Golf: Invite for faded ex-champ

A joyous Ai Miyazato after clinching the HSBC Women's Champions at Tanah Merah, one of her five titles for 2010, when she topped the world rankings. She is now languishing at No. 159th but is delighted with the sponsor's exemption for another shot at
A joyous Ai Miyazato after clinching the HSBC Women's Champions at Tanah Merah, one of her five titles for 2010, when she topped the world rankings. She is now languishing at No. 159th but is delighted with the sponsor's exemption for another shot at the Serapong Course on Sentosa.ST FILE PHOTO

Former No. 1 Miyazato 'delighted' at prospect of competing at HSBC Women's Champions

Fan favourite Ai Miyazato will return for this year's HSBC Women's Champions tournament, after receiving a sponsor's exemption for the March 3-6 event in Singapore.

The popular 30-year-old Japanese golfer had won the tournament in 2010, but has seen her career nosedive in the past three years.

Once the top-ranked female player in the world, the 159th-ranked Miyazato cannot even lay claim to be the best golfer in her family - older brother Yusaku is 98th in the men's world rankings.

Nevertheless, that has not dissuaded organisers from inviting her to compete in the US$1.5 million (S$2.11 million) event at the Sentosa Golf Club (SGC). England's world No. 83 Melissa Reid received the other exemption.

The Okinawa-born Miyazato also received a sponsor's invite to this week's Honda LPGA Thailand at the Siam Country Club in Pattaya.

She said yesterday: "I'm delighted to be returning to Singapore... Sentosa is a tough course but it's a wonderful event and I look forward to seeing all the fans there again."

The invitational tournament at SGC features an elite 63-woman field that includes world No. 1 Lydia Ko, second-ranked and defending champion Park In Bee, and other top names like American stars Michelle Wie and Lexi Thompson.

In her only outing at the Serapong Course in 2014 - Miyazato did not qualify for last year's edition because of her low world ranking - she struggled on the tough 6,035m layout and shot 17-over to finish 60th.

Her 2010 triumph was at the previous tournament venue, the Tanah Merah Country Club's (TMCC) Garden Course.

That season saw her win five times on the LPGA Tour, lifting her to the top of the world standings for a combined 12 weeks.

She has won nine times on the Tour, although her last title was at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship in July 2012.

Since then, missing the cut has become a more regular occurrence than contending for trophies.

In the past two years, she failed to make the weekend on 14 occasions and did not record a single top-10 finish from 45 starts.

One main cause for the dip in form has been her struggle with her putter. Where once she routinely ranked among the top 10 on the Tour in putts per green in regulation and putting average, her stats for both were 138th and 118th respectively in 2014.

Both numbers improved last term (66th and 46th) and a joint-14th finish at the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship in November offered signs for optimism.

Said Miyazato: "I have wonderful memories from 2010 and would love to challenge for the title again."

It will be Reid's first appearance at the HSBC event since 2012, the last year it was held at TMCC, and she is also keen to prove herself at the SGC.

The 28-year-old won last year's Turkish Airlines Ladies Open on the Ladies European Tour and finished second in the Order of Merit.

She said: "It's a different course from the last time I played the tournament so I'm looking forward to playing Serapong.

"I've heard it's pretty challenging so it will be interesting."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 24, 2016, with the headline 'INVITE FOR FADED EX-CHAMP'. Print Edition | Subscribe