Ai Miyazato added another LPGA win to her résumé on Sunday with a closing birdie at the NW Arkansas Championship.
The Japanese star shot a 6-under 65 to overcome a five-shot deficit and hold off a crowded leaderboard for her second LPGA Tour victory of the year and ninth overall.
Miyazato’s 5-foot birdie putt on No. 18 sent her to 12 under for the tournament, and her victory at Pinnacle Country Club was secured one group later when fellow Japanese Mika Miyazato missed a 15-foot birdie attempt on No. 18.
”I knew I needed to make lots of birdies today, but I didn’t have any expectation and I didn’t have any pressure in the front nine,” Ai Miyazato said. ”So that’s why I think I could focus my game and have four birdies on the front nine.”
The win came at the expense of good friend Mika Miyazato, who finished one back and was denied her first LPGA victory. Mika Miyazato congratulated her friend after the round, a bittersweet moment for both.
”She said, `I’m very happy for you,’ but then at the same time she was crying,” Ai Miyazato said. ”So I was like, I didn’t know what to say to her, but I just said, `Thank you and great playing.’
”You know, she’s still young and she still (has) a great future, and I know her win is coming definitely soon.”
Ai Miyazato had seven birdies and one bogey in the final round to finish one stroke ahead of Mika Miyazato and Azahara Munoz. Ai Miyazato had finished in the top 10 of the tournament in each of the last four years, including a fourth-place finish in 2008 and a third-place last year.
Those disappointments were fresh on Miyazato’s mind following her only bogey of the day on No. 17, but she answered with an up-and-down from off the 18th green for her closing birdie.
”Last year I was pretty close to winning,” Miyazato said. ”I think I’m one shot behind or something and I made bogey on 17, too. A few years ago, I did the same thing, too.
”… But like I said to myself, you know, just one bogey so far during the round, so I think that’s pretty good. Then if I made birdie (on 18), I thought I still (would) have a chance to get in a playoff.”
Miyazato, a 15-time winner on the Japan LPGA, also won the LOTTE Championship in Hawaii in April. She’s the third player on the LPGA Tour to win multiple events this season, joining top-ranked Yani Tseng, also a three-time winner, and No. 2 Stacy Lewis, and she’s projected to rise from sixth to third in the world entering the U.S. Women’s Open next week.
Mika Miyazato had a 67, and Munoz closed with a 65.
Veronica Felibert, the rookie from Venezuela who opened the day with a four-shot lead, shot a 72 to tie for fourth at 10 under.
While Felibert struggled in only her fifth LPGA tournament, Ai Miyazato opened with a 32 on the front nine and reached 12 under after her sixth birdie of the day on the par-3 15th. She fell back to 11 under after her only bogey on the day at No. 17, but used a 3-wood to reach the front fringe of the 475-yard par-5 18th in two shots.
After a chip to 5 feet, she calmly sank the downhill left-to-right putt to take a one-shot lead over Munoz, who already had finished her round and made a par from the fairway on No. 18. Munoz eagled the par-4 No. 5 and reached 11 under with a birdie on No. 17, but she missed her approach shot on No. 18 wide to the right and left her third shot in the fringe before getting up and down to save par.
”I played all day unbelievable,” Munoz said. ”I barely missed any shots. On the last one, I hit a great drive and was in between clubs. I decided to go with the hybrid, and I just tried to hit it too hard and missed it right.”
Mika Miyazato was also at 12 under on the back nine, but a bogey on No. 16 left her at 11 under and needing a birdie on No. 18 to force a playoff. She hit the fairway on the par-5 final hole but elected to lay up.
She hit her approach shot 15 feet left of the hole, but her birdie attempt just went by to the left and kept her winless on the LPGA Tour. Mika Miyazato said the firm miss was a result of several putts she had left short earlier in the round.
”I tried to hit it too hard, so that putt, I need to make this putt,” Mika Miyazato said. ”I understand, but (it was) still difficult, so I try it.”
Felibert started the day at 11 under after only one bogey in the first two rounds. She reached 12 under twice on the front nine, but both times she quickly gave the shots back with bogeys.
Her bogey at No. 9 led to a brief three-way tie with Mika Miyazato and Inbee Park, but Felibert bogeyed Nos. 12 and 13 to fall out of the lead for good.
The former Southern California standout entered the week ranked 723rd in the world and had earned only $2,489 in four previous LPGA events, in which she missed three cuts. Felibert earned $93,770 for her fourth-place tie with Park, who shot a 68 on Sunday.
”I didn’t play the way I wanted,” Felibert said. ”I didn’t feel nervous at all, I was surprised. I thought I was going to be more nervous. But my swing wasn’t there, and I didn’t try to like fight it. I just played with what I got and it wasn’t enough.”
Ai Miyazato earned $300,000 for the victory, while Munoz and Mika Miyazato each made $159,739.
Lewis, the local favorite who played at the University of Arkansas, finished with a 70 and tied for 19th at 4 under.