By Dan Reardon
In 2013, the Senior PGA Championship at Bellerive Country Club appeared on its way to a dream finish. As they turned for home, St. Louis-born Jay Haas and Kentucky’s Kenny Perry would battle over the closing nine with large local gallery followings. For both, the dream turned nightmarish, and a player unnoticed for the first 63 holes emerged the winner. Japan’s Kohki Idoki shot 7-under 65 to win by two.
Last week at the RBC Heritage the final pairing of the day offered attractive storylines. England’s Ian Poulter had been generating headlines since he forced his way into The Masters with a win at Houston the week prior. Korean Si Woo Kim was back in the mix after being the least talked-about 20-something from 2017, despite his win at the Players Championship at age 21. And long-hitting Luke List was poised to finally collect that first-ever Tour win.
Enter Japan’s Satoshi Kodaira. Starting six groups back with the early weather start on Sunday at Harbour Town, Kodaira carded seven birdies and two bogeys for a 5-under 66 and waited for nearly an hour to see where his -12 total would place him. It got him into the first playoff in PGA Tour history to feature two Asian-born players.
Kim, who grabbed the outright lead, getting to -15 after nine, had to hang on with three bogeys coming in to find himself in the playoff with Kodaira. After matching pars in sudden death twice at the eighteenth, the six-time winner on the Japan Golf Tour posted his first win outside his country, with a 25-foot birdie at the par 3, 17th.
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Explaining afterward that it had always been his dream to eventually play on the PGA Tour, Kodaira was only thinking about playing one more week as the final round got underway. “It was spread through six strokes (his starting deficit), so I was thinking mostly of getting into the top 10 so I can play next week. So, I wasn’t really thinking about winning.”
While there is no way to exaggerate the surprising nature of his win, Kodaira had left trace elements in the last six weeks to suggest his game was rounding into form. At the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, he had Phil Mickelson down four after seven before losing to the left-hander 1-up.
Safely inside the top 50 in the World Golf rankings, he had a steady four days at his first Masters with a T28.
Kodaira’s golfing DNA runs deeper than his six Asian wins, including two in 2017. Since 2015 he has resided in the top 10 on his tour’s money list, ranking second a year ago and currently holding that position in 2018. In hindsight, it seems predictable that the Heritage might have been his best opportunity to shine on the U.S. Tour.
In Japan, he has been a GIR machine, annually among the best on his Tour. With its moderate length and tiny greens, a player who has a knack for finding greens and converting will always be rewarded at Harbour Town. Kodaira said that layout contributed heavily to his success. “It is very similar to the course I grew up on in Japan, with all the tree lines, easy to pick targets. And the greens also didn’t have any major issues.” At Hilton Head, he ranked fourth in fairways, tied for seventh in greens hit, and took advantage of those opportunities with 19 birdies, and perhaps, most importantly, no doubles or worse.
Kodiara now has two years status on the Tour he dreamed of playing, exemptions into the Players, Memorial, the PGA Championship and a return to the Masters. He also has the signature tartan jacket of a Heritage winner, a piece of apparel he will don judiciously. “I will not wear it every day, but it is special.”
Dan Reardon has covered golf for radio station KMOX in St. Louis for 33 years. In that time, he has covered more than 100 events, including majors and other PGA, LPGA and Champions Tour tournaments. During his broadcast career, Reardon conducted one-on-one interviews with three dozen members of the World Golf of Fame. He has contributed to many publications over the years and co-authored the book Golf’s Greatest Eighteen from Random House. Reardon served as Director of Media relations for LPGA events in both St. Louis and Chicago for 10 years.