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Ueda may excel on LPGA Tour where Miyazato has not

by Jason Coskrey

Not too long ago the general consensus was that Ai Miyazato would become Japan’s first breakthrough star on an American golf tour. She may yet become a superstar, but there’s another Japanese player that may get there first.

Jason Coskrey

In just her third year as a professional 21-year-old Momoko Ueda has taken Japanese golf by storm.

Entering the year with no professional victories, the Kumamoto native has emphatically put her stamp on the game in Japan with a remarkable 2007 season.

Ueda collected five wins and became the JLPGA’s youngest money-title winner, winning the title at 21 years and 156 days old to break the record held by Akiko Fukushima, who won the title in 1996 at 23 years and 148 days, this year.

On Sunday, Ueda finished fifth in the Japan LPGA Tour Championship, giving her 23 top-10 finishes in 33 tournaments this season and a total of ¥166,112,232 in winnings.

Having taken her place as Japan’s top female golfer, Ueda seems likely to take on the challenge of the American tour in the near future, trying to succeed where few Japanese golfers have.

Japanese athletes have made strides on the world stage in a number of sports, including the Mao Asada-led Japanese dominance of the figure skating circuit, but Japanese golfers have yet to find any real consistent success internationally on the links.

Hisako Higuchi, who is in the World Golf Hall of Fame, did win the 1977 LPGA Championship and two other tour titles some 30 years ago, but achieved her status primarily based upon her 69 titles in Japan. She only played part-time on the LPGA Tour.

Isao Aoki, best known abroad for his runnerup finish to Jack Nicklaus in the 1980 U.S. Open, won one PGA Tour tournament, and is also enshrined in golf’s hall. He won 51 JPGA titles.

While South Korea, led by Hall of Famer Pak Se Ri and 2006 LPGA Rookie of the Year Lee Seon Hwa, has prospered in the women’s game, Japan has yet to produce any true crossover stars of its own.

News photoMomoko Ueda, winner of five JLPGA tournaments in 2007, became the tour’s youngest money-title winner ever
this year at just 21.
KYODO PHOTO

Just a few years ago the hopes of the nation were placed upon Miyazato, a 14-time champion on the JLPGA. After a dominating showing in the LPGA Q-School, Miyazato was pegged by many to become Japan’s first international golf sensation.

However, Miyazato has struggled at times and is winless in 54 tournaments.

While Miyazato, who is still one of Japan’s most popular female athletes, is the more polished player, Ueda already has a leg up on the golfer she idolizes.

That advantage came on Nov. 4 when Ueda recorded perhaps her biggest win to date, a day before her mother’s birthday, at the Mizuno Classic to notch her first career victory on the LPGA Tour and become only the 10th Japanese player to win an LPGA event.

She beat Miyazato to that goal, by firing a course-record 64 on the third day and carding an albatross (double-eagle) on the final day of the tournament for a two-stroke victory to become the first Japanese player to win the event since Hiromi Kobayashi in 1998.

Ueda also became the first non-LPGA professional to card a double-eagle, the 28th ever in the Tour’s history, in an LPGA event.

“She (Miyazato) is still my mark I look up to,” Ueda told LPGA.com. “I think this tournament is still a half Japan tournament. I would like to win over there.”

By virtue of her Mizuno triumph, Ueda, who has one win and three top-10 finishes in five career LPGA starts, has earned an exemption to play the 2008 season on the LPGA Tour.

Decent off the tee, Ueda shines from the fairway to the green. A former student of famed teacher Tadashi Ezure, Ueda is superb with the putter and has shown a knack for shot selection.

Ueda began playing golf at age 10 when she joined the Sakata Junior Golf Juku (academy). She showed promise early on, winning two consecutive Kumanichi Junior tournaments while in junior high. Ueda also finished second in the Kyushu Women’s Amateur during her freshman year at Tokai Daini High School.

Ueda was admitted into the JLPGA on Aug. 1, 2005, and played in four tournaments in her rookie season. She then made her presence felt with 11 top-10 finishes in 2006, including a third-place showing in the Crystal Gizer Ladies.

Ueda’s first win as a pro came in April of this year at the Life Card Ladies in Kumamoto, where she carded four birdies on the final day to cap a wire-to-wire victory in her hometown.

Now four victories and a money title later, Ueda seems to be on the cusp of something special. If she can handle the pressure of newfound expectations, Ueda seems to be the player that can put Japan on the map in the international golfing world.

Despite her youth, Ueda has shown the form and composure to handle the rigors of the LPGA Tour alongside fellow young stars such as Paula Creamer and Morgan Pressel.

She has faced down Hall of Famers Annika Sorenstam and Karrie Webb, finishing ahead of both in tournaments twice this year, and through all her success has kept a level head.

“There were a lot of things that I cried over,” a teary-eyed Ueda told reporters after her victory in the Mizuno Classic. “But I realized that the happiness comes after the struggle. I’m happy when I win and I’m not happy when I lose. I’m just that simple.”