Japan has peppered women’s golf with great talent over the years, including Chako Higuchi and Ayako Okamoto, both in the World Golf Hall of Fame. But the island-nation shed a collective tear in 2017 when nine-time LPGA champion Ai Miyazato retired at only 32. Nasa Hataoka just might ease that pain.
This rising star from the Land of the Rising Sun, who doesn’t turn 21 until Jan. 13., already has three LPGA wins, including this year’s Kia Classic, the 2018 Walmart NW Arkansas Championship and the TOTO Japan Classic, where she is the defending champion this week.
Nasa, who got her name because her mother Hiromi is a fan of the U.S. space program, found her footing in America in 2018 when Mom started traveling with her and cooking her favorite foods. She has already compiled impressive credentials.
Hataoka burst onto the scene in 2016 when, at 17, she became the youngest winner and first amateur champion of the Japan Women’s Open, a JLPGA major. She is No. 3 in the Rolex Rankings and is well positioned to match Miyazato’s feat of reaching the No.1 spot in the Rolex Rankings.
In addition to her impressive shot-making skills, Hataoka’s ability is buoyed by the kind of intangibles crucial to the chemistry of a champion. She has a fierce determination, a commitment to goals and the discipline and courage to pursue those goals.
“The goal for me this year was to win a four-day tournament as well as a major,” Hataoka said after capturing the Kia Classic in March which, unlike the 54-hole TOTO and Walmart, was 72 holes. “I'm happy that I accomplished one of them.”
Hataoka came tantalizingly close to joining Higuchi who, at the time, was the only Japanese player to win an LPGA major, when she lost out in a playoff to Sung Hyun Park in the 2018 KPMG Women’s PGA after a closing-round 64 wiped out a nine-strke deficit.
Higuchi won the 1977 Women’s PGA Championship. In August, she was joined by Hinako Shibuno when the 20-year-old captured the AIG Women’s British Open. They are the only players from Japan to win a major on either the LPGA Tour or the PGA Tour.
Shibuno, who charmed galleries with her easy smile, infectious passion and polite grace, has until Nov. 18 to decide if she wants to join the LPGA Tour for 2020. She is No. 12 in the Rolex Rankings and a Hataoka-Shibuno rivalry on the LPGA would captivate fans not only on both sides of the Pacific but around the world.
Hataoka and Shibuno could do for Japanese golf in the 21st century what Higuchi and Okamoto did for it in the 20th century. Higuchi, 74, won twice on the LPGA and 69 times on the JLPGA. In 2003, she became the first Japanese golfer inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Okamoto, 68, won 17 LPGA events between 1982 and ’92. She was the Rolex Player of the Year in 1987, when she lost an 18-hole playoff to Laura Davies in the U.S. Women’s Open. Okamoto, who won 44 JLPGA events, was also second in the Women’s PGA in 1989 and ’91 and the du Maurier Classic, which was a major then, in 1984, ’86 and ’87. She joined Higuchi in the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2005.
In winning the TOTO Japan Classic last year, Hataoka joined an illustrious list of champions. Higuchi won in 1974, the second year it was played, and LPGA legends Amy Alcott, Pat Bradley, Betsy King, Nancy Lopez, Patty Sheehan and Karrie Webb are among its champions. Annika Sorenstam took five consecutive titles 2001-05, the LPGA record for most consecutive wins in the same event.
Hataoka comes into the TOTO playing her best golf of the year. In October, she won the Japan Women’s Open again. And in her last three LPGA events, she finished T-3 in the Buick Shanghai, T-4 in the Cambia Portland Classic and T-5 in the CP Women’s Open.
In terms of LPGA majors, 2019 was a disappointing year for Hataoka. She was T-14 in the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship and T-39 in the ANA Inspiration but missed the cut in the U.S. Women’s Open, the Evian Championship and the AIG Women’s British Open. Still, her perspective is impressive.
“I'm still in my third year on the LPGA and I'm only 20 years old,” Hataoka says. “I don't really have much to be afraid of. I also feel like I'm always a challenger out here, just taking one shot at a time. It's always great to see what I've been practicing leads to results. It has given me a lot of confidence.”
The Mount Rushmore of women’s golf in Japan has three faces carved in stone – Higuchi, Okamoto and Miyazato. There is room on that mountain for a fourth and that could very well be Hataoka. The TOTO Japan Classic will be the next step in that pursuit.
Among those trying to derail Nasa's quest to keep her TOTO title is Shibuno. Last month, in her win at the Japan Women’s Open, Hataoka was nine strokes better than Hinako, who was seventh.
As if she needs it, Hataoka might have in Shibuno yet more motivation to be the next great Japanese player. Their homeland – and all of golf – holds its breath.