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Ai Miyazato coasts to Q-School victory

Ai Miyazato faced pressure like everyone else in the final round of the LPGA Tour qualifying tournament, although hers was different.

The pint-sized star from Japan was so far ahead of the field that she could have shot 90 and still earned her card. To keep herself motivated, Miyazato set a target of 20 under par on the Legends course at LPGA Tour International, and was almost there until the putts stopped falling.

She had to settle for 17-under 343 and a 12-shot victory, the largest margin at Q-school since it began in 1973.

"I wasn't able to play too well today, so I'm still a little bit disappointed," she said. "I wanted to go for 20 under, but I guess I was overcome by pressure, so I need to work in that area of my game."

Miyazato, a 20-year-old who won six times on the Japan LPGA this year, closed with a three-putt bogey Sunday for an even-par 72 that put her 12 shots ahead of Libby Smith and Lee Ann Walker-Cooper.

Along the way, she gave a smattering of fans a glimpse of her charisma, not to mention her game.

"It's crazy," Morgan Pressel said after easily getting her card. "Obviously, she's a great player. She's just tearing it up this week. Good for her. You know when she's coming."

The final reference was to Miyazato's gallery, comprised mostly of Japanese media that gave her rock-star treatment. One fan was a young girl, who sat on her father's shoulder and unfurled a poster to show Miyazato whenever she looked. It had Japanese script that read, "Ai-Chan, go for it."

Did she ever.

"I'm very satisfied," Miyazato said.

Miyazato already is the biggest star in Japan, where she won six times this year. Her popularity is so strong that TV ratings for a tournament she won last year were three times higher than the men's event in Japan that week, which featured Tiger Woods winning wire-to-wire at the Dunlop Phoenix.

Her swing is long and effortless, and her putting was remarkable all five rounds at LPGA International. Even more compelling is her personality, with a megawatt smile attached to her 5-foot-2 frame and expressive eyes when she removes her sunglasses.

"She is unbelievable," said Katie Futcher, who played with Miyazato the last two rounds. "She's so friendly, and you can tell she is very comfortable with her game and very well-grounded."

Miyazato shared a rice ball with Futcher on Saturday, so the American returned the favor in the final round. She pulled half of a sandwich from her bag as they waited for the green to clear on the par-3 seventh.

Miyazato inspected the sandwich, pulling it apart, then gobbled it up in three bites.

"It's peanut butter and jelly," Futcher said. "You can't mess it up."

The Japanese dynamo had no trouble on the golf course, building a seven-shot lead after three rounds and expanding that to 12 shots going into the final day.

Miyazato was among 24 players who earned their cards Sunday, a group that included the 17-year-old Pressel. The U.S. Women's Amateur champion, who was runner-up at the U.S. Women's Open this summer, made birdies on the only two fairways she missed and hit 15 greens in a round of 70.

Pressel wound up in a tie for sixth, and next plays at the Safeway International in March. Still to be determined is when the money she earns will count as official.

The tour has an age limit of 18 for LPGA membership, and it has ruled that Pressel cannot join until she turns 18 on May 23. She can play on sponsor's exemptions until then, although whatever she earns won't count on the money list until then. Pressel doesn't plan to play more than four events, anyway, because she is a senior in high school.

"It's a relief," she said. "It's been a long week. It was hard work."

Pressel's grandfather, Herb Krickstein, said he would ask the LPGA Tour to reconsider its decision.

"Everything they talk about to be an LPGA member, she has -- except her 18th birthday," he said. "I don't think she'll change when she turns 18."

The drama at Q-school came in a three-hole playoff, with seven players competing for the final three spots. Brittany Lang, who tied for second with Pressel at the U.S. Women's Open, played the 10th, 17th and 18th holes in 1 under to earn her card, along with Christi Cano and Seol-An Jeon.

They finished at 3-over 363. Among those eliminated in the playoff were Teresa Lu of Taiwan and Erica Blasberg, who squandered their chances of playing on tour next year.

Lu, who works with the same swing coach as Annika Sorenstam, hit her approach into the 18th over the green and into a hazard, making double bogey. Blasberg recovered from a 77-74 start in this event to go from 97th to a tie for eighth place, but closed with a 77.

Miyazato had no such worries.

December 5, 2005

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