Space – Japan’s HATAOKA Nasa to fulfil childhood dream of playing golf at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics
Three-time LPGA Tour winner plans to rocket up the leaderboard to become Olympic champion; the women’s golf tournament starts on 4 August at Kasumigaseki Country Club
HATAOKA Nasa has always been destined for great things – or so it seems.
Her name alone shows that she could be out of this world. Named after the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Japanese golfer hopes that she will achieve something “unprecedented” that is comparable to space development.
She has already started that journey. In 2016, she became the youngest player and the first amateur to win the Japan Women’s Open Golf Championship. After this win, Hataoka turned professional at the age of 17 years and 271 days – by doing so she broke the record held by her idol Ai Miyazato by seven months. She went on to compete in the LPGA Qualifying Tournament as the youngest Japanese player ever.
Hataoka then took the bold decision to move to the United States to fulfil her ambitions, one of which was qualifying for Olympic Games in her home country.
Although living in a foreign country far away from Japan was a challenge, Hataoka qualified for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
Two places in the women’s golf competition at the Olympic Games were given to each country based on the world ranking of their players. By virtue of her then-ranking of 11th in the world (she is currently 9th), Hataoka was the highest ranked Japanese woman and therefore secured a spot.
I cannot wait to show off my golf
The course where the women’s golf event is being held from 4 August 2021 – the Kasumigaseki Country Club – is one that Hataoka knows well.
The venue is where she played in the Japanese junior golf championship. She has even played there twice since Tokyo was elected as the host country for the Olympics. And so, the Japanese golfer feels that she has She shows the confidence to master the course.
“The course is in a more difficult setting to accommodate international players, changing from two-greens to one-green and more undulation. I’m familiar with the surroundings,” said Hataoka.
“There are definitely going to be shots that are going to be critical, so I want to hit them and not run away from them.
“My strength is taking close aim at the pin directly, even over the water, with irons. I hope you will enjoy my competitive golf, where you never know until the last shot.”
Playing golf is fun, but it has pressure too
Golf has always been close to Hataoka’s heart.
Born in Ibaraki Prefecture, which is on the Pacific coast about 100km northeast of Tokyo, Hataoka was first taken to a golf course by her mother who worked as a caddie.
She took up the sport at the age seven but started to play seriously when she was bought her first set of clubs at the age of 11.
“It was so much fun that I didn’t get tired, no matter how many balls I hit,” said the 22-year-old golfer.
During the summer holidays, she would hit more than 1,000 balls in her daily eight-hour practice sessions. Back then, her favourite club was the driver because “the ball would fly farther and clean”.
After moving to the US aged 18, Hataoka won two events in 2018, her second year of the tour, and moved up the world and Japanese rankings. This boosted Hataoka’s confidence.
The more she played, the closer Hataoka got to her dream of being at the Olympics in Tokyo. But then she started to feel pressure for the first time in her career.
As is the unpredictable nature of sport, especially one where there are tournaments every week, a good result does not guarantee a rise in your ranking. Plus, there is the time pressure – even if you miss the cut, you only have three days to adjust before the next tournament.
As time progressed, Hataoka decided that she needed a short break to recharge and to improve.
“I was away from golf for a week. At that time, I realised I was not able to practice sufficiently if I was not focused on my emotions,” said the three-time LPGA Tour winner.
She used this experience positively, turning it into both professional and personal growth.
The Olympics is awe-inspiring, I had to be there
Two memories from the Olympics are always on Hataoka’s mind and fuelled her aspiration to be part of the “greatest show on earth”.
The first was at Beijing 2008. At the age of nine, Hataoka was watching the athletics events with her father and she saw a Jamaican sprinter called Usain Bolt, win the 100m men’s gold medal in a world record time of 9.69 seconds.
“I was impressed by him. The moment he just took off, his eyes got the spirit and I thought to myself, ‘Athletes are amazing’.”
The other memory is from Rio 2016, where golf returned to the Olympics for the first time in 112 years. The moment that PARK Inbee (Republic of Korea) sank the winning putt to claim the gold medal was “unforgettable”.
“She was playing for her country, wearing a shirt with her country’s flag on it. I felt the importance of it,” said Hataoka.
“I have wanted to compete at the Olympics since I found out it was coming back as an Olympic discipline. And seeing the South Korean player win made my will stronger.”
The Olympics in Tokyo is the stage that Hataoka dreamed of playing on since she was a child. So where does she feel that she will finish?
“Of course, I’m going for the gold medal,” she said.
If she stands on the top step of the podium on 7 August, Hataoka will truly have achieved something “unprecedented”.