LPGA International Crown: Team Japan (video)


Team Japan, ranked third among the eight countries represented at the inaugural LPGA International Crown this week, will bring an engaging competitive counterpoint to the event.  Golf is immensely popular in Japan and golf stars like Ai Miyazato have led an internal cultural challenge to traditional Japanese gender roles as surely as they have claimed Japan’s place on golf’s grand international stage.

Annika Sorenstam, who has witnessed the dynamic of this cultural challenge, explained:

"Japanese golfers take great pride in competing, not just for themselves but for their country . . .  The support, especially from the media, is unmatched. When Ai Miyazato first came over, her media following was like that of a rock star here and in Europe. Everyone followed her every move and it had to be difficult. She always handled herself beautifully under a lot of pressure and I admire her for that."

Let’s meet the four women who will represent Japan at the International Crown and who are at the same time setting fashion and redefining womanhood at home:

Golf & Culture

Thomas Dillon has probed the unique fit between certain elements of Japanese culture and the imported sport of golf.  Dillon points particularly the importance of form and order within Japanese culture and to the deep respect for the rules that ensure that order.  For the Japanese, there was a cultural fit with the imported sport from the outset, when British expats brought golf to Japan during the first decade of the 20th century.  The sport quickly took root and captured the country, but in A Short History of Japanese Golf  W. David Marx observed that for decades golf was linked almost exclusively with capitalism and economic growth.  It was an elite sport and it was expensive.  More recently, however, golf in Japan has democratized and gained popular traction among younger generations, setting in motion a cultural shift that not only accommodated but has welcomed Japanese women into the ranks of professional golf.

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Team Japan

They may not be related, but Ai and Mika Miyazato will be looking to use a cultural sisterhood to propel them and third-seeded Team Japan to glory at the International Crown later this week.

Ai Miyazato, a nine-time LPGA champion who has amassed more than $7.6 million in career earnings, is the most decorated member of Japan’s squad. The former world number 1 will be looked upon for veteran leadership this week at Caves Valley Golf Club.

The 29-year-old held the world’s top ranking for a dozen weeks in 2010 and has 58 career top-10s, but has not won since 2012 and has seen her ranking slip consistently in recent years. A return to form at the International Crown would be a great boost for the Japanese, and Ai definitely has the potential to do just that.

Mika, 24, won the 2012 Safeway Classic and has banked more than $3 million in career earnings. None of her 23 career top-10s have come in 2014, but Mika has the game to be a dangerous player in Maryland.

Rikako Morita, a seven-time winner on the Japan LPGA, qualified for the event, but will not be able to compete due to a scheduling conflict. Shiho Oyama was the next player on the list, but she has chosen not to play, opening the door for 20-year-old Mamiko Higa.

Higa, who turned pro at age 17, had a huge 2013 season. She won an event on the Japan LPGA, finished tied for third at the Mizuno Classic and tied for seventh at the RICOH Women’s British Open at St. Andrews.

Higa is a product of the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., and has an abundance of talent that could surface inside the ropes in Maryland.  Whether the youngster is able to handle the pressure of a big-time international event could be one of the keys to Japan’s fate.

Sakura Yokomine may not be a household name in the U.S., but the 28-year-old is a major force on the Japan LPGA. She has won 22 times on the LPGA’s sister tour and most recently showed her prowess by tying for seventh at the U.S. Women’s Open at Pinehurst No. 2.

The Japanese definitely have the potential to shine at Caves Valley, but whether that happens is one of the big question marks going into the four-day event. The golfing world will have that question answered when Japan takes on No. 6 Sweden on Thursday and seventh-seeded Chinese Taipei on Friday, and a coveted spot in the quarterfinals could go to the winner of Japan’s Saturday matchup against No. 2 South Korea.

Wild card teams with the potential to make a deep run like Japan are what will make the International Crown a dramatic spectacle once play begins.

Television Coverage

Play begins Thursday morning, July 24, at the International Crown and Golf Channel will provide daily coverage:  Thursday, July 24 and Friday, July 25, 11:30am-3:30pm; Saturday, July 26 and Sunday, July 27, 3-7pm, all times ET.

My colleagues and I at ProGolfNow will also provide ongoing updates and commentary.  If you follow me on Twitter @bethbethel I’ll notify you when new posts are published.