DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP)Keita Nakajima recalls one conversation with Hideki Matsuyama when the Masters champion encouraged him by saying, ”I’m waiting for you in the U.S.”
The first stop will be Augusta National in April.
Nakajima lived up to his billing as the No. 1 amateur in the world Saturday when he made two tough pars from a sandy waste area on the 18th hole – in regulation and in a playoff – before outlasting Taichi Kho of Hong Kong to win Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship.
The 21-year-old from Japan became the first top-ranked amateur to win the Asia-Pacific Amateur, and the victory comes with an invitation to the Masters.
Can he beat Matsuyama? Nakajima laughed and said, ”I hope so.”
Needing three putts from 20 feet to win, Nakajima finished in style by making the birdie putt after Kho put his second shot on the 18th at Dubai Creek into the water.
Nakajima becomes the third Japanese player to win the Asia-Pacific Amateur, joining close friend Takumi Kanaya (2018) and Matsuyama (2010 and 2011).
Along with playing in the Masters, he earned spots in the U.S. Open at Brookline and the British Open at St. Andrews from winning the Mark H. McCormack medal as No. 1 in the world amateur ranking.
Beating Kho, a senior at Notre Dame, was enough of a challenge for Nakajima.
Kho capped off a 64-65 weekend at Dubai Creek Golf and Yacht Club by making a nervy 6-foot par putt on the 18th to be the first to finish at 14-under 270.
Nakajima was right of the fairway in the sand, a strong breeze in his face and water guarding the front of the 18th green when he hit to about 35 feet and two-putted for par and a 68.
He was even further right in the sand on the first playoff hole and delivered another key shot onto the green for a two-putt par. Kho had an 18-foot birdie putt to win which he ran some 4 feet by the hole and made that to extend the playoff.
Nakajima finally hit the fairway on the second extra hole, while Kho hit into the waste area close to the steep lip. His shot grazed the lip and came up short into the water.
”I caught it a hair thin,” Kho said. ”I did everything I could to hit a good shot. It just didn’t turn out my way.”
Nakajima raised his putter slightly when his birdie putt fell, and the celebration was on. His Japanese teammates doused him with water, and before long he was in tears. Then he turned and bowed to the course, much like Matsuyama’s caddie at Augusta National, a touching moment of respect.
Kho, the No. 220 player in the amateur ranking, ran off five birdies in a six-hole stretch starting on the ninth hole.
Nakajima was in control in the final round until a double bogey from the bunker on No. 9. He responded with a bogey-free back nine with three birdies, and the senior at Japan Sports Science University delivered one last birdie on the second playoff hole.
”I am very proud of what I have achieved. To follow in the footsteps of Hideki-san and Takumi feels great,” Nakajima said.
It was the second straight playoff for the Asia-Pacific Amateur, with Yuxin Lin of China winning in 2019 over Kanaya.
Lin, a junior at Florida, was trying to become the first three-time winner and started one shot out of the lead. But he took a triple bogey on the second hole and his chances ended for good with a double bogey on the 15th. He closed with a 71.
Wooyoung Cho of South Korea shot 65 and Oklahoma State sophomore Bo Jin had a 68 to tie for third, two shots out of the lead.
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