She is right where she was a year ago, but a year older and certainly a better player, despite her struggles as a teen-age rookie on the LPGA Tour.
Japan’s Nasa Hataoka, still just 18, fired a 3-under-par 69 Friday over the 6,449-yard, par-72 Jones Course at LPGA International in Daytona Beach, Fla. to grab a one-shot lead after three rounds of Stage III of the LPGA Qualifying School – the Final Stage.
Hataoka was the youngest player in the field at 17 a year ago when she held the lead after three rounds of the 90-hole Final Stage marathon. She faded in the final two rounds, but she had built enough of a cushion to finish tied for 14th, one of the top 20 who earned full-time status on the LPGA Tour.
Hataoka struggled in her rookie year on the LPGA Tour, which is why she is back at the Q-School Final Stage. But her talent is undeniable and she is riding that talent to another chance to display it once again in the big leagues of women’s golf.
Hataoka had a solid third round Friday. After eight straight pars, she birdied the ninth. Then she rattled off birdies at 12, 13 and 14 to get to 4-under for the day before making a bogey at the par-5 finishing hole.
“I did not play well in the beginning of the year on the LPGA,” Hataoka told the LPGA website after her round Friday. “I went back to Japan, I got back to my game and now I’ll just keep going and hopefully keep playing better.”
The 3-under 69 gave her a 54-hole total of 8-under 208 and a one-shot edge over former Southern California standout Tiffany Chan of Hong Kong and Marissa Steen, a former Memphis standout from West Chester, Ohio.
Chan fired a 5-under 67 over the 6,566-yard, par-72 Hills Course to get her piece of second. Chan was a junior college standout at nearby Daytona State College before moving on to Southern Cal and the two LPGA International courses were her home courses. The home-course advantage has obviously worked in her favor.
Steen had held the 36-hole lead at 6-under 138 and carded a 1-under 71, also at the Hills Course, to get it to 7-under. Like Hataoka, Steen is one of 72 players in the field who had some kind of status on the LPGA Tour in 2017.
Rebecca Artis, a 29-year-old Australian, is alone in fourth place at 6-under 210 after posting a 3-under 69 at the Jones Course. Artis has played on the Ladies European Tour (LET) for much of her professional career, but spent most of 2017 on the Symetra Tour.
The top 20 finishers in the Final Stage earn full-time status on the LPGA Tour for 2018. Players finishing 21st to 45th have conditional status on the LPGA Tour.
South African Paula Reto, a 27-year-old former Purdue standout, heads a trio of players tied for fifth at 5-under 211. Reto, who has banked more than $500K in four years on the LPGA Tour, posted a solid 2-under 70 at the Jones Course Friday.
Reto revealed Friday that she has been suffering from a medical issue that causes rashes and often leaves her fatigued since June. She’s undergone all sorts of tests, but doctors have been unable to diagnose what the problem is.
Sweden’s Camilla Lennarth, a 29-year-old former Alabama standout, is also in the group at 211 after surging up the leaderboard with the round of the week, a 7-under 65 at the Hills Course. Lennarth has a victory and 12 top-10 finishes in 73 career starts on the LET.
Rounding out the trio tied for fifth at 211 is Laetitia Beck, a native of Israel who was a member of Duke’s 2014 NCAA championship team. Beck fired a 3-under 69 at the Hills Course.
Hyemin Kim of South Korea has been in the top 10 right from the start of the Final Stage and stayed there with a 1-under 71 at the Hills Course that left her tied for eighth with two other players at 4-under 212.
Sadena Parks, a former Washington standout, fired a 4-under 68 at the Hills Course to join Kim at 4-under. The 27-year-old Parks, who participated in The Golf Channel’s “Big Break Florida,” was the first African-American player to reach the LPGA Tour via the developmental Symetra Tour in 2014.
Parks earned her playing privileges for 2017 at last year’s Q-School, but struggled again. It looks like she’s determined to give it her best shot to make it back to the LPGA Tour in 2018.
Rounding out the trio tied for eighth at 212 is Luna Sobron Galmes, a 27-year-old from Spain. Sobron Galmes, the low amateur in the 2015 Ricoh Women’s British Open, carded a 3-under 69 at the Jones Course.
Heading the group of five players tied for 11th at 3-under 213 is Georgia Hall, the 21-year-old English woman who was a bright spot for the European team during its Solheim Cup loss to the U.S. last summer.
Hall, who finished tied for third in the Richoh Women’s British Open last summer, dominated the LET this year and is the highest-ranked player in the field at LPGA International this week in the Rolex Women’s World Golf Rankings at 41st.
Hall struggled in the opening round with a 5-over 77 at the Jones Course, but she has spent the last two days making a steady climb up the leaderboard with a 69 at the Hills Course Thursday and a 5-under 67 at the Jones Course Friday, improving by 10 shots over her opening-round showing on the Jones.
LPGA Tour veteran Cindy LaCrosse, a former Louisville standout, joined Hall at 213 after posting a 1-under 71 at the Jones Course.
Dottie Andina, a 23-year-old from the Philippines, had a solid 2-under 70 at the Hills Course to join the group tied for 11th. Former Miami standout Daniela Darquea, a native of Ecuador, carded a 2-under 70 at the Jones Course to also reach 3-under through 54 holes.
Rounding out the quintet tied for 11th at 213 was the low amateur in the field, Oklahoma State’s Maddie McCrary, a senior from Wylie, Texas. McCrary maintained her steady march through Stage III of Q-School with a 1-under 71 at the Hills Course.
If McCrary ends up in the top 20 at the end of Sunday’s final round, she will have to turn pro to accept the LPGA Tour card that goes with the top-20 finish.