Nasa Hataoka’s parents dreamed big for her when she was born 20 years ago in Ibaraki, Japan.
Really big. To-the-moon-and-back big.
Take a look at her first name. Imagine it in all capital letters.
In an act of wondrous inspiration, Hataoka was named after the American space program that was established four decades before she was born.
“They wanted me to accomplish something that has never been accomplished before,” Hataoka said through an interpreter Saturday at the LPGA Tour’s Kia Classic.
Weighty expectations, to be sure, and if the young woman hasn’t yet managed to walk in space — “Maybe if I retire,” she joked — Hataoka is already reaching impressive heights in her chosen profession.
Coming off a two-win season in 2018, Hataoka is once again challenging for another victory after firing an eight-under-par 64 that put her one stroke behind former world No. 1 Inbee Park, who shot a seven-birdie 67 to get to 14 under at Aviara Golf Club.
On a warm day with perfect scoring conditions and some the tees moved up, the players fired at the flags and went deep into red numbers.
There were eight scores of 67 or better, and M.J. Hur ventured into the lowest territory ever in the tournament. She made 10 birdies to shoot 10-under 62 — one better than the previous course record — and was tied for fourth at 11 under with world No. 1 Sung Hyun Park, who managed “only” a 71.
The 29-year-old Hur made seven straight birdies on the back nine from holes 11 through 17, and only four players in LPGA history have recorded better streaks.
“I started counting my birdies after three on the back nine,” Hur said. “Then I hit a good shot every second shot, and then every putt was, like, three or four yards. It worked really good.”
Third-round co-leader Thidapa Suwannapura, of Thailand, backed up with a 70 and was alone in third at 12 under.
Among the others producing big moves with 66s were 2017 Women’s PGA Championship winner Danielle Kang, who rose to a tie for 12th place, and 2015 Kia Classic champ Cristie Kerr, who went from 68th to a tie for 22nd. Former world No. 1 Lydia Ko, who won the 2016 Kia, shot 67 and was tied for ninth at nine under.
In playing with Inbee Park in the final group Sunday, Hataoka will be in the presence of the one of the game’s true stars. The 30-year-old is the youngest player to qualify for the LPGA Tour Hall of Fame in a career of 19 wins. Park’s seven major titles rank behind only five players and tie her with Juli Inskter and Karrie Webb.
Currently ranked eighth in the world, Park has contended frequently in 10 Kia appearances, including two runner-up finishes. She is renowned for her putting and is having a good week on Aviara’s large, sloping greens that are made trickier by the bumpy poa annua grass.
“I think I just did a little bit of a tweak on my putting stroke this week,” Park said. “I really struggled with my putter last week. Just fixed my stroke a little bit and it has been working really well. I can see the ball rolling really true with where I’m aiming.”
Park closed out her round by draining a 20-foot birdie putt at 18. There was plenty of third-round drama on one of the toughest finishing holes on the tour.
Early in the day, Brittany Lang’s hooked approach kicked off a mound and into the bushes to the left of the 18th green. She took an unplayable lie and was forced to administer a penalty drop farther back in a clearing. Virtually hidden from the gallery, she lofted a shot that rolled into the hole for a remarkable par.
Later in the day, Minjee Lee got a similar carom into the same bushes. But after Lee took a stance on the cart path and tested waving at the ball with her putter, left-handed, a rules official gave her a free drop in a clearing behind the bushes. She rifled a low shot through the branches and leaves, her ball rolling to just short of the water on the green’s fringe. Lee Lee eventually made par to score 72 and be tied for 15th.
In the same group, Colombian Mariajo Uribe hit her drive into the lake, missed the green and made double bogey. She still shot 69 and is in a tie for sixth at 10 under.