Japan’s Rikuya Hoshino Chasing Legend Of Aoki In Australia

Japan’s Rikuya Hoshino Chasing Legend Of Aoki In Australia 1920 1547 ISPS Handa

Japan’s impressive Rikuya Hoshino and Australia’s Min Woo Lee will again duel for a trophy in the final group on Sunday at the ISPS HANDA Australian Open in Sydney. 

Hoshino’s love affair with Australian golf courses continued on Saturday at The Australian Golf Club with an excellent six-under-par 65. He equalled the low round of the day as he collected his seventh straight round in the 60s on his two-week trip to Australia. 

Hoshino, at 13-under, shares the lead with Lee, who finished an untidy round by rolling in a 3m putt for birdie for a 70 after being in the greenside bunker for two on the closing par five. Hoshino already knows what it’s like to play alongside the crowd favourite, amid the cheers he stirs, after being in the final group with Lee only a week ago at the Australian PGA in Brisbane. 

The slender 27-year-old produced a fine 68 on that day but it never came close to the scoring heroics of winner Lee, who marched to his biggest accomplishment with a striking 64. 

Hoshino’s Saturday 65 included four birdies and a piercing, 203m long iron second shot to a back pin at the par five 14th which left him just 1.5m away for eagle. Sinking the putt catapulted him into at least a share of the lead for the rest of the day. 

He should know the history he is chasing on Sunday. Japan’s World Golf Hall of Famer Isao Aoki held aloft a trophy as a winner in Australia when the Coca-Cola Classic was held at Royal Melbourne. That was way back in 1989. “Jet” Ozaki came close for second at the 1988 Palm Meadows Cup and Ryo Hisatsune was second at the 2022 Australian PGA before Hoshino was runner-up a week ago.  

It is no race in two. American Patrick Rodgers and England’s Alex Fitzpatrick, after his 66, sit one stroke back at 12-under. Australian Lucas Herbert had a two-putt birdie on the final hole in his own 66 to be just two off the pace. There are 17 golfers within five shots at the top. 

Lee was always the central character of Round Three. He opened the day with a three-shot lead and serenely added a birdie on his opening hole by ripping an iron next to the pin. Miscueing his approach right into the water on the third hole for double bogey started him on the rollercoaster. There was only one other bogey up against three birdies from there but putts lipped out or slid by where they had dropped in Friday’s 64.  

Min Woo Lee reacts after holing his putt for birdie on his closing hole of Round Three on Saturday at the ISPS HANDA Australian Open in Sydney. Photo: Golf Australia / Brett Costello. Photo at top: Gregg Porteous.

The par five 14th will show a bland “par” on his scorecard but it was anything but. His second shot was off the back of the green and he chipped across the tilting green into a bunker for his third. He came out long from the sand but kept his calm tempo to sink a clutch par putt. 

On the last, Lee was again in the sand but the birdie he crafted with a good putt generated a fist jab. 

“It was a bit of a grind. It wasn’t the easiest of rounds but golf is golf and you get a little unlucky with lip-outs,” Lee said. 

“It was great to get that (birdie) from a pretty average lie in that bunker. Hopefully I can bring it on Sunday.” 

Hoshino is enjoying his first visit to Australia and wants to bring into play the experience learned from seven wins in Japan (2017-2022). 

“This is the first time for me coming over to Australia and I can enjoy the atmosphere and also this tournament,” Hoshino said. “Last week (at the PGA), I couldn’t make the birdie on the back nine but this week I have more birdie on the back nine to make the winning. 

“I’m going to use many experiences in winning in Japan. I’ll try to do my best.” 

Rodgers, after his 70, said he was enjoying the crowd energy and the setting at a beautifully-manicured course. 

“The atmosphere was electric. Obviously, everyone here is rooting hard for Min. He’s showing out at his national Open which is really cool to see,” Rodgers said. 

“There’s a lot of guys with a good chance so one of us is going to fire a good one. It’s a good opportunity for me to be aggressive.”