The burden of expectation is a massive weight to lug around a golf course, especially when it’s magnified by the hopeful cheers of thousands of adoring home-country fans. On Sunday, Nasa Hataoka was more than a match for that pressure, closing with a 67, capped by a birdie on the final hole, to win the TOTO Japan Classic by two strokes, adding to an LPGA storyline in which globetrotting stars have risen to the occasion on home soil in 2018.
Hataoka, all of 19-years-old, joins Rolex Player of the Year Ariya Jutanugarn and Sung Hyun Park, with three each, and Brooke Henderson with two, as multiple LPGA winners this year, adding the TOTO title to the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship presented by P&G in June, continuing a ferocious sprint to the finish line this season.
After a slow start to 2018, in which Hataoka had no top-10s in her first seven tournaments, she now has 10 in her last 16 appearances and her name is in the top five on the money list, Rolex Player of the Year points and the Race to the CME Globe chase for the season-ending $1 million bonus while being No. 10 in scoring average.
Hataoka began the final round four strokes behind Minjee Lee, who was three strokes clear of the field after 36 holes of the three-round event. But Nasa charged up the leaderboard with a 32 on the front nine and, after bogeys on Nos. 11 and 12, played the final six holes without a blemish to secure the victory.
“I'm so proud, I'm so happy to win this event,” Hataoka said when asked about winning in her homeland. “Actually, I wanted to win this tournament before it began. I am really happy to accomplish it.”
Asked how she put behind her the consecutive bogeys early on the final nine, she said: “I realize something has to come to me and I had to get through it, and I knew it was at the 13th hole. I was not totally comfortable with the shot, but I was calm enough to play well on that hole.”
She steadied the ship with a par on No. 13 and got things back on track with a birdie on No. 14. Her birdie on No. 18 was icing on a cake that was not yet completely baked as she played the final hole. But there was no way she was going to let this tournament slip away.
The brilliant final round left Hataoka at 14-under par 202, two strokes better than Carlota Ciganda of Spain and Momoko Ueda and Saki Nagamine, both also from Japan. Rolex Rookie of the Year winner Jin Young Ko and Ji-Hee Lee were at 205 with Amy Yang at 206. Lee faded to T-15 after a closing 78 with 43 of those strokes coming on a painful front nine,
“I had a really bad front nine,” Lee said. “I had two doubles in a row. Yeah, it was just, I don't know, maybe a lot of brain farts in a row. I didn't hit the shots that I wanted very solid, so obviously it didn't go the way I wanted. One bad round doesn't define how well you played. Obviously, up and down for the tournament, but yeah, definitely taking away some positives.”
This has been a year for homecoming parties as Georgia Hall of England won the Ricoh Women’s British Open, Canadian Brooke Henderson took her homeland’s championship at the CP Women’s Open, Americans Annie Park and Marina Alex won on home turf – Park a mere two-hour ride up the New Jersey Turnpike from her New York home – and In Gee Chun took the KEB Hana Bank Championship in Korea a week after Korea won the UL International Crown at Incheon.
With her strong closing statement to the 2018 season Hataoka, whose mother famously named her in honor of the U.S. space program, has made it clear the sky is the limit for her youthful career. She also has a pair of second-place finishes this year, including the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship. How does she do it? Mostly with the flatstick. She is No. 2 this season in putts per GIR and No. 6 in total number of putts.
This week it is onto the Blue Bay LPGA tournament on Hainan Island where, by the way, homeland hero Shanshan Feng is the defending champion. Then the season closes Nov. 15-18 at the CME Group Tour Championship with the culmination of the Race to the CME Globe pursuit of the $1 million bonus at the CME Group Tour Championship.
Few would have predicted it when the season started, but Hataoka will show up at the Tiburon Golf Club in Naples, Fla., as someone to watch and, sitting in fourth place on the points list, with a chance to take home that million bucks – which would be 113,205,000 yen. And that would make for a very sweet end-of-the-year homecoming party.