Rookie Keita Nakajima stands out among seasoned names

Keita Nakajima - TheGolfingHub
Keita Nakajima during the second round of the ZOZO Championship. Photo: JGTO

Former world number one amateur Keita Nakajima put himself firmly in contention for a breakthrough after moving into fifth place at the ZOZO Championship on Friday.

Nakajima, making only his third start as a professional, posted a second-round 63 to reach the midway point on seven-under-par 133, three shots adrift of joint leaders Andrew Putnam and Rickie Fowler of the United States.

Putnam and Fowler both hit top form to fire flawless 62 and 63 respectively to move to 10-under, one ahead of Keegan Bradley (65) and two clear of John Huh, who smashed the Accordia Golf Narashino Country Club’s course record with a sizzling 61.

Nakajima, 22, has certainly justified the sponsor’s faith in him with a strong second-day display.

He overcame a bogey on the first hole in style by replying with eight birdies over an 11-hole stretch starting from number four.

Nakajima would squander his second bogey at 16th, but he made up for it by birdieing the last.

“I wanted to finish the last hole off with a good birdie and I am really glad I could play well throughout,” said Nakajima, who’s already a one-time JGTO winner following his triumph at last year’s Panasonic Open, then as an amateur.

“I am not satisfied with my swing or shot directions yet, but without a doubt, it was the best game I could put out today and so yes, I am happy.

“I just finished only two rounds. I still have two more days to go. I just want to enjoy playing with the PGA Tour players.”

Ryo Hisatsune, 20, also showed why he is worthy of a sponsor’s invitation as he returned with a 67 to finish in an 11-way tie for 13th on four-under alongside compatriot Satoshi Kodaira and Tokyo Olympics gold medallist Xander Schauffele.

Though feeling overwhelmed, Hisatsune said dealing with the difficult PGA Tour course setting is bringing out the best in him.

“The course setting and pin positions are challenging, and there are many spectators. Every aspect we experience here is at the highest level. I am overwhelmed,” he said.

“I don’t feel any pressure. Most of the foreign players drive far, which is surprising to me. I am one of the longest hitters in Japan, but my drive is the shortest in the group this week.

“This event is being held in Japan and there is no cut, which is a great opportunity for me. The field includes only 78 players, and now I am in a good position, so of course, I am hoping to make a good result, but the result will come if I play well.

“I don’t want to expect too much and just need to play consistently.”

Putnam powered from 11th to the summit after marking his scorecard with eight birdies and his effort was matched by Fowler, who rifled seven birdies to finish five rungs higher than his overnight position.

Putnam was pleased to reach the 36-hole mark without a single bogey, adding that playing at Narashino made him feel right at home.

“No bogeys, I think through the first 36 holes, so that’s great,” said the one-time PGA Tour winner.

“I’ve been playing well for the last few months, so I’m just trying to keep it going. Putter’s heating up.

“This course feels a lot like home, northwest golf. The clouds, I’m used to that, a lot of trees, and greens are rolling smooth, so feel pretty comfortable out here.”

Like Putnam, Fowler has also kept his card free from blemish for the second consecutive day and he looks to build on the encouraging start to step up his chase for a sixth PGA Tour win.

“Felt like I did a good job of kind of just focusing, staying kind of present and trying to keep moving forward. It’s always nice to have a clean card,” he said.