Kiyoshi Murota Emerges as Humble Competitor at Senior Major

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Kiyoshi Murota Emerges as Humble Competitor at Senior Major
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The ageless wonder Tom Watson sank a birdie putt on the 73rd hole of the Senior PGA Championship to defeat David Eger in a playoff and claim his sixth senior major championship.

At age 61, the legendary Watson remains as competitive and humble as ever in his 40-year career. However, Watson's return to form isn't the only inspiring story that surrounded the second Champions Tour major of the year.

Going into the fourth round on Sunday, an unlikely name had been at the top of the leaderboard since the completion of a very wet and weather-delayed first round. Kiyoshi Murota, a 55-year-old Japanese golf teacher, fired a 66 on the first day of competition to take control of the tournament.

The veteran Murota has had considerable success in his career, claiming six tournament victories on the Japan Golf Tour and four wins on that country's senior tour. However, in 30 years of professional golf, he has little experience playing in the United States. He played in only seven career PGA events, earning only one top-25 and has performed well on select Champions Tour events, including a tie for second at the 2007 Turtle Bay Championship.

Despite his respectable career accolades, though, not even the most knowledgeable golf analyst would have projected Kiyoshi Murota to be a contender for a major championship.

Featuring eight one-putts and a streak of four consecutive birdies in dreadful conditions, Murota's round placed him a stroke ahead of tournament alternate Trevor Dodds. While many were impressed by the Japanese golfer's play, Murota himself wasn't as enthusiastic.

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As could be expected, reporters in the press room had an overwhelming variety of questions to ask the relative unknown. When asked if he had a legitimate shot at winning the whole tournament, Murota responded, through an interpreter, "Nothing. No chance."

His self-depreciation did not end with that question. For every query, the 55-year-old had a deadpan answer. 

When complimented on his putting stroke and performance on the greens, he quipped, "I'm usually so-so. Only good today." He was also asked if he was surprised to be ahead at the end of the round. His response: "Somebody has to be leading."

However, one question did not require a humorous retort. When asked how he stacked up to the elite golfers in the field, Murota decisively shook his head and lifted one hand to his head to represent his peers and placed the other at his belt buckle to signify himself.

In lieu of the less-than-flattering comments he directed towards himself, Murota followed his breakout Thursday performance with an equally-motivated 67 in the second round. With his six-under-par effort on Friday, he took a four-shot advantage into the weekend over Nick Price and another ageless competitor, 66-year-old Hale Irwin.

Although gratified, Murota was still unwilling to assess his chances at victory as being strong. “Right now I have no particular thoughts about the fact that I have achieved a better score than those big-name golfers, because we have two more days,” Murota said. “Tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. Let's wait until two days from now before making any kind of a judgment or assessment as to how well I have done.”

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Heading into the weekend, Kiyoshi Murota had earned the attention of all spectators and the support of the crowd at the Valhalla Golf Club. All seemed well for the cynical-yet-gracious golfer.

However, a nagging back injury led to the disappearance of his considerable four-stroke lead, and he even trailed by three strokes at one point. After a string of bogeys, he courageously fought the pain on the closing holes of the round and sank several crucial and lengthy par putts. Aided by a double bogey by then-leader Irwin on the 18th hole, Murota was able to finish the round with a share of the lead, even though he posted a third-round 74.

Following his disappointing play on Saturday, the Japanese golf teacher's demeanor remained the same, perhaps even with more confidence than before."Tomorrow is another day. I'm going to play the game of golf my own way. I don't care who is playing with me or before me or after me, I'm going to play Murota's game, Murota's golf," he stated.

Kiyoshi Murota stayed true to his promise and played "Murota golf" during the final round. Due to his wide stance at the tee, he hooked many of his drives far left, as he did in all four rounds.

However, he was able to rely on his stable hands and soft touch around the greens to eek out as many par putts as he could along with his fair share of bogies. Despite an even par 72 on a day when most competitors struggled to break into red numbers, Murota was one stroke short of the 10-under playoff between Eger and Watson.

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Following his solo third finish on Sunday, Murota was less candid, saying, "I played 'Murota golf' to the best of my ability. However, my putting left something to be desired."

While it may seem as if the likeable veteran was dejected and lost some of his humor, I don't find that to be the case. Due to the encouraging play and eventual win by the 61-year-old Watson, the attention was largely shifted away from Kiyoshi Murota. His story was shuffled into the depths of spectators' minds.

I don't think we forget about Kiyoshi Murota just as we were introduced to him, though. He belongs to a special brand of professional golfers, and athletes overall. Much like the more well-known American golfer Rocco Mediate, he makes no bones about his shortcomings and merely plays with what strengths he has.

Sure, he has a tendency to hit it left off the tee and makes his share of mistakes. Whenever Murota made a mess of a hole this past weekend, he wouldn't been seen grieving over a lost opportunity. He and his caddy would simply laugh off the mistakes and move on to the next shot. All these tendencies make up what he calls "Murota golf."

It is a shame that many will never give a second thought to Murota's achievements in the first two rounds or his near victory. I believe it is important for fans to remember not every competitor has the talent of Tiger Woods or the youth of Rickie Fowler. That doesn't mean they love the game any less or are of less importance to their respective tours.

In an individual sport such as golf, every competitor has his own unique characteristics and qualities that earn them fans. Kiyoshi Murota showed many of those qualities this week—humility, professionalism, a sense of humor, etc.

Now, the longtime golf teacher will most likely return home and continue to play weekly on the Japan Golf Tour, hidden away from the public eye of American fans. Week in and week out, he will continue to go to the links and entertain many, including himself, with the unique style of "Murota golf," a term I will never forget.

As for his career in the U.S., my guess would be he will return this year and probably play in the remaining major championships, but he many never recapture the magic he displayed on Thursday and Friday.

Although his name may never be at the top of a leaderboard in the United States again, admire and respect Kiyoshi Murota. I, for one, have become a fan as a result of one tournament. I would bet he would say he doesn't deserve my praises.

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