Like a golf sorority, the LPGA Tour has a program it calls “Little Sisters.”
It pairs up a rookie player with a veteran who can show them the ropes and make the transition a bit easier.
American Danielle Kang, only 26 years old herself, drew then-18-year-old Japanese Nasa Hataoka to mentor in 2017, and she came away with a lasting impression: The girl’s sweet façade hid a resolve of steel.
“She’s fearless,” Kang said. “That’s kind of the word that comes to mind when I see her. Little warrior. She charges. She swings hard. She putts with confidence.”
It was all on display in the final round of the Kia Classic on Sunday at Aviara Golf Club.
One stroke off the lead of former world No. 1. Inbee Park when the day began, Hataoka suffered just one minor hiccup and fashioned a number of impressive shots and putts on her way to shooting five-under-par 67 for her third victory in 48 career starts.
In finishing at 18 under — three strokes better than five players who tied for second — the 20-year-old earned $270,000.
The 5-foot-2 woman named by her parents after the American space program is experiencing a flight path on a rocket-like trajectory, with three wins and five other top-10 finishes in her last 16 starts.
In her post-round news conference, Hataoka experienced a little sneezing fit. We know she’s not allergic to trophies.
“I’m still in my third year on the LPGA, and I’m only 20 years old. I don’t have much to be afraid of,” Hataoka said through an interpreter as he held the artistically shaped red glassware that serves as the Kia prize. “I also feel like I’m always a challenger out there.”
Though Hataoka’s winning margin of three shots seemed comfortable, it was anything but, with some contenders producing spectacular shots.
Kang and Jin Young Ko each shot seven-under 65, even as both suffered bogeys on the difficult 18th hole.
A two-time LPGA winner, Ko charged with birdies on 15 and 16, and then she holed out from the fairway at the par-five 17th for eagle to get to within two shots at the time.
Kang said she never took her eye off the leaderboard.
“Anyone will tell you I like attention,” she said, “so I kind of like feeding off what’s going on. Nasa was making birdies and I needed to keep pushing more and more.”
The other players who finished second were Spain’s Azahara Munoz (67), South Korean and world No. 1 Sung Hyun Park (68) and Inbee Park, who was denied her 20th LPGA win by shooting only 71.
One day after M.J. Hur set the course record with a 10-under 62, South Korean Hyo Joo Kim, 23, matched it. Kim, who resides in Los Angeles, made eight birdies and an eagle on the par-four 16th.
Hataoka, who scored 64 in the third round, started the final round with a strong push, notching three birdies in the first five holes.
“The first two days she didn’t make an putts. Yesterday she made a bunch of putts and found something in her putting,” said Hataoka’s caddie, Greg Johnston, who has worked for some of the top women players in the world, including Juli Inkster, Lorena Ochoa and Cristie Kerr.
“She doesn’t seem to get rattled much for as young as she is. She just kind of prepares herself, practice-wise. She goes over what she knows and what she does.”
Hataoka’s only real gaffe on Sunday came when she drove into the water on the 16th, which was shortened to a driveable 252 yards. After a penalty drop, she hit a nice pitch to give herself a chance to save par, but missed the short putt.
It didn’t matter. Hataoka rifled iron shots to nearly tap-in range at both the 15th and 17th holes. She did come close to driving into the water at 18, but a safe iron into the green gave her an easy two-putt for the win — which figures to be only the latest of many.
Hataoka only turned 20 in January. She’s always been precocious. At 17, she was the first teen ever to win an official Japan LPGA Tour event.
“They’re all so good,” Johnston said of the young crop of players on tour. “There are so many girls who can win. It’s different than it used to be. They’re all trained well. They’re mentally strong. They all have good swings.”