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Nasa Hataoka wins Kia Classic to earn third victory on LPGA Tour

AP, Kyodo

Nasa Hataoka won the Kia Classic on Sunday at Aviara Golf Club for her third win in her last 16 LPGA Tour starts.

The 20-year-old closed with a 5-under 67 for a three-stroke victory over playing partner Inbee Park, top-ranked Park Sung-hyun, Ko Jin-young, Azahara Munoz and Danielle Kang.

“First couple days I wasn’t putting very well, so I didn’t really think I could pull this off,” Hataoka said through a translator. “Until the 18th hole, anything could happen, but I was just very relieved that my second shot landed on the putting surface.”

After driving left into the water en route to a bogey on the par-4 16th, Hataoka hit a sand wedge to a foot for birdie on the par-5 17th and closed with a par on the par-4 18th.

“I forgot about the bogey very quickly,” she said. “I knew that 17 was a chance I could make a birdie, and (was) just very relieved and felt great that I was able to actually get a birdie.”

Hataoka shot a 64 on Saturday to pull within a stroke of Inbee Park entering the final round in the final event before the major ANA Inspiration at Mission Hills in Rancho Mirage.

“Big tournament coming up next week, so I’ll celebrate a little bit but get my mind refreshed and start again next week,” Hataoka said.

Hataoka, currently ranked seventh on the LPGA Tour, finished at 18-under 270. She won the NW Arkansas Championship and Japan Classic last year.

“She played really solid,” Inbee Park said. “Didn’t really look like she was feeling the pressure, especially in the way she played the last hole. Just very smart.”

With her third title, Hataoka is now tied for fourth with Harukyo Nomura on the list of Japanese LPGA tournament winners.

The Ibaraki native also has four victories on the LPGA of Japan Tour. She was the youngest player and first amateur to win the Japan Women’s Open Championship in 2016, and defended her title as a pro the following year while also debuting on the LPGA Tour.

Hataoka finished tied for 48th in her debut in the ANA Inspiration last year but earned two top-10 results in later majors while attempting to become the second Japanese golfer, after Hisako Higuchi’s win at the LPGA Championship in 1977, to win a women’s major.

Inbee Park, winless for over a year, had a 71 to miss a chance for her 20th LPGA Tour victory.

“Just unfortunate day with the putter,” she said. “Never wanted to go in. Just one of those days. I just have to take it. I think it’s still a very good momentum going into next week.”

In men’s action on Sunday, Kevin Kisner outlasted British Open champion Francesco Molinari in the semifinals, then let Matt Kuchar make untimely mistakes in the afternoon until Kisner closed him out with a 20-foot putt for a 3-and-2 victory to win the Dell Technologies Match Play.

Kisner began the event with a loss in the opening round. He had to play 120 holes over five days. Three matches were decided on the 18th hole. He had to play three sudden-death playoff holes just to get to the weekend. And on Sunday morning, he faced a cold wind that caused the temperature to drop.

“Grueling, not only from the mental side, but the physical side,” Kisner said. “A lot of golf and a lot of stressful holes and stressful putts.”