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[JAPAN SPORTS NOTEBOOK] JLPGA Tour Season Gets Underway with the 1st of 37 Tournaments

Rising JLPGA Tour star Chisato Iwai had a pair of 7-under 65 efforts entering the final round of the season-opening Daikin Orchid Ladies Golf Tournament.

UPDATED at 5:30 PM JST on March 3: Chisato Iwai won the Daikin Orchid Ladies Golf Tournament, the season-opening JLPGA Tour event, by two strokes over Mao Saigo, finishing at 18-under 270.

The busy 2024 JLPGA Tour season commenced on Thursday, February 29 at Ryukyu Golf Club in Nanjo, Okinawa Prefecture.

First contested in March 1988, the Daikin Orchid Ladies Golf Tournament is an annual event at this time of year.

Japan's women's pro golf circuit has 36 more events on the 2024 calendar, closing with the JLPGA Tour Championship Ricoh Cup in late November in Miyazaki.

To kick off the new season, 21-year-old Chisato Iwai carded a 7-under 65 on Thursday. She took a 2-stroke lead over Haruka Amamoto, Erika Kikuchi and Mao Saigo into the second round.

Following a 1-over 73 in the second round, Iwai moved back into title contention with a 65, which included 10 birdies, in Saturday's third round.

Heading into the final day of the four-round tourney, Iwai at 13-under 203 held a 1-stroke advantage over Saigo. Yuka Nii and Kikuchi were tied for third at 9-under 207.

Insights from Iwai

Iwai looked back on her disappointing second-round effort after bouncing back in the third round.

"I was extremely frustrated on the second day when I ended up over par. It was frustrating," Iwai told reporters, according to the JLPGA Tour's official website.

"[However], I was able to sleep well even in such a situation."

JLPGA Tour
Chisato Iwai had 10 birdies in the third round on March 2. (©SANKEI)

Iwai finished fifth in the money rankings in 2023 and her twin sister Akie also plays on the tour. She exhibited a determined outlook as she prepared for the final round of the season-opening tournament.

"A one-stroke lead is important," stated Iwaii, who won two JLPGA Tour tournaments in 2023. "But on the final day, I don't think of it as a one-stroke lead, I will just go for it. I want to improve my score with my style."

Other Top Contenders at the Season-Opening JLPGA Tour Tournament

Through Saturday's action, Amamoto and two-time reigning money champion Miyuu Yamashita sat in fifth place at 6-under 210. Yamashita had back-to-back 1-under 71s before shooting a 68 on Saturday. 

JLPGA Tour
Reigning JLPGA Tour champion Miyuu Yamashita putts on the third green during the third round of the Daikin Orchid Ladies Golf Tournament. (KYODO)

Nii said she's determined to vie for victory in the last round, noting that "It's possible, I'm in range," according to an interview posted on the tour's website.

Looking ahead, in comments that also seem to underscore her outlook for the entire season, Nii added, "The top players are improving their scores. But it doesn't mean that tomorrow will be any better. Ryukyu Golf Club is a course where there is a fine line between a good score and a bad score. I will be very careful with my [course] management once again."

JLPGA Tour
Yuka Nii (©SANKEI)

This week, defending Daikin Orchid Ladies champion Jiyai Shin of South Korea is playing in an LPGA Tour event, HSBC Women's Champions, in Singapore.

It's just a shoe!

Did You Know?

According to the current Women's World Golf Rankings, United States-based Nasa Hataoka and Ayaka Furue are Japan's top two female golfers at 17th and 20th, respectively. Yamashita is ranked 22nd, while LPGA Tour regular Yuka Saso is 26th.

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Japan's Hana Takahashi (center) celebrates with teammates after scoring a first-half goal against North Korea in an Olympic qualifier final-round match on February 28 at Tokyo's National Stadium. (KYODO)

Soccer

Nadeshiko Japan Qualifies for the Paris Games

The Japan women's soccer national team defeated North Korea 2-1 in the second leg of their Paris 2024 Asian qualifiers final-round match on Wednesday, February 28 at National Stadium.

In the first leg, the teams settled for a scoreless draw on Saturday, February 24 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Nadeshiko Japan had its finest showing in an Olympic tournament at the 2012 London Games, placing second.

On Wednesday, defender Hana Takahashi (24th minute) and midfielder Aoba Fujino (77th) gave the hosts a 2-0 lead before North Korea's Hye Yong Kim scored in the 81st minute.

After achieving its initial goal of qualifying for the 12-team Paris Games tournament, Japan manager Futoshi Ikeda spoke about the team's bigger ambitions.

"We want to move forward with the goal of winning a gold medal," Ikeda commented after the North Korea match, The Associated Press reported.

