Athletes retire all the time. But it isn’t often that a sport loses a precious gem like golf did this week. On Sunday, Ai Miyazato, who has always been a better person than she is a player, even when she was the No.1-ranked player in the world, waved goodbye to the LPGA Tour, finishing her career in France at the year’s last major, the Evian Championship. Miyazato shot 73 in the final round to finish the event at 1-over par and in a tie for 32nd. Fans couldn’t have cared less. They cheered the Japanese star’s every step.
The ovation for Miyazato after she two-putted for par from 80 feet at the last hole was louder and more boisterous than the one for the ultimate winner (although, to be fair, Anna Nordqvist won in a cold, driving rain). Gary Player was on site and gave Miyazato a hug and a bouquet after she finished – one global ambassador to another. Fellow players Yani Tseng, Paula Creamer (who was paired with Miyazato the first two rounds but withdrew due to a wrist injury) and Pernilla Lindberg also waited behind the 18th green to say a warm goodbye to a woman who has been a model for the LPGA for more than a decade.
It was fitting that the career should end on the shores of Lake Geneva. Miyazato won her first LPGA tournament in Evian in 2009, before the tournament was a major. She won what was then called the Evian Masters again in 2011 just five months after a tsunami devastated her home country.
In total, the 32-year-old won nine LPGA titles and 15 tournaments in Japan. Creamer was one of the people Miyazato talked to about attending LPGA Q-School in December 2005. Through a translator, Creamer told her to treat Q-School like a golf tournament – play to win, not to earn your card. Miyazato did just that, winning by a record 12 shots. In her final event, Miyazato asked to be paired with Creamer, who was devastated by having to withdraw.
“I thought I was going to cry if I saw all my friends behind the 18th green, so I tried not to see them because I just want to finish with a par on the last hole,” Miyazato said afterward. “I just wanted to play my best. But it was really nice to see my friends and I just couldn’t hold (the tears). It’s so nice to have my friends on the tour.”
In 2006, she didn’t speak English and didn’t know the first thing about the LPGA Tour. A decade-plus later, she is one of the most beloved people in the women’s game, a bilingual dynamo who has always made time for fans, sponsors and members of the media.
Wins and top-10s aside, unkind words have never been uttered by Ai Miyazato or of Ai Miyazato. And at the end of a career, that could be the greatest accomplishment of all.