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Miyazato Mania hits the U.S.

The scene is surreal, and if scripted for a movie it would be rejected as over the top. The tiny woman, barely taller than a child, breaks into a wide smile and begins to speak, only to have her first few words obliterated by a cascade of camera clicks, a persistent rat-a-tat recording her every gesture. Moving from the practice area to the first tee, she is swallowed in a sea of reporters and photographers jostling for position, desperate not to miss documenting a single moment for millions of fans in Japan eager for every exploit of the nation's hottest sports sensation.

Baseball stars Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui may be more popular in Japan than Ai Miyazato, but just barely. And this year, with Miyazato Mania coming to the United States full-time, she may well surpass them in fame, if not fortune.

Miyazato, who won't turn 21 until June, is the rare commodity that superstars are made of: She is a charmer, and she is a player. She says she is 5-foot-2, but that surely is a measurement made with the added lift of a brand new set of plastic cleats. Her long, slow, rhythmic swing is hypnotic in its grace. She has a smile that explodes like a desert sunset and leaves onlookers feeling "like you just want to give her a hug," says LPGA commissioner Carolyn Bivens. She is not long off the tee -- roughly 250 yards, which would have ranked her about 50th on tour last year -- but has an amazing ability to get the ball in the hole, almost as if by force of will, a character trait seen by everyone who plays with her.

"She is so level-headed it's scary," says Sophie Gustafson, who defeated Miyazato 1 up in last year's HSBC Women's World Match Play Championship. "I saw that in Japan when [photographers] were all over her, and she just cruised. Pictures were being taken in her backswing, and she didn't even flinch. She is also very charismatic, and I think she likes the attention -- or certainly doesn't seem bothered by it."

Miyazato has won 12 times on the Japanese women's tour, and her 67 on the Links Course at Fancourt in the final round of the Women's World Cup of Golf last year in treacherous wind was 10 strokes better than the field average and considered by many LPGA players the most impressive round of the year. Her best finish in eight career LPGA events was a T-2 at the Mizuno Classic in 2004 -- 9 strokes behind Annika Sorenstam -- and her most impressive was the T-11 in last year's Weetabix Women's British Open, where she finished 69-67. Any doubt she was ready to play full-time on the LPGA was erased at Q school last December when she won by 12 strokes. The Japanese media contingent -- about 70 people -- at LPGA International was at times larger than the gallery.

"When Ai plays in Japan, it gets more attention than the men's tournament that week," says Chako Higuchi, who in 1977 became the first Asian woman to win an LPGA event and now heads the JLPGA. "In 2004, Ai won the same week Tiger Woods was in the Dunlop Phoenix, and her tournament had twice the television rating as the men's."

No Japanese player has won an LPGA event since Akiko Fukushima won twice in 1999. But neither the attention nor the expectation bothers Miyazato.

"I never feel pressure from those [things]," Miyazato told Golf World in an e-mail interview. "I would rather get power from those."

She signs her autograph "Ai 54," a reference to the Vision 54 philosophy -- the belief she will make 18 consecutive birdies -- that drives her idol, Sorenstam.

"After playing with Annika, I no longer put any limit to myself," Miyazato said after completing her first round with Sorenstam two years ago. Her Web site is ai-miyazato54.com.

A critical part of the Vision 54 philosophy is that big things are achieved by doing small things well.

"At the moment, I will concentrate on keeping my exempt status," she says, setting a very achievable goal for the 2006 season.

Miyazato is from the village of Higashi in northern Okinawa, an island chain south of the main Japanese islands. On April 1, 1945, the largest amphibious assault of the Pacific campaign -- involving more than 180,000 U.S. troops -- landed at Higashi Beach in the closing days of World War II. The islands -- 44 of the 161 are inhabited -- remained under U.S. administration until 1972, when they were returned to Japan.

Miyazato started playing golf at age 4 -- her father, Masuru, is a golf instructor and her two older brothers, Yusaku and Kiyoshi, play on the Japanese men's tour. Miyazato won the Okinawa Junior in 1996 when she was 10, and played in her first professional event when she was 14, finishing 23rd in the Suntory Ladies' Open. Her first victory in a professional tournament came at the 2003 Dunlop Ladies Open as an amateur in Miyagi, where she was attending high school at the time.

Some of Miyazato's tastes run particularly American. Her favorite band is Green Day. "And I really like Brad Pitt," she says. "My favorite movie is 'Troy.' It's so cool."

To relax, Miyazato enjoys shopping and movies. "But it is very hard for me to go shopping without a disguise in Japan now," she says. "So I look forward to doing that in the USA -- without a disguise."

The LPGA hopes Miyazato will attract Japanese sponsorship money. That could happen. Among her 11 sponsors are top-line companies such as Bridgestone, Japan Air Lines, Suntory and Mitsubishi. The largest revenue stream for the LPGA currently is Korean TV money, and the presence of Miyazato offers the promise of similarly lucrative deals in Japan.

Early last month, Miyazato returned to Higashi for a traditional coming-of-age ceremony, which reunited her with about 30 former classmates. Wearing a red kimono, she thanked "my parents and my home area" and spoke of her excitement about playing in the United States. She will make her debut as an LPGA member at the SBS Open in Hawaii -- the season opener that starts Thursday -- and plans to play at least 20 times on tour, while living in Orange County in California.

If dedication and enthusiasm enter the equation of success, Miyazato's future shows great promise.

"I need to improve my short game," she said when asked to identify her weaknesses. "I also need to improve my English!!!"

The exclamation points are hers, indicative of an energy that might make her so many fans in the United States that she'll have to put on a disguise even in America.

Ron Sirak is the executive editor of Golf World magazine. His book, Every Shot Must Have a Purpose: How GOLF54 Can Make You a Better Player, written with Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott, is now available.