Hataoka carries two-shot lead into weekend at Marathon Classic

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Jul. 10—Just when it looked like Nasa Hataoka lost her grip on the lead at the Marathon LPGA Classic presented by Dana, the Japanese star ended her day with a flurry of birdies to carry a two-stroke advantage into the weekend.

Hataoka was 2 over on her day after bogeying the par-4 13th hole at Highland Meadows, falling one shot behind Elizabeth Szokol and Mina Harigae. Then she calmly birdied Nos. 14, 15, 16, and 17, backing up a 61 with a 2-under-par 69.

"My shots were not as good as yesterday," said Hataoka, who carded six consecutive birdies on Thursday. "Didn't have that many chances. I had a lot of problems, but I was able to fix that for the last part and bring it back up."

The chasers include a large group of Americans. Harigae (66) is alone in second, two shots back at 10 under; Alison Lee (66) and Szokol (66) are 9 under; and Jennifer Kupcho (65), Gerina Piller (65), and Lauren Stephenson (69) join German Esther Henseleit (64) and South Korean Chella Choi at 8 under (66).

Americans Danielle Kang (65) and Christina Kim (67) are part of a group tied for 10th at 7 under.

"I feel really confident [and] comfortable with all aspects of my game," said Harigae, who will play in the final group on the weekend for the first time in her career. "Everything just kind of feels solid and everything is kind of flowing together, so it feels really good."

Harigae, a former U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links champion, is winless in 10 full seasons on the LPGA Tour. She has 16 career top 10s, two of which have taken place in 2021.

"Historically, [Highland Meadows] hasn't been great to me," Harigae said. "But this year I feel it's like a whole new golf course. I'm a much better golfer now than I was before. It honestly feels like I'm a new person, and I really like this golf course now. I feel like it really fits my game."

Harigae isn't the only person with those feelings. After a junior career that included being the No. 1-ranked player and a Pac-12 championship at UCLA, Lee was destined for stardom.

She was a member of the winning United States Solheim Cup team in 2015, tying for sixth in the Evian Championship that same year and reaching as high as 21st in the world rankings before plummeting to 353rd in 2019.

"It's been a really long time since I've seen my name on the leaderboard like this," said Lee, whose current world ranking is No. 119. "Putting myself in contention for the weekend, it feels really, really good. It almost makes it as though two years didn't happen, which is awesome to feel."

Seventy-nine players made the cut at even par.

Backing up a great round is a tough task in golf, and Hataoka's day was shaky, beginning with a bogey on the first hole. She had four by the time she reached the 14th tee, but the flat stick saved Hataoka. She followed up a 26-putt day in Round 1 with nine one-putts on Friday.

"I was kind of stiff at impact and I was able to realize that and adjusted to relax myself, and that brought those birdies," Hataoka said. "I did look [at the leaderboard] because we had to wait along the way, but I was more trying to concentrate on my round."

The course played nearly a stroke easier in Round 1, yielding 76 more birdies on Friday. There were 66 rounds under par and 29 in the 60s, including matching 64s, the low rounds of the day, by Henseleit and Esther Lee.

"Yesterday, I hit a lot of greens," Henseleit said. "Had some good birdie chances, but didn't really hole a lot of putts. And it kind of started the same today. Through the middle of the round, I hit a few really close and holed some good putts. I just told myself [to] be patient, and that's what I did."

The field will take a similar strategy on Saturday, waiting to pounce on any mistakes as Hataoka goes for a wire-to-wire victory.

"I'm just really looking forward to it," Szokol said. "Thirty-six more holes. I really like this golf course, so we'll just see what the weekend brings."

First Published July 9, 2021, 6:31pm