Former Japan national team striker Shinji Okazaki in a 2018 file photo. (©SANKEI)

Ex-Samurai Blue Standout Okazaki to Retire At the End of the Season

Veteran striker Shinji Okazaki, 37, revealed on Monday, February 26 his plan to retire after the current Belgian Pro League season wraps up.

Okazaki, who joined Sint-Triden in 2022, posted his announcement on Instagram. In explaining his decision, he wrote, "I have given my all as a footballer up to now, but when I realized that my body was falling apart I naturally felt I had reached my limits."

A native of Hyogo Prefecture, Okazaki appeared in three World Cups (2010, 2014 and '18) and played in 119 international matches for Japan, the fifth-most ever for the Samurai Blue. 

He was a consistent scorer while suiting up for the national team. With 50 goals, Okazaki is third on Japan's all-time list, trailing only Kazuyoshi "King Kazu" Miura (55) and Kunishige Kamamoto (75). 

Okazaki also helped Leicester City capture the 2015-16 English Premier League title.

He began his pro career with the J.League's Shimizu S-Pulse in 2005.

B.League
Ryukyu Golden Kings guard Yoshiyuki Matsuwaki shoots a 3-pointer in the first quarter against the San-en NeoPhoenix on March 2 in Toyohashi, Aichi Prefecture. (B.LEAGUE)

Basketball

Ryuyku Hammers San-en in Clash of B.League Powerhouse Teams

In their series opener on Saturday, March 2, the reigning B.League champion Ryukyu Golden Kings cruised past the San-en NeoPhoenix 107-88.

The Golden Kings (28-12) outscored the hosts 33-13 in the decisive fourth quarter in Toyohashi, Aichi Prefecture.

Keita Imamura sparked Ryukyu with nine points in the final stanza when he knocked down 3 of 4 3-point shots. He finished with a team-high 20 points.

Teammate Vic Law added eight of his 18 points in the fourth. Yoshiyuki Matsuwaki also poured in 18 points, draining 6 of 10 3s. Jack Cooley (17 points), Allen Durham (13) and Ryuichi Kishimoto (11) also contributed double-digit scoring efforts for the Golden Kings.

Ryukyu made 16 of 30 3-pointers in the rout.

Yante Maten paced the NeoPhoenix (34-6, the league's best record) with 20 points.

"From the start of the game, we were trading points [with San-en] and were not able to play basketball in our own rhythm, but I think we ended the game well on offense," Ryukyu coach Dai Oketani told reporters. "In the second half, we played good defense and were able to execute basketball as a team, which I feel led to this result."

The Golden Kings sealed the win with a 16-0 run to take a 98-77 lead with 3:01 left in the game.

Before the establishment of the B.League in 2016, the Golden Kings and NeoPhoenix (formerly known as the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix) were fierce rivals in the bj-league. Ryukyu won four championships (2008-09, 2011-12, 2013-14 and 2015-16) and the Phoenix captured three (2009-10, 2010-11 and 2014-15).

The teams were set to play again on Sunday, March 3 at the same venue, Toyohashi City General Gymnasium.

Marathon debutant Kiyoto Hirabayashi wins the 2024 Osaka Marathon on February 25. (KYODO)

Track and Field

Kokugakuin University's Hirabayashi Triumphs in Osaka Marathon

Making his marathon debut on Sunday, February 25, Kokugakuin University third-year student Kiyoto Hirabayashi was victorious in 2 hours, 6 minutes, 18 seconds at the Osaka Marathon. 

Hirabayashi, 21, set a national record for runners in their first marathon. And he crossed the finish line 4 seconds ahead of Uganda's Stephen Kissa at Osaka Castle Park.

After the race, Hirabayashi told reporters he has lofty aspirations for the future.

"I don't think this is my highest point," Hirabayashi was quoted as saying by Kyodo News before adding, "I want to train more and improve."

Kiyoto Hirabayashi is interviewed after winning the Osaka Marathon. (KYODO)

It was an excellent performance in a marathon debut, making Hirabayashi a runner to keep an eye on in the future, according to former Olympic marathon runner Toshihiko Seko, a Japan Association of Athletic Federations (JAAF) official who oversees athlete development.

"Hirabayashi had an amazing run," Seko said, according to Kyodo News. "The way he ran has made me think he'll be our marathon superstar at the Los Angeles Olympics [in 2028]."

Two of Japan's three spots on the men's marathon team for the Paris Games belong to Naoki Koyama and Akira Akasaki. They placed 1-2 at the Marathon Grand Championship in Tokyo in October 2023. 

Suguru Osako, who placed sixth at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, was the leading candidate to secure the third spot heading into the Tokyo Marathon on March 3. Osako bolstered his chances of making the Olympic team again by finishing third at the Marathon Grand Championship. 

