When Nasa Hataoka arrived at Pinnacle Country Club in Rogers, Ark., last year for the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship Presented by P&G she was one of many talented teens on the LPGA looking to fatten her resume. She returns this week as not only the defending champion but also a top-10 player in the world at the ripe old age of 20.
Hataoka’s road to stardom started here when she picked up her first LPGA win by a record six strokes at a record 21-under-par 192 in the 54-hole event. She proved that was no fluke the very next week when she closed the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship with a 64 featuring two eagles to fight her way into a playoff with Sung Hyun Park and So Yeon Ryu won by Park.
And if further evidence was needed that she’s no flash in the pan but rather here to stay, Hataoka won the Toto Japan Classic near the end of the 2018 season and the Kia Classic earlier this year. Beginning with the 2018 Walmart NW Arkansas, Hataoka has won three of her last 22 tournaments and climbed to No. 5 in the Rolex Rankings.
“The goal was to at least win once,” Hataoka says, looking back on the 2018 season. “But being able to win in Arkansas, that also gave me another thought to go ahead and wish for another one, which also happened.”
And since picking up her third win at the Kia Classic in March, Hataoka has been T-2 in both the Pure Silk Championship Presented by Visit Williamsburg and the Meijer Classic for Simply Give. She comes into Arkansas off a T-14 finish in last week’s KPMG Women’s PGA, the third LPGA major of the year. She shot a 65 on Sunday, the best round of the week in the tournament.
“The goal for me this year was to win a four-day tournament as well as a major,” Hataoka said after her victory at the Kia Classic in March fulfilled that first goal for 2019. “So I'm happy that I accomplished one of them.”
Asked how she has accomplished so much at such a young age, Hataoka replies with her typical humility. “There are a lot of great players that are similar age,” she says. “I saw how they practiced and I really tried to imitate that as well.”
And reminded that she is regarded as one of the rising young stars on the LPGA, she said: “I feel honored to be called that, but to attain it I'm just going to keep on working harder.”
Hataoka earned her LPGA card at the 2016 Q School when she was only 17 and the youngest person in the field, finishing T-14. Her rookie year in 2017 was a bit of a struggle – making only nine cuts in 17 starts with a best finish of T-15 at the Cambia Portland Classic Presented by JTBC – but she found a way to fix that in 2018. Her mom joined her on the road.
“The main thing was that she was able to make all my foods and things,” Hatakoa says before adding that more important than food was the friendship of family. “The only other thing is I was alone in the rooms, so having her there really supported me,” she says.
Hataoka also added another important piece puzzle at the beginning of this year in picking up veteran caddie Greg Johnston who, among the many top players he’s worked with, was Juli Inkster’s caddie for 12 years, winning four majors with her, which could help Hataoka fulfill that other goal.
At only 5-foot-2, Hataoka is surprisingly long off the tee, averaging 265 yards per drive. She hits a lot of greens and makes a lot of putts, which has her in the top-20 in scoring average at 70.56. Still, she takes none of her success for granted and sees her career are on an upward arc as she faces the challenges of being a top player without fear and with a very mature perspective.
“I'm still in my third year on the LPGA and I'm only 20 years old,” she 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. As a player, it's always great to see what I've been practicing leads to results. It has given me a lot of confidence.”
And if Hataoka is looking for good omens that might portend a major championship in her future, winning the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship is a good place to start. First played in 2007, the roster of winners includes major champions So Yeon Ryu, Na Yeon Choi, Lydia Ko, Stacy Lewis, Inbee Park, Yani Tseng and Jiyai Shin – several of whom reached No. 1 in the Rolex Rankings.
But the tournament is world class in another way – the manner in which it gives back to the community. The driving mission of the Walmart Northwest Arkansas Championship is to improve the quality of life in its home region. Those entities benefitting from the tournament have included a wide range of community organizations such as a food bank, children’s shelter, public schools, and hospitals.
On Thursday of this year’s tournament there will be the Walmart Women’s Empowerment Summit presented by Kimberly Clark and on Saturday it will have the inaugural Always Live #LikeAGirl Day, hosted in partnership with Procter & Gamble.
That celebration invites young girls and families to attend the tournament and to participate in scavenger hunts, autograph collecting and other activities directed toward the overall Always Live #LikeAGirl Day mission of having children participate in confidence-building and empowerment activities.
To build confidence and feel empowered, those young girls participating in this year’s inaugural; Always Live #LikeAGirl Day need look no farther than last year’s winner of the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship. Nasa Hataoka is living proof that big dreams can become powerful realities.