Despite a double dose of disappointment with a duo of runner-up finishes to start 2020, Nasa Hataoka’s LPGA Tour season was off to a near-perfect start. She celebrated her 21st birthday in January at a new home in Orlando, Fla, played seven of her first eight rounds in the 60s then returned to Japan, intent on picking up the Tour on its Asia swing.
That’s when the coronavirus complicated things. Now, like most everyone else on the planet, she’s waiting for life to return to something resembling normal.
Meantime Hataoka is sheltering in place northeast of Tokyo with her parents, younger sister and dog in Ibaraki and doing what little practice she can around the house. She’s looking to return to the U.S. in late May, which would give her time if she has to quarantine for 14 days.
At the season-opening Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions in January, Hataoka went seven playoff holes before Gaby Lopez won with a birdie. The next week at the Gainbridge at Boca Rio she was again second – again by one stroke – to Madelene Sagstrom.
“My strong start at Diamond Resorts and Gainbridge gave me confidence for the season ahead,” Hataoka said by email from Japan.
The plan was to return to Japan and pick up the Tour at the Blue Bay China tournament, following it to the Honda Thailand and then the HSBC Women’s World Championship in Singapore before returning to the United States for the Founders Cup, the Kia Classic and the first major of the year at the ANA Inspiration.
But on Jan. 30, Blue Bay was postponed and on Feb. 2, both Thailand and Singapore followed. At that point Nasa returned to Orlando to practice. But on March 12, when the first wave of postponements in the U.S. was announced, she decided to head back to Japan, fearing a travel ban might be instituted.
“I’m just trying to do what I can during this difficult time,” Hataoka said. “But I’m looking forward to seeing everybody when the Tour resumes.”
Nasa, who is No. 4 in the Rolex Rankings, burst on the scene in 2016 when she won the Japan Women’s Open at 17, making her the youngest winner and first amateur to take the title. She quickly turned pro and earned her card for 2017 with a T-14 finish in the LPGA Qualifying Tournament.
Hataoka’s rookie season on Tour was hampered by homesickness as she struggled to adjust to a new culture, new food and a new language. She missed eight cuts in 17 starts and finished No. 140 on the money list, necessitating another trip to the Qualifying Tournament.
But 2018 was a different story. With her mother Hiromi at her side – whipping up home-cooked meals in hotel rooms – Nasa picked up her first win at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship, shooting a tournament-record 21-under-par 192. Later that year she backed up that win with a victory at the TOTO Japan Classic.
In between, Hataoka turned heads with a final-round 64 in the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship that got her into a playoff with Sung Hyun Park and So Yeon Ryu – both major championship winners – eventually won by Park.
“Having her there really supported me,” Nasa said about Mom traveling with her. “I would try to get used to American food, go out, eat and try to get used to life in the U.S., but it was a real struggle. She's always with me and then eating healthy, that's probably the key to play better.”
Last year, Hataoka earned her third LPGA win at the Kia Classic. “I was very disappointed when the Kia Classic was postponed [in March] because I was looking forward to defending my title,” she says.
Nearly 7,000 miles from Ibaraki, Japan, Greg Johnston, who is in his third season as Hataoka’s caddie, waits in Virginia Beach for the season to resume.
“I talk to her once a week,” Johnston says. “She has sent me some videos of her chipping indoors. We are both hoping for the restart in Arkansas. Hopefully things subside enough for all to get back to doing what we do best.”
Among the disappointments for Hataoka this year was the delay of the 2020 Olympic Games in Japan, but even in that she sees a bright side.
“I was very thankful when I heard it’s going to be postponed, not canceled,” she said in an interview with Japanese TV via Skype. “It’s going to be difficult [to adjust preparation] but I’m happy I’ll still have a chance to compete.”
With three wins in her last two LPGA seasons, Hataoka has established herself as a world-class player at a very young age. Now all she needs is for the world to return to normal so she can add to that legacy. When, it does, she’ll be ready.