Tatsuya Kodai, Takahiro Hataji, and Yujiro Ohori surprised many by carding matching four-under-par 66s to lead after the first round of the Mitsui Sumitomo Visa Taiheiyo Masters on Thursday.
The exciting opening day at the Taiheiyo Club's Gotemba Course saw no fewer than 28 players within three strokes of the trio's lead. International stars, including Australia's Brad Kennedy, South Korea's Yang Ji-ho, and Justin De Los Santos from the Philippines, trailed by just one shot, sharing a tie for fourth.
A spectacular eagle finish was the highlight for both Hataji and Ohori as they matched Kodai's bogey-free performance, stealing the spotlight from their more illustrious rivals in the early stages of the ¥200,000,000 event.
Kodai, who clinched victory in the 2017 Mynavi ABC Championship for his sole win to date, is well aware of what's at stake in the closing stretch of the season as he currently holds the No. 65 spot, which is the borderline position for retaining his Tour card for next season.
"Putting rankings aside, I've seen significant improvement in my game this season. I've been able to play good golf. Achieving a solid score on such a challenging course boosts my confidence," said Kodai, who birdied holes number four, seven, 12, and 18.
Hataji, who is still pursuing his breakthrough in the JGTO, aims to leverage his strong track record on the Gotemba Course for a competitive push towards victory this week.
Hataji showcased a glimpse of his potential by navigating a turbulent round, featuring six birdies and two bogeys, ultimately concluding with a double bogey-eagle finish.
In 2021, he found himself tied for the lead in the first two rounds but eventually settled for a tied-fourth position.
"My tee shots were a bit erratic, and I found myself in the rough quite often, but thanks to sinking some long putts, I managed to maintain a good rhythm and had a satisfying round," said Hataji.
"Considering that Gotemba is historically the course where I've performed best in the late season, I see it as my prime opportunity. I hope to maintain my top position and contend for victory with this momentum."
South Korea's Song Young-han and American Han Lee, who finished as runners-up in 2016 and 2009 respectively, are part of a sizable group of 16 players, all sitting at two-under par. This group includes Juvic Pagunsan from the Philippines, last year's JGTO No. 1 Kazuki Higa, and Kanaya, who currently ranks second in the money list for the current season.
The leader in earnings, Keita Nakajima, and the defending champion, Ryo Ishikawa, both posted solid 69s, placing them in a tie for 25th, just three shots behind the leaders."
Leading first round scores:
66: Tatsuya Kodai, Takahiro Hataji, Yujiro Ohori;
67: Shugo Imahira, Yusaku Miyazato, Yang Ji-ho (Kor), Brad Kennedy (Aus), Justin De Los Santos (Phi);
68: Tomohiro Kondo, Yusaku Hosono, Eric Sugimoto, Kazuki Higa, Taiga Semikawa, Hideto Tanihara, Takumi Kanaya, Taiga Nagano, Yuto Katsuragawa, Song Young-han (Kor), Juvic Pagunsan (Phi), Yuki Inamori, Takashi Ogiso, Tomoyasu Sugiyama, Kodai Ichihara, Han Lee (US).