymore because I went there before. But still I want to win. That’s my motivation, especially this week.”
Short off the tee and in stature at 5-foot-2, Miyazato birdied four of the first six holes and closed with a 12-foot birdie putt on the par-5 18th in calm conditions.
“It’s just the first day and it’s a long way to go,” Miyazato said. “Just need to keep it going. I’m going to still say to myself, ‘Just be patient and just have fun.’”
Munoz bogeyed the 18th hole in the windy afternoon session to drop into the tie.
Well back off the tee, the Spaniard hit her second shot into the right fairway bunker. With water fronting the green and wind in her face, she hit her third through the green to the back fringe. That left a difficult downhill putt that she did well to hit to 7 feet.
“Obviously, I didn’t want to hit it in the water,” Munoz said. “I know you’re not supposed to think that, but the lie wasn’t the best. It was a little down, and the wind was really into my face, so we tried to play past the pin, and I mean, the contact was really good, so it just came a little too long and it was quite an impossible putt from there. But to be honest, I’m glad it just flew the water.”
Munoz won the 2012 Match Play Championship for her lone LPGA Tour title.
“I’ve been really working on my attitude, but the results haven’t really showed,” Munoz said. “I know I need to keep believing in myself and eventually it’s going to happen.”
Scotland’s Catriona Matthew, South Africa’s Lee-Anne Pace and Japan’s Shiho Oyama were a stroke back.
Long-hitting Lexi Thompson, the 2014 winner, was at 69 in a large group that included Gerina Piller and South Korean stars In Gee Chun and Ha Na Jang.
“It was a pretty good day,” Thompson said. “I putted really well. I didn’t hit too many fairways, and was a little off, off the tee, but they were very solid tee shots.”
Chun is returning from a back injury that sidelined her for a month. The US Women’s Open champion was hurt when she was struck by a hard-case suitcase that Jang’s father dropped down an escalator at the Singapore airport.
“I say hi today in the morning to In Gee, and yesterday, too,” said Jang, a two-time winner this year. “There’s no problem right now.”
Top-ranked Lydia Ko opened with a 70. The 18-year-old New Zealander won Sunday at Carlsbad.
“I was striking my irons and everything fairly good, but I didn’t hit my drive very well, especially on the back nine,” Ko said. “I gave myself quite a few looks up the hill for birdie, but I just wasn’t able to commit to my speed.”
Second-ranked Inbee Park and Michelle Wie also shot 70.
Wie stood more upright and crouched on her short putts, trying to emulate Jack Nicklaus. On longer putts, she continued to lower her torso almost parallel to the ground.
“I kind of always saw how Jack putted and it kind of worked out OK for him,” Wie said. “I’ve always been kind of like Jack in putting and stuff, and I decided to go a little more narrow.”
Defending champion Brittany Lincicome and 2011 winner Stacy Lewis shot 72. Last year, Lincicome eagled the final hole of regulation and beat Lewis on the third hole of a playoff. Lincicome also won the 2009 event.