CARLSBAD, Calif. — A form chart is not necessarily a reliable handicapping tool in golf, sans Tiger in his prime. Yet with the LPGA’s first major championship of the year on deck, a contender at least emerged on Sunday.
Already a star who only turned 20 in January, Japan’s Nasa Hataoka won the Kia Classic by three strokes at Aviara Golf Club here. It was her third LPGA victory.
Up next is the ANA Inspiration in Rancho Mirage, Calif., to which Hataoka will bring confidence and already a strong track record in majors, albeit with a small sample size.
“The goal for me this year was to win a four-day tournament as well as a major,” she said via an interpreter. “I’m happy I’ve accomplished one of them. As a player it’s always great to see that what I’m practicing leads to results. It gives me a lot of confidence and will be a good flow into next week’s major.”
Last year, Hataoka tied for 48th in the ANA Inspiration, but then followed up by a playoff loss to Sung Hyun Park in the Women’s PGA Championship. She tied for 10th in the U.S. Women’s Open and tied for 16th in the Evian Championship.
Hataoka, who entered the Kia Classic seventh in the Rolex Rankings, shot a five-under par 67 on Sunday. A foursome of Danielle Kang, Jin Young Ko, Azahara Munoz and third-round leader Inbee Park, who had the worst round, a one-under 71 of anyone in the top 15.
“She was my younger sister on tour, my little sister,” Kang said. “I haven't played with her that much, but I've played with her enough. She's a really, really solid player, a very good ball-striker. She's fearless. That’s kind of the word that comes to my mind when I see her. Little warrior. She just charges. She swings hard. She putts with confidence.”
Hataoka had only one minor blip, when on the drivable par-4 16th, she hit her tee shot into a pond left of the green. She still had a chance to save par, but missed a three-footer for a bogey, only her third of the tournament.
"I was hitting the ball very well all week," she said. "I was attacking the pins. I did make a few mistakes out there, but with my ball striking I knew I could get them back.”
Indeed. She offset it with a tap-in birdie at 17 to regain her three-stroke lead, then parred 18 for the win.
Hataoka already was a star in Japan before joining the LPGA in 2017. She won three times on the LPGA of Japan Tour, including a victory in the Japan Women’s Open Championship as a 17-year-old amateur.