Luis Nery in a March 2018 file photo. (©SANKEI)

Boxing

JBC Lifts Suspension of Bantamweight Nery, Clearing Him to Fight 'Monster' Inoue

Five years after the Japan Boxing Commission banned Mexico's Luis Nery from fighting in Japan due to past rule violations, the suspension has been lifted.

The JBC made the announcement on Monday, February 26.

As a result, Nery, who hails from Tijuana, will be authorized to face undisputed world super bantamweight champion Naoya Inoue in a May title bout at Tokyo Dome.

Nery, a 29-year-old southpaw, is the WBC's top-ranked super bantamweight contender. He owns a career record of 35-1 with 27 knockouts.

The 30-year-old Inoue is 26-0 with 23 KOs.

Nery won the WBC bantamweight title with a fourth-round technical knockout of titlist Shinsuke Yamanaka on August 15, 2017, in Kyoto.

Nine days after the fight, it was announced that Nery had tested positive for the drug zilpaterol, which is a banned substance. The boxer claimed he had eaten contaminated meat, and the WBC opted to not penalize Nery. Instead, the WBC demanded that a mandatory rematch would take place.

In the weigh-in a day before their rematch on March 1, 2018, Nery failed to make weight. He was 3 pounds above the 118-pound (53.5-kg) limit and thus was stripped of his belt before the bout. Fighting without his title, Nery was still the superior boxer, defeating Yamanaka via a second-round TKO.

Two days later, however, the JBC revoked Nery's boxing license.

Challenger Ryosuke Nishida poses at a news conference on February 27 in Osaka for his IBF bantamweight title fight on May 4 in the same city. (KYODO)

Nishida to Face IBF Bantamweight Champ Rodriguez on May 4

Challenger Ryosuke Nishida will face IBF bantamweight champion Emmanuel Rodgriguez in a world title fight on May 4 at Edion Arena Osaka.

Nishida, the IBF's No 1-ranked bantamweight, confirmed the fight date to reporters on Tuesday, February 27 at Osaka's Muto Boxing Gym.

Rodriguez, 31, is making his first title defense. The Puerto Rican is 22-2 with 13 KOs in his career. He is coming off a 12-round unanimous decision over Nicaragua's Melvin Lopez on August 12, 2023, for the vacant title in Oxon Hill, Maryland.

Then-IBF champ Inoue KO'd Rodriguez in the second round of their May 18, 2019, showdown in Glasgow.

Nishida, 27, is 8-0 with one knockout. The southpaw earned his most recent victory on August 11, 2023, with a 12-round unanimous decision over Mexico's Christian Medina Jimenez in Osaka.

"I am grateful to have the world title in my hometown of Osaka," Nishida was quoted as saying by Boxing News. While the champion has excellent speed, technique and good counterattacks, I want to not give up and get points."

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Baseball

Rays Newcomer Uwasawa Struggles in Spring Training Debut

Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Naoyuki Uwasawa allowed seven runs and eight hits in two innings in his spring training debut against the Atlanta Braves on Thursday, February 29 in Port Charlotte, Florida.

Uwasawa, who is seeking to make Tampa Bay's Opening Day roster after signing a minor league contract in the offseason, entered the game in the third inning. He yielded two home runs and struck out one. 

The Braves won 12-9.

Uwasawa, 30, previously pitched for NPB's Hokkaido Nipponham Fighters from 2014-23 and compiled a 70-62 record. He was a three-time Pacific League All-Star.

Briefly…

Rugby's 2024 Pacific Nations Cup will be held in August and September and feature six nations (Canada, Fiji, Japan, Samoa, Tonga, and the United States), World Rugby announced on Tuesday, February 27.

Split into two first-round pools, Fiji, Samoa and Tonga will vie for spots in the semifinals in one group, while Canada, Japan and the US will tussle for two berths in the other. Fiji, Samoa and Tonga will each host one Pool A match in the opening stage, which begins on August 22.

In Pool B, it's Canada vs Japan in Vancouver (August 25), US vs Canada in Carson, California (August 31) and Japan vs Canada in Kumagaya, Saitama Prefecture (September 7).

Tourney semifinals are set for September 14 and 15 in Tokyo followed by the third-place and championship matches on September 21 in Osaka.

An Athlete's Voice 

"This is really a confidence boost. I used to feel losing to China was unavoidable, but I've never been disappointed like this. We'll work hard to avenge this loss at the Olympics."

Miu Hirano, on her 3-0 singles victory over China's Yidi Wang 3-0 and Japan's 3-2 overall defeat to China in the women's final at the World Team Table Tennis Championships on February 24 in Busan, South Korea, as reported by Kyodo News. China captured its fifth consecutive women's world title.

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Author: Ed Odeven

Find Ed on JAPAN Forward's dedicated website, SportsLook. Follow his [Japan Sports Notebook] on Sundays, [Odds and Evens] during the week, and X (formerly Twitter) @ed_odeven.

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