Nasa Hataoka’s parents named her after the US space agency so she would “reach for the stars.”
Given her meteoric rise in golf, it’s fitting.
Hataoka was 17 years old when she earned her first Japan Women’s Open title. During her LPGA Tour debut season in 2017, though, Hataoka made the cut just nine times in 17 events. The rocky takeoff didn’t last long. She had five top-10 finishes in 2019 and has represented Japan in the Olympics.
She added another win to her resume after a dazzling final round Sunday at Wilshire Country Club.
The No. 12 golfer in the Rolex women’s world rankings rocketed up the leaderboard on the third day of the LA Open before cruising during Sunday’s final round to earn her sixth LPGA Tour victory. She finished at 15-under-par 269 for the tournament after a four-under 67 in the final round to win by five strokes.
It was the 23-year-old Hataoka’s first victory since the 2021 Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.
She earned the kind of win that makes a statement to the rest of the tour, finishing one stroke off the tournament record score that Brooke Henderson set last year.
Hataoka entered Sunday at 11 under with a four-stroke lead following a late third-round collapse from top-ranked Jin Young Ko. Ko and Hataoka were tied for the lead on the 15th hole Saturday, then Ko bogeyed No. 16 and quadruple-bogeyed the 17th. Hataoka took the lead and didn’t look back.
“I really focused on my game, and I play good,” Hataoka said following her victory. “…My putting [was] good all week.”
The win had an extra element for Hataoka: defeating a friend.
Australian Hannah Green, who entered Sunday in second place, shot a 68 in the final round but never put enough pressure on Hataoka to make it competitive. She bogeyed the 18th hole and finished in second at 10 under.
“I’ve known Nasa for years,” Green, 25, said. “So it was really cool to see Nasa. She’s obviously a very successful player, but it was really nice to be alongside her winning and just along for the ride.”
Green lingered a few strokes behind Hataoka, and the par-five 15th hole ended her hopes of rallying. Hataoka had parred seven consecutive holes before she opened a six-stroke advantage with an eagle.
“My goal for today was 15 under,” Hataoka said. “I was playing pretty good on the first nine holes, pretty much as well as possible. … That eagle helped me relax a little bit.”
Hataoka hasn’t had the easiest year on tour. In eight previous events, her best finish was a tie for 11th at the HSBC Women’s World Championship, though she had been in the top 20 six times.
In 2018, Hataoka earned her first two victories on the LPGA Tour. She also competed that year at the LA Open, finishing in a tie for the 19th.
Madelene Sagstrom shot a final-round 66 on Sunday, equaling the lowest of the day, and finished tied for third place at seven-under 277 with 2019 LA Open winner Minjee Lee (68) and Inbee Park (70).
“In the beginning, it was real easy,” Sagstrom said. “I was really putting well. I think I told my caddie after probably the fourth hole. I was like, it’s one of those days where I just knew I was going to make a lot of putts.”
Former UCLA standout Lilia Vu had a strong Saturday, and she went 74-69-66 in the first three rounds to leap into a tie for sixth entering Sunday. She dropped off in the final round but still finished at five-under 279 for a share of 10th place.
Ko, who never seemed to recover from her struggles toward the end of the third round, tied for 21st. She shot a 75 on Sunday and finished at two-under 282.
Instead of Ko, it was Hataoka who turned in an astronomical performance to close out the first of two consecutive LPGA Tour events in the Los Angeles area. The Palos Verdes Championship begins Thursday.
“Every time I play with Nasa, she’s really solid with everything,” Green said. “I don’t think everything was like really great. I feel like she’s just consistent.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.