Japan’s Hataoka, 19, wins first LPGA event in Arkansas

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Japan’s Hataoka, 19, wins first LPGA event in Arkansas

LPGA Tour

Japan’s Hataoka, 19, wins first LPGA event in Arkansas

Nasa Hataoka bounced up and down on tee boxes like a prizefighter awaiting the bell. The petite player secured her first LPGA victory in knockout fashion, running away from the field with a spectacular 8-under 63 to finish six shots clear of Austin Ernst at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship. She finished the week with a 21-under 192 total.

Hataoka, 19, gained fame in her native Japan in 2016 when she became the first amateur and the youngest to win a major on the Japan LPGA. When she earned an LPGA card as a 17-year-old for the 2017 season, hefty expectations followed. Would she be the player who filled the void left by the beloved Ai Miyazato, who retired at last year’s Evian Championship?

Hataoka struggled that first year, finishing 140th on the LPGA money list. The small but powerful player doesn’t speak English, making the transition to an American-based tour all the more difficult. Add in the ever-present Japanese media and the loss of Miyazato, a former No. 1, and pressure mounted. Hataoka ranked 152nd in greens in regulation last season.

The turnaround: A couple of victories back home last fall on the JLPGA boosted her confidence. She returned to the final stage of LPGA Q-School in December and topped the field.

Her secret weapon this season: Mom is on the road now, too.

Hiromi Hataoka named her daughter Nasa because of her fascination with space, not having a clue that she’d grow up to be a bona fide star in their native land. Nasa wanted to tackle her rookie year solo but just couldn’t get comfortable. Mom joined her this season while dad stayed back in Japan with Nasa’s younger sister, who recently began high school. With mom around, her diet immediately improved.

With her winnings, Hataoka plans to buy a new house … with a pool.

While Nasa’s composure and downright dominance down the stretch in Arkansas came as a surprise, her game had been trending toward the winner’s circle for several months. She’d had four top-10 finishes in her previous five starts, including a playoff loss to Ariya Jutanugarn at the Kingsmill Championship.

On Sunday at Pinnacle Country Club, Hataoka played the final round alongside Lexi Thompson and Minjee Lee. Going head-to-head against two players ranked inside the top 10 in the world made this break-through victory all the more special.

“I played with Lexi and all the big names,” Hataoka said. “Playing with them was like really big for me.”

Hataoka became the youngest player to win on the LPGA this season and the 12th player to win on the LPGA at the age of 19. Anyone who watched the manner in which the Japanese teen won in Arkansas wouldn’t bet against her winning again this season.

“Oh, she played amazing,” Thompson said. “She’s just got a great game, no weaknesses, pretty long off the tee and just rolls it amazing on the greens.”

The sky’s the limit.

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