LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Nick Price, Hale Irwin, Tom Watson and Mark O’Meara are all chasing him. That still doesn’t mean that Kiyoshi Murota figures he’s won anything yet.
Murota shot a 5-under 67 on Friday to take a four-stroke lead in the Senior PGA Championship over a glittering scoreboard that includes some of the biggest names in the game.
“We have two more days,” Murota said through an interpreter. “So let’s wait two days from now before making any kind of judgment or assessment as to how well I have done.”
The 55-year-old touring pro and golf teacher from Japan followed an opening 66 to stand at 11-under 133 at Valhalla Golf Club.
Price was one of 78 players who had to return to the course Friday morning to complete the first round because of weather delays. He polished off a 70 and was 7 under along with Irwin, a three-time U.S. Open champion who has won the Senior PGA four times. Irwin, who turns 66 next week, had rounds of 69 and 68.
Loren Roberts and Olin Browne were 6 under after 70s. Gary Hallberg was 5 under after a 67, and Watson had a 70 to top the group at 4 under that also included O’Meara (72).
Steve Pate, playing in his first seniors event the day after his 50th birthday, was among 29 players unable to complete the second round before darkness suspended play. Pate was at 3 under for the tournament with four holes left.
Murota, little known in the states because he has seldom played in international events or on American soil, led when he went to bed Thursday night and also when the first round was officially completed late Friday morning. His 66 was a shot better than Trevor Dodds and Price and two better than O’Meara, Roberts and Brown.
Murota trailed Price and Irwin by the time he teed off, but quickly eliminated the deficit with birdies on the first two holes and with four on the first seven to get to 10 under. He blended four birdies – including one on the par-5 closing hole – and three bogeys the rest of the way.
Remarkably, he has 20 one-putt greens in his first 36 holes.
The humble, self-effacing Murota put things into perspective when asked about whether people in his homeland touched by the earthquakes earlier this year might be encouraged by his strong play.
“My answer to that question is no,” he said. “The earthquake, tsunami and the radiation leak, it’s a far greater problem than the golf score achieved by a little guy like myself.”
After the first round, he said there was no way he could shoot another 66. He only missed by a shot, while expanding his lead.
Murota started playing golf, he said, because there was a beautiful girl at the golf club at Nippon Sports Science University that he attended. He didn’t get the girl.
“But I did find golf, though,” he said to loud laughter.
After warm but stormy weather on Thursday, chilly temperatures in the 50s greeted the players who got an early start Friday to finish their first round. The temperature never rose above 70, but it didn’t rain for a change. The mercury is expected to rise to the 90s over the weekend, with a chance of scattered showers.
Price, winner of two PGA Championships and a British Open, has been battling a bad back. But he took 12 days off after playing the Champions Tour stop in Birmingham and has had no lingering problems this week. He hit just 11 of 18 greens in regulation, but frequently scrambled for par when he missed the putting surface.
He’s hoping for hot weather.
“I want it to get real hot,” he said. I prefer the heat. I’m not saying I’m going to play any better but if you look at my record over the hears, the heat never was much of a factor for me. I always seemed to play my best in summer.”
Irwin won the Senior PGA Championship in 2004 at Valhalla and has turned back the clock in the first two rounds. He’s averaging 289 yards off the tee while hitting 24 of 28 fairways and needing just 56 putts. He credited a putting tip with turning things around for him.
If he were to win, Irwin would be the oldest Senior PGA champion ever, surpassing Jock Hutchinson, who was 62 when he won in 1947.
“Oh, that would be absolutely wonderful,” a tired Irwin said. “Forgetting the age, just to win this championship again would be fantastic.”
Followed by grandson Dylan and son-in-law Tim, he trudged 28 holes on the day while making nine birdies.
Irwin said he had never played with or even heard of Murota but marveled that he just kept piling up birdies.
“Just look at the scoreboard and you can see what a good player he must be,” Irwin said.