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It was the worst of times for Mika Miyazato on the front 9 today at the Japan Women’s Open as she stumbled to a birdieless 40 and went over par for the 1st time all week. Her 5-shot lead on Erika Kikuchi had dwindled to 2, as had her 7-shot lead on 1st-round co-leader Miki Saiki, 8-shot lead on fellow 1st-round co-leader Teresa Lu, Sakura Yokomine, and Harukyo Nomura, and 9-shot lead on money-list leader Rikako Morita. Meanwhile 2-time money-list leader Sun-Ju Ahn had cut a 9-shot deficit to 3, former money-list leader Shiho Oyama had come from 7 to 3 back (despite doubling the par-5 8th), former world #1 Ji-Yai Shin had moved from 9 to 4 behind, and Na-Ri Lee, who had knocked off Ai Miyazato the week before, was even briefly in the hunt after opening with a 34 from 5 twosomes before Mikan and Kikuchi. But it was last year’s money-list runner-up Bo-Mee Lee who had moved the closest to Mikan, pulling within a single shot after starting the day 6 off the pace she had set through 54 holes. In short, there was the female golf equivalent of murderer’s row sharpening their knives as Mikan’s slide down the leaderboard threatened to turn into an avalanche of bogeys, a mudslide of missed chances.
Yesterday, I had written:
A lot depends on which Mikan will show up tomorrow. Will it be the Mikan who gave up a 5-shot lead in 2009 or the Mikan who went wire-to-wire in 2010? Will it be the Mikan who jumped out to the lead in 2011 but finished 79-81 on the weekend? Or will it be the Mikan who put together a final-round 71 last year but just couldn’t chase Shanshan Feng down?
If golf were a Dickens novel, the back 9 would have been the best of times for Mikan. And it’s true that some of her pursuers started to run into troubles of their own. Nomura, playing with Na-Ri Lee 5 groups ahead of Mikan, bogeyed the long par-4 12th to drop back to +4. Yokomine, from 4 groups ahead of Mikan, bogeyed the longish par-4 10th and 12th to fall to +3. Saiki, playing 3 groups ahead of Mikan, followed up her lone front-9 bogey on the long par-4 9th with another on the 10th to join her. From 2 groups ahead of Mikan, Shin bogeyed the long par-5 11th to return to +3 herself, as did Bo-Mee Lee, on the same hole, from the penultimate pairing. Meanwhile, Oyama, playing alongside Saiki, followed up her double on 8 and bogey on 9 with a bogey on 12 to plunge from +1 to +5 in a mere 5 holes. All of a sudden it seemed as if Mikan had some breathing room.
But then her playing partner Kikuchi, the 25-year-old from Hokkaido, started heating up Kanagawa all by herself. She birdied the 11th, she birdied the short par-4 13th, she birdied the long par-3 14th–and all of a sudden she was E for the week. Kikuchi’s brilliance must have awakened Miyazato, however, as Mikan matched her birdie for birdie on 11 and 13 to fight back to -1 herself. Nevertheless, a Miyazato bogey on the 14th finally ended her run of 47 holes with the solo lead. And then she lost even a share of the lead when she bogeyed the long par-4 15th.
By that point, many of her chasers had finished their rounds. Morita, who had offset her 2 earlier birdies on the back with a pair of bogeys, fought back to +2 with a walkoff birdie, her 6th of the day, on the long par-5 18th. Nomura joined her when she birdied 2 of her last 3 holes. Then it was Lu’s turn to turn a birdie on 18 into a share of the clubhouse lead. Then Saiki eclipsed them by following up her birdie on 13 with another on the 160-yard par-3 17th and a par on 18 that made Shin’s walkoff birdie mere minutes later moot. With Saiki the leader in the clubhouse at +1, the margin for error for the final twosome was paper-thin.
And Kikuchi felt the pressure. She bogeyed the longish par-4 16th to fall back into a tie with Mikan and Saiki at +1. Then she bogeyed the 17th to join Morita, Nomura, Lu, and Shin. Meanwhile, Mikan recovered from her own mini bogey-train with pars on the 16 and 17. It all came down to 18, and when both Kikuchi and Mikan birdied it, the back 9 was suddenly the best of times for Miyazato.
With her 2nd win in the last 4 years at the JWO, Mikan became the 1st multiple champion at the JLPGA’s most prestigious major since Michiko Hattori followed up her 1994 victory with another in 2003. She joins Ai-Yu Tu, Yuko Moriguchi, Atsuko Higake, and Tatsuko Ohsako in the 2-victory club. Only Hisako Higuchi, who owned the tournament between 1968 and 1980, winning it 8 times in all, and Ai-Yu Tu, who won it in 1983, 1986, and 1991, has more victories than they do. And who knows how many more Mikan might rack up?
Probably the only golfer who can find a silver lining in the fact that Miyazato came out on top is money-list leader Rikako Morita. Yes, her pursuers Saiki and Kikuchi won the equivalent of 1st-place money for their T2 finish, but they did win the nearly 30 million yen that Mikan did. As a result, the JLPGA money-list race didn’t tighten up as much as it could have:
1. Rikako Morita ￥98.76M
2. Miki Saiki ￥78.93M
3. Sakura Yokomine ￥74.63M
4. Yumiko Yoshida ￥69.35M
5. Natsuka Hori ￥64.27M
7. Sun-Ju Ahn ￥60.79M
8. Mi-Jeong Jeon ￥59.49M
9. Teresa Lu ￥54.39M
10. Bo-Mee Lee ￥54.10M
12. Yuki Ichinose ￥44.29M
15. Onnarin Sattayabanphot ￥41.81M
16. Da-Ye Na ￥40.08M
18. Misuzu Narita ￥38.71M
21. Hiromi Mogi ￥36.88M
33. Soo-Yun Kang ￥24.05M
The top 50 keep their cards for 2014, so it’s worth noting that Shanshan Feng is at #54, Ji-Yai Shin at #55, Yuko Mitsuka at #59, Bo-Bae Song at #62, Li-Ying Ye at #64, Shinobu Moromizato at #65, Hyun-Ju Shin at #67, Ai Miyazato at #74, Momoko Ueda at #76, and Chie Arimura at #120. At next week’s Stanley Ladies, the only LPGAers to appear on the field list are Uehara and Ueda. Arimura, the defending champion, will be playing instead at the Sime Darby LPGA Malaysia, along with both Miyazatos and fellow Okinawan Mamiko Higa. I’d love to see Mikan keep it rolling over there, but I’d be even happier if Higa were able to win an LPGA card with a victory. As for the JLPGA’s finest, I’ll be curious to see how Morita deals with her once-30-million-plus-yen lead having dwindled to less than 20 million. Her Sunday charge shows me that she doesn’t intend to let veterans like Saiki and Yokomine chase her down without a huge fight.
[Update 1 (8:01 am): Wow! Mikan’s winning putt was a 20-footer that must have slid 4 feet left to right! I saw the highlights on national news, but hey’re showing the final round later today!]
[Update 2 (11:31 am): Here’s bangkokbobby‘s take!]