GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP, N.J. - Winning seemed to come easily last year for Ai Miyazato, who captured five LPGA tournaments, including the ShopRite LPGA Classic, and spent 11 weeks as the No. 1-ranked women's player in the world.
Miyazato hasn't been nearly as successful through the first quarter of 2011 although it's clear to see her mind has been elsewhere, on the people of her native Japan whose lives were changed forever by the 9.0-magnitude earthquake that rocked the northern part of the nation on March 11.
What particularly hit home for Miyazato was that the earthquake's epicenter was near Sendai, where she attended high school. She tried for days to contact some old friends there and discovered them sheltered in a gymnasium because their homes had been destroyed.
"It was very difficult after the earthquake," Miyazato said Wednesday at the Seaview Resort, where she will begin defense of her ShopRite title on Friday. "I know many people and friends live in Sendai, so it was a little tough to focus my game. I really wanted to play good because I wanted to deliver good news to Japan.
"That's why I think I kind of struggled a little bit with my game. These last couple of weeks I realize that I just need to focus everything on the shots and just forget about it in a good way. I've started to feel like my game's coming back. It's really in good condition right now."
Miyazato and two of her countrywomen on the LPGA tour - Momoko Ueda and Mika Miyazato (no relation) - set up a nonprofit group called "Never Give Up Japan" (www.firstgiving.com) to raise funds for earthquake relief. The three women also designed badges for players to wear on their caps during tournaments.
The 25-year-old Miyazato's results have been significantly different this year. She has no top-10 finishes in seven events thus far, with her best showing a tie for 14th early this season. She is 25th on the money list with just under $100,000. She hasn't won a tournament since her last 2010 victory, at the Safeway Classic in Oregon.
In addition to her distress over the earthquake, Miyazato felt as if she put too much pressure on herself after her time at the top of the world rankings in the hopes of duplicating her 2010 performance.
"I had such a great season last year, so I really want to have a good season this year," she said. "That's why I'm trying to work hard. . . . Last year I was able to concentrate just on my game, but this year, because I focused a little bit more on my results, it maybe threw my game off a little bit."
The 5-foot-1 Miyazato, already in her sixth year on tour, feels she's finding her game again. That should be helped by her return to Seaview's Bay Course, where she shot 16-under for the tournament's three rounds including a closing 64.
"I have great memories here," she said.
"I love this golf course because I enjoyed it so much every time I've played over here. It's because it doesn't just favor the long hitters. This is a course that favors the long hitters and short hitters and course management comes into play a lot."
She added that the grass in the rough is thicker than last year, which could affect scores. But she doesn't plan to have that deter her run at another title.
As she said, "I really want to deliver good news to Japan with my results."
Notes. Norway's Suzann Pettersen, the world's No. 2-ranked player, withdrew Wednesday because of illness, and tournament officials are holding their breath about top-ranked Yani Tseng, who pulled out of a pro-am after nine holes because of a right shoulder injury she initially suffered on Tuesday. "I'll just keep icing it and hope it gets better," Tseng said.