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Sunday, December 3, 2017

Hataoka takes three-shot lead into final round of LPGA Q-School's Final Stage

   Japanese teen Nasa Hataoka has fared well the last two years in Stage III of the LPGA Qualifying School, the Final Stage, at LPGA International in Daytona Beach, Fla.
   But I’m pretty sure she’s hoping that Sunday’s final round of the 90-hole marathon will be the final Q-School round she’ll ever have to play. The way the 18-year-old is playing, it would almost be surprising if she ever does have to make a return appearance at Q-School.
   I first watched Hataoka play in a round-of-16 match in the U.S. Women’s Amateur at Rolling Green
Golf Club two summers ago in which she outlasted former South Carolina standout Katelyn Dambaugh, 2 and 1. It was high-level stuff throughout by both players. Dambaugh, by the way, will be a full-time LPGA Tour member in 2018 after finishing 10th in the Symetra Tour’s Volvik Race for the Card while playing a condensed schedule.
   A year ago as the youngest player in the field at the Q-School’s Final Stage, Hataoka had the lead after three rounds before she hit the wall. She still finished tied for 14th and earned her tour card, but struggled in her rookie year.
   That was last year. She held the lead after three rounds again this year and came out firing in Saturday’s fourth round. Hataoka blistered the 6,566-yard, par-72 Hills Course for five birdies in her first eight holes. She cooled off a little and settled for a 3-under 69.
   That gives her a 72-hole total of 11-under 277 and a three-shot lead on the rest of the field heading into Sunday’s final round.
   “I played really well and I feel really good,” Hataoka, who has the Japan Women’s Open the last two years, the first time while still an amateur in 2016, told the LPGA website. “Just keep focusing on every shot. It’s not just get a card, I try to win a tournament. I just need to focus to reach the goal.”
   The field was cut to the low 70 and ties after Saturday’s fourth round. The top 20 finishers following Sunday’s fifth and final round will earn full-time status on the LPGA Tour for 2018. Players finishing 21st to 45th earn conditional status on the LPGA Tour for 2018. All of the survivors will play the Hills Course in Sunday’s final round.
   Trailing Hataoka by three shots and tied for second at 8-under 280 are 27-year-old South Africa Paula Reto, a former Purdue standout, and former Southern California standout Tiffany Chan of Hong Kong.
   Reto is a fourth-year pro who has banked more than $500K on the LPGA Tour, but was slowed this year by a medical condition which has defied diagnosis that results in rashes and fatigue. But Reto has really hung tough at LPGA International this week as she tries to make sure she remains a full-time player on the LPGA Tour.
   Reto matched Hataoka’s 3-under 69 at the Hills Course while Chan posted a 1-under 71 on the 6,449-yard, par-72 Jones Course to get her piece of second place. Chan played junior college golf at nearby Daytona State College and is very familiar with both courses at LPGA International, which were her home courses during her two years at Daytona State.
   Rebecca Artis, a 29-year-old Australian, is alone in fourth place another shot behind Reto and Chan at 7-under 281. The ninth-year pro, who has played on the Ladies European Tour (LET) and was on the Symetra Tour a lot this year, carded a 1-under 71 at the Hills Course.
   Georgia Hall, the 21-year-old from England, continued her steady march up the leaderboard with a 3-under 69 at the Hills Course as she headed a group of three players tied for fifth at 6-under 282. Hall, who dominated the LET this year, was a real bright spot for the European team in the Solheim Cup last summer.
   Joining Hall at 6-under were Laetitia Beck, a native of Israel and a member of Duke’s 2014 NCAA championship team, and Marissa Steen, a native of West Chester, Ohio and a former Memphis standout. Beck had a 1-under 71 at the Jones Course while Steen, like Hataoka and Reto, one of the 72 players in the field who held some kind of status on the LPGA Tour in 2017, leveled off a little with a 1-over 73 at the Jones Course.
   Making one of the biggest moves of the day was the low amateur in the field, Southern California’s Robynn Ree, a junior from Redondo Beach, Calif. who fired a 6-under 66 at the Jones Course to move into sole possession of eighth place at 5-under 283.
   I first came across Ree when she teamed with 2015 U.S. Women’s Amateur champion Hannah O’Sullivan to defeat the District One All-Star team of Radnor’s Brynn Walker and Council Rock North’s Madelein Herr in the semifinals of the inaugural U.S. Women’s Amateur Four-Ball Championship at Bandon Dunes in the spring of 2015.
   She made a run in the U.S. Women’s Amateur at Rolling Green two summers ago, helped the Trojans reach the semifinals of the NCAA Championship at Rich Harvest Farms last spring and reached the quarterfinals of last summer’s U.S. Women’s Amateur at San Diego Country Club – often with a smile on her face. She indicated that she plans to return to Southern Cal to finish out her junior year regardless of her finish in Sunday’s final round. I’ll tell you one thing: The girl can play.
   Maria Torres, a key member of Florida’s Southeast Conference championship team last spring, is listed as an amateur, but I suspect the native of Puerto Rico will turn pro if she maintains her spot. Torres carded a steady 2-under 70 at the Hills Course and is one of four players tied for ninth at 4-under 284.
   Another current collegiate standout, Oklahoma State’s Maddie McCrary, a senior from Wylie, Texas, joined Torres as 4-under 284. McCrary has doggedly maintained her spot among the top 20 all week and continued to do so with a 1-under 71 at the Jones Course.
   Rounding out the group tied for ninth at 284 are nine-year LPGA Tour veteran Alison Walshe, who has pocketed more than $800 in her career, and Luna Sobron Galmes, a 23-year-old Spaniard who has been playing on the LET. Walshe had a solid 4-under 68 at the Hills Course while Galmes matched par at the Hills Course with a 72.
   Another player who made a huge move Saturday was former Virginia standout Lauren Coughlin, a Chesapeake, Va. native. Coughlin, who spent the year on the Symetra Tour, fired a 6-under 66 at the Hills Course to move into a tie for 13th with another LPGA Tour veteran, Cindy LaCrosse. 
   As a senior in the spring of 2016, Coughlin won the Atlantic Coast Conference individual title while leading the Cavaliers to the team title. And then at the awards ceremony, her boyfriend, former Cavaliers football player John Pond, got down on one knee and asked her to marry him. She said yes.
   Upgraded from boyfriend to fiancée, Pond has been in the gallery supporting Coughlin at LPGA International this week.
   The 30-year-old LaCrosse, a Louisville product, matched par at the Hills Course with a 72 Saturday.
   Reto’s teammate on Purdue’s 2010 NCAA championship team, 28-year-old Canadian Maude-Aimee Leblanc, moved into a tie for 15th with two other players at 2-under 286 with an even-par 72 at the Hills Course.
   Leblanc was joined at 286 by Amelia Lewis, a 26-year-old LPGA Tour veteran from Jacksonville, Fla., and former Oregon standout Caroline Inglis, a native of Eugene, Ore.
   Lewis, who has banked more than $500K on the LPGA Tour, posted a 1-under 71 while Inglis matched par with a 72, both at the Hills Course.
   A lot of short-term professional futures are going to be decided on a golf course in Daytona Beach Sunday. It will be, as the final day of Q-School always is, a fascinating test, not just of golfing ability, but of mental toughness and determination.

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