Japan’s Kazuki Higa showed just why he is currently ranked the number one player in Japan when he birdied the final two holes to win The 38th Shinhan Donghae Open at Koma Country Club in Nara, near Osaka.
On a memorable final day at one of Korea’s premier tournaments, he holed a pressure-packed 15-foot birdie putt on the short, driveable par-four 18th to return a six-under-par 65 for a tournament total of 20 under, and a two-shot victory over Tirawat Kaewsiribandit from Thailand, Korean Mingyu Cho and Yonggu Shin from Canada.
Tirawat, who started the final day with a three-shot advantage and held a narrow lead for much of the day, closed with a 72 – which featured an incredible albatross – while Cho fired a 66, and Shin a 68.
The event is tri-sanctioned by the Asian, Korean and Japan Tours, and this year marked the first time in its history it had been played in Japan.
Korea’s PGA Tour star Siwoo Kim, playing in the final group, returned a 70, to end three behind the winner, in a tie for fifth, along with the 2019 champion Jbe Kruger from South Africa, who signed off with a best of the day 63.
Higa’s bid for victory came at the very death. Playing in the penultimate group and trailing Tirawat by one with two to play he birdied the par-five 17th to draw level before the under-pressure Thai golfer bogeyed the 16th to fall one behind.
However, Tirawat bravely bounced back with a birdie on the 17th to draw level again before Higa made his brilliant birdie on the last, where he found a greenside bunker from the tee before splashing out to set up his sensational closing putt.
That meant Tirawat needed to make a birdie to force a sudden-death play-off. And after missing the green left with his tee shot he chipped to 10 feet suggesting extra time looked a strong possibility but the 32 year old just missed the birdie putt before also seeing his short par putt slip by.
“I worked so hard during the off season, and it has really paid off,” said Higa, who received a cheque for US$214,650.
“I played well today, and hit some great approach shots, but the putts really were not dropping. But I trusted myself, made a lot of pars, and stayed confident.”
The 27-year-old Okinawan’s latest victory is another landmark moment in a career which continues to go from strength to strength and attract attention. He was victorious on the Asian Development Tour in 2017, the year he turned professional, and won again on that Tour the following year. He tasted victory next on the Japan Golf Tour in 2019 and 2021 before moving to the top of the Japan money list this season with wins at the Kansai Open Golf Championship in April and the BMW Japan Golf Tour Championship Mori Building Cup in June.
Higa added: “I am happy to win a tri-sanctioned event and also win Tour cards for three tours. Top-ranked players from each Tour are here, and their game levels are really high. I am standing on the top of the money list [in Japan], and I felt like I was the representative of the Japan Tour, and I managed to win, which made me feel great.
“I was playing in Asia before competing on the Japan Tour, so I am glad to get a Tour card now on the Asian Tour. The Asian Tour is getting bigger.”
Tirawat, also the leader at the halfway mark, experienced the full gamut of emotions today.
A dropped shot on the second hole was not the start he was looking for but to the amazement of those walking with his group and following at home on television, he holed his second shot on the par-five third, using a three-wood from 277 yards. It was the first albatross in three years on the Asian Tour.
But the thrill of that moment was quickly replaced by concern on the following hole, a par three, when he pushed his tee shot into trees on the right and made par with his second ball for a double.
Despite the turbulent start he remained in front until Higa joined him on top of the leaderboard with his birdie on 17.
Said Tirawat said: “I wasn’t in position to make birdies today. I just kept getting out of position. I lost my focus too many times, like that par putt on 18th, but I am proud of myself.”
He was attempting to win his second title on the Asian Tour, having claimed the UMA CNS Open Golf Championship in Pakistan in 2018.
Three-time PGA Tour winner Siwoo Kim challenged for much of the day and was many people’s favourite to prevail, but he surprisingly found water on the par-four 14th and made a six before dropping another shot on the next hole.
A brilliant tee shot on 18 to 20 feet, which he holed for a stunning eagle, will have been some consolation for the Korean, who will play in The Presidents Cup later this month.