Tournament article

Japan Open Golf Championship 2023

Unheralded Hiramoto takes command

Unheralded Hiramoto takes command

Unheralded Sejung Hiramoto is set to play the round of his life tomorrow after seizing a one-shot lead at the Japan Open to put himself a step closer to a potential life-changing victory.

The 23-year-old, now in his second year as a professional, birdied three of his last four holes to fire a five-under-par 65 at Ibaraki Country Club on Saturday to reach the penultimate stage on a six-under 204 total.

This allowed him to pull ahead of a congested leaderboard, with Tomoharu Otsuki trailing in lone second after carding a 67.

Hiramoto, whose career-best finish to date was coming in runner-up three times on the ABEMA Tour this year, admitted he did not envision leading a tournament of the Japan Open's stature.

"I've been playing well this year. The Japan Open is one of the few tournaments where I get to compete on the main tour, and I truly cherish it.

"My main goal this year is to improve my ranking on the ABEMA Tour. However, leading the Japan Open today was something I definitely didn't anticipate!" said Hiramoto, who secured a commendable tied-12th finish at last week's ACN Championship.

Beginning the day three shots adrift, Hiramoto made a remarkable start, birdieing the first, fifth, and ninth holes to finish the front nine at three-under 32.

Although he registered a birdie and two bogeys on holes 11 through 13, he swiftly steadied the ship to finish with a flourish. "I started strong, securing a birdie right from the beginning. The first two holes are particularly important to me, so I'm pleased with that outcome," said Hiramoto.

"My tee and second shots were on point throughout the first half. Initially, I felt I only had to work on my putting, but with a successful long putt on the 17th (from 60 feet), the day unfolded positively."

Hiramoto also recalled a memorable debut at Sanko Golf Club last year which saw him getting to play alongside major winner Adam Scott. He finished tied-41st.

"Having grown up in Japan and participated in local events like the Japan Junior, the Japan Open holds a special place in my heart. Last year, playing alongside Adam Scott provided invaluable insights and made the tournament even more memorable for me," he said.

"I realised that even seasoned players like Adam can get nervous, a sentiment I deeply resonate with. I think I'll be nervous tomorrow, but if I can play my usual golf, it should lead to a good result."

With a potential second win in just three starts on the horizon, Otsuki, last month's Panasonic Open champion, couldn't conceal his eagerness to claim a JGTO major title for the first time.

 However, he's staying grounded. "Of course, it's going to be challenging, and I'd love to give it my all—it's a title I truly desire," said Otsuki, who recorded five birdies and two bogeys.

"But I'll ensure I don't get too tense. For me, it'll be business as usual."

Shaun Norris of South Africa further demonstrated his affinity for the Japan Open with a strong performance, positioning him within reach of his second tournament victory.

The 2021 champion and runner-up in both 2018 and 2019, Norris carded a 68, joining Naoyuki Kataoka (66), Takahiro Hataji (69), and Ryo Ishikawa (69) in a four-way tie for third.

They're trailing just two shots behind Hiramoto.

With the top 25 players only five shots apart, an exhilarating finish is anticipated in Sunday's finale..


Leading third round scores:

204: Sejung Hiramoto 70-69-65;

205: Tomoharu Otsuki 69-69-67;206: Naoyuki Kataoka 69-71-66, Shaun Norris (Rsa) 72-66-68, Ryo Ishikawa 68-69-69;

207: Yusaku Hasano 71-70-66, Aguri Iwasaki 68-72-67, Kota Kaneko 67-70-70, Kohei Okada (am) 67-70-70;

208: Ryosuke Kinoshita 71-70-67, Taichi Nabetani 71-69-69, Kensei Hirata 69-70-69, Tomoyasu Sugiyama 72-67-69, Tatsunori Shogenji 69-69-70, Brad Kennedy (Aus) 68-69,71, Yuki Inamori 68-69-71, Keita Nakajima 67-69-72.