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Nasa Hataoka's rise to stardom big story of season for Japanese golf

Kyodo

Nasa Hataoka had a major breakthrough year with two victories on the LPGA Tour in 2018, Hideki Matsuyama’s frustrating season saw the former world No. 2 sliding down the men’s rankings.

Hataoka rose to stardom in only her second year on the U.S. pro tour, flying the flag for Japan as the memory of now-retired veteran players like former world No. 1 Ai Miyazato faded.

The 19-year-old won her maiden title at the NW Arkansas Championship in June, setting a 21-under-par tournament record along the way, and before even turning 20 eclipsed Mika Miyazato as the youngest Japanese LPGA Tour winner.

The starlet went on to taste victory again in November on home soil at the three-round TOTO Japan Classic, finishing two shots ahead of compatriots Momoko Ueda and Saki Nagamine as well as Spain’s Carlota Ciganda.

“I’m glad I accomplished my personal goal of winning an LPGA tournament within my first two seasons,” Hataoka said. “I was able to make the most of my shots and play aggressive golf this season.”

Hataoka earned about 40 times more prize money than in her previous season, when she only made the cut in seven of her 19 tournaments. This past season, she placed fifth on the money list with $1,454,261 (¥160 million) from 24 tournaments.

With nine-time PGA tournament winner Ai Miyazato retiring last year, Hataoka has now taken the mantle as the Japanese woman most likely to win a major.

Indeed, she is aware it is her turn and she says she wants to pick up from where her idol ended.

“I’ve always looked up to Ai-san. I’m still far from where she left off, but I want to pick up the baton and build anticipation,” Hataoka said after winning her first title.

She turned pro after capturing the Japan Women’s Golf Open Championship as a 17-year-old in 2016. But in her debut season in the United States, she missed the cut in seven consecutive tournaments in June and July as she shouldered the burden of adjusting to a new environment.

She admits her breakthrough in 2018 was helped by her mother, Hiromi, accompanying her on tour to look after her and support her as a personal chef.

“That was the biggest difference from last year,” said Hataoka, whose driving accuracy percentage and percentage of greens in regulation both improved by about 10 percent.

“I need to build up my strength to be able to compete over four rounds,” added Hataoka, who turns 20 in January. “I want to be able to win a major tournament.

“I want to come back (next year) having done sufficient training.”

Despite experiencing a very different 2018 to Hataoka, Matsuyama remains laser-focused on claiming his maiden major championship next year.

The 26-year-old closed his fifth season on the PGA Tour in September without a single top-three finish. Despite reaching his personal best No. 2 in the world rankings last year, he had dropped more than 20 spots by season’s end.

“It was a frustrating year because I wasn’t in contention in any of the tournaments,” Matsuyama said. “I tried a lot of things but nothing really clicked. I had to face the fact that there wasn’t much I could do.”

His season got off to a rocky start when he withdrew from February’s Phoenix Open due to a left thumb injury, ruining his bid for a third straight winner’s trophy at that event.

Matsuyama returned to competition the following month, but was out of form. He struggled to find his best throughout the season, with his average number of birdies per round falling from 4.29 last season, third-best average on tour, to 3.94 by the close of 2018.

“The golf I played (in the first round in Phoenix) was really good so not being able to play for a month was a huge blow,” he said.

His best result at a major this year was a tie for 16th at June’s U.S. Open. It was a letdown after his second-place finish in 2017.

And the much-heralded Matsuyama was even upstaged this year, his compatriot Satoshi Kodaira emerging to claim his first victory on the PGA Tour by beating South Korean Kim Si-woo in a playoff at the RBC Heritage.

Kodaira shot a PGA career-low 63 on the second day before carding a 66 in the final round to scrape into the playoff. Once there, he birdied the third playoff hole, a par-3, to win the title and $1.2 million.

But Kodaira could finish no higher than 94th in the Fed Ex Cup standings, well behind Matsuyama whose late-season push lifted him to 13th after the year-ending Tour Championship in September.

But in order to win his first major championship, and with the Tokyo Olympics approaching in less than two years, Matsuyama said he needs to make amends for last season and pull himself together for the next, vowing, “I need to be in the running for a title early next year.”