Xiamen, China: Japan’s Ami Hirai produced a grandstand birdie-birdie finish to claim a nerve-jangling victory in the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Orient Masters.
Not only was it the 23-year-old’s first China LPGA Tour title, but also it ensured she wrote her name into the record books as the first Japanese to post a win on the circuit.
The Tokyo native averted the need for a three-way play-off when she sank a 15-foot putt on the 18th green at the Ron Fream-sculpted Orient (Xiamen) Golf and Country Club in Fujian Province.
That gave her a closing 69 and a 54-hole aggregate of 11-under 205 – one shot ahead of Korean Hwang Ye-nah (66) and Malaysian Aretha Pan (68)
“I was three shots behind at one time but I found out that I could play free golf and be more aggressive. I am glad that I didn’t give up and waited for my chance at the end of the day,” said Hirai, who is playing in her first year on the China LPGA Tour. She earned RMB120,000 for the win.
“I knew the competition was very tense. Many players were tied for the lead here and there. I watched the leaderboard off the 18th tee and knew that I needed one more birdie. I did it. After this week, I will take part in the Japan LPGA Pro-test third stage. I would say it’s the right time for me to win. It’s good for my confidence.”
Playing alongside Thai Aunchisa Utama (71) and Korean Park Jin-hee (71) in the final group, Hirai, began the final round steadily, reeling off six pars followed by a bogey at the par-four seventh. A birdie-two at the short eighth meant she turned in even-par for the day.
She set out on the back nine with five straight pars before moving into overdrive with birdies at three of the final four holes to catch her rivals off guard.
Playing two groups ahead of the leaders, Hwang gave herself a chance when she rebounded from a triple-bogey seven at the 15th to go eagle-birdie over the last two holes and finish on 10-under.
“I made a terrible mistake off the 15th tee and hit into the right woods. After the triple bogey I didn’t care about my score. I didn’t expect to have a chip-in eagle and a birdie over the last two holes,” said Hwang, whose adventurous round included only seven pars.
One shot off the pace heading into the final day, Pan, who recorded her first ace in round two, struggled to build momentum. Her round included six birdies and three bogeys.
“I made some long putts for birdies and a chip-in birdie. It’s a great round. But Ami had a great birdie putt at the last hole and deserved this,” said the 25-year-old from Kota Kinabalu. “It’s my first time to be in the mix in China. I had a great week with a bonus of a hole-in-one.”
Chinese teenager Yin Xiaowen was the top amateur, signing off with a tournament-low round of 65 to finish equal fourth with overnight co-leader Aunchisa.
“Today is really great. I made a chip-in eagle and holed a nearly 60-foot birdie at the last. You couldn’t ask for more,” said the 14-year-old from Tianjin. “Next week, I will play the Buick LPGA. Hopefully, I can have another great result.”