She left her only mistake until the last, and by then, Haru Nomura already knew that the ISPS Handa Women's Australian Open was hers. She had played one of the great rounds of Australian tournament golf, a 65 that closed out legends of the past, present and future, such as world No. 1 Lydia Ko, and hall of famer Karrie Webb.
Nomura, the Honolulu based 23-year-old from Kanagawa, Japan, has introduced herself to the golfing world with a thunderclap.
Her seven-under closing round, spiced with monster birdie putts and just 26 blows with the flat stick, took her to 16-under-par and a three-shot victory over Ko at 13-under. With three holes to play the New Zealander Ko was just a shot back and threatening, but Nomura just kept hitting greens and making putts, again at the 16th from short range, and yet again from 10 metres at the 17th with a downhill slider that would have scared most players.
She summed it up afterward: "The putter ...wow ... Unbelievable!''
She bogeyed the last hole from the front, right trap but Ko had suffered the same fate, and the margin was three shots. Ko, who finished outright second after a 67, was among the players who rained bottles of water and sports drink upon her on the 18th green. Asked afterward if she had feared following a player of the world No. 1's stature in the game, she said through an interpreter: "There was no pressure.''
Her explanation was that she played the course, and not the opponent. The truth is that she has fallen away from 36-hole leads several times before, but this time, she would not yield as she had done in the Bahamas, and in Ocala in the United States earlier this year. Did she consider herself an equal of Ko, she was asked. "Should I tell the truth,'' she laughed "I think I'm better! Maybe...''
Her only previous tournament victory came as a professional in Japan after turning professional at 17. She did not have a stellar amateur career, but chose to take her game to America rather than staying in Japan. She has spent the past five seasons on the LPGA Tour, and her world rank had climbed to 67th. She is now projected to move up to 50th in the world.
Nomura had eight birdies and only one bogey all day. Among those to wilt to her assault were veteran Karrie Webb, who jumped into a share of the lead when she birdied three of the first five holes before faltering to finish third, and Danielle Kang (73) who played alongside her in the final group.
She is the first Japanese winner of the tournament since 1974, when the legendary Chako Higuchi won at Victoria.
On behalf of the tournament sponsor, Dr Handa, ISPS HANDA representative Midori Miyazaki said at the prize giving: “I just wanted to say a very quick message from Dr Handa who is extremely excited and happy. And obviously it’s so exciting for us because ISPS Handa has been sponsoring for eight years… he was always wondering when he would be able to see a Japanese winner and today, I swear I’m not lying, on my phone there were at least 50 messages from him. He was so excited. But in any case he just wanted me to pass on officially his delight and his gratefulness for a Japanese winner to have taken this cup.
“He said he was watching for the full four days and he saw every, single beautiful putt, long putt, everything that she did was amazing. She got the ball out of the sand in an amazing way, and from the bunker, all of that was extremely impressive and he believes that this will (give) great courage and hope to the Japanese players because this year is the Olympics and he knows that she’s going to be the hope of Japan.”
Ko was philosophical about her near-miss. She gave herself a chance when she holed a birdie putt at the 17th, but in the following group Nomura immediately matched her feat, which was the story of the day. "When another player does it, it’s really out of my hands,'' said Ko.
Webb was "frustrated'' after a tough day on the greens, yet encouraged by her ball-striking. “What I can take from this week is it's the best I've swung it for a long time and I know that the putts are going to drop so I just have to be patient,'' said the Australian.
Of the other Australians, Su Oh came home hard with a 68 to finish tied-14th and Hannah Green of Perth carded a closing 69 to finish 20th and earn leading amateur honours.
Big crowds lined the fairways again today, many following Ko as well as Webb, almost oblivious to the fact that the winner would come from the final group. More than 30,000 turned out for the four days, way above Golf Australia's expectations. The decision to move the Open from Melbourne to Adelaide for three years was a massive winner, as Adelaide folk embraced the tournament. Next year, it will be at Royal Adelaide. The benchmark in this city has been set.
photos Janos Schmidt