Meet Hiroshi Iwata, the Unknown Golfer Who Made History at the PGA Championship

Art SpanderFeatured ColumnistAugust 14, 2015

USA Today

HAVEN, Wis. — He’s 102nd in the world golf rankings. He needs an interpreter when the questions are in English. And Friday in the second round of the 97th PGA Championship, Hiroshi Iwata equaled the lowest round ever in a major tournament.

Are we permitted to tweak the title of that old Beatles hit and make it “Out of Nowhere Man”?

Golf: bewildering, captivating and absolutely delightful. There’s no defense, and because anything can happen at any moment, there’s a high degree of unpredictability. And inconsistency.

On Thursday, Iwata, of Miyagi, Japan, shot a five-over-par 77. He was as good as gone, a cinch to miss the cut, as he had been the previous times he had played in a major, the British Opens of 2008, 2014 and this year, 2015. He started from nowhere, and we surmised he was destined to return to nowhere.

And then Friday at Whistling Straits, where the temperature was 79 degrees and the wind was down to almost nothing, Iwata shot 63. It was an improvement of 14 strokes, or virtually one stroke per hole. Instead of heading home, he was heading up the leaderboard.

“The course conditions are very different from yesterday and today,” Iwata said through the interpreter.

So was Iwata, a 34-year-old who has been on the Japanese Tour for 11 years but is so little known outside Asia that Reiko Takekawa of the Kyodo News, a golf correspondent based in Los Angeles, was unable to provide background other than could be located in the media guides.

SHEBOYGAN, WI - AUGUST 14:  Hiroshi Iwata of Japan hits his second shot on the fifth hole during the second round of the 2015 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits on August 14, 2015 in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

It’s not so much a magic number, 63, whether on a course like Whistling Straits with a par of 72 or one with a par of 70. It’s more of a barrier. Maybe even a curse.

Twenty-seven times since Johnny Miller did it originally in the 1973 U.S. Open at Oakmont, a golfer has hit a 63 in a major. It’s been done in all four majors. And that’s it. No 62s, no matter how easy the course—some years when the weather cooperates, St. Andrews meets that description—and no matter how difficult.

Iwata had a 30-yard chip on 18 at Whistling Straits that just slipped by the cup. Had it fallen, he would have had that 62. Then again, 30 yards isn’t exactly a gimmee.

Iwata’s 63 is a record for Whistling Straits, where the tournament—“This is major,” insists the PGA slogan, in case you needed a reminder—is being held for a third time. If he couldn’t get the major mark for himself, Iwata at least has the knowledge he shares it with Miller, Jack Nicklaus, Raymond Floyd, Greg Norman and others, including Iwata’s countryman, Isao Aoki.

“He’s a legend in Japan,” Iwata said of Aoki, whose 63 came in the 1980 British at Muirfield in Scotland. “So I know him a lot.”

Chris Carlson/Associated Press

Not even some of the golfers entered with him in the WGC HSBC event at Shanghai last November knew Iwata, even though he had won two events in Japan. Bubba Watson took that HSBC in a playoff with Tim Clark. Iwata was a shot behind, in a three-way tie for third with Thorbjorn Olesen and Graeme McDowell.

According to an Associated Press story, McDowell had never heard of Iwata until the HSBC and had never seen him swing until Iwata played in the group ahead. McDowell called him one of the great young players from Japan—unaware Iwata was close to his own age.

Iwata was a respectable two-under par through 11 holes Friday at the Straits, with three birdies and just one bogey on the par-five 18th. Then it all went wild, for the better. Iwata eagled the par-five 11th and birdied 12, 13, 15, 16 and 17—seven-under par in seven holes.

SHEBOYGAN, WI - AUGUST 14:  Hiroshi Iwata of Japan speaks with the media after shooting a nine-under par 63 during the second round of the 2015 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits on August 14, 2015 in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.  (Photo by Andrew Redington/G
Andrew Redington/Getty Images

“After the 13th, I thought I was going to shoot 27,” he said of his score on the back nine, where he did shoot 29, seven-under.

He had a 62 in the second round at Thailand in June. Asked to compare that round with the 63 at Whistling Straits, he responded, “Just one shot different.” That brought laughter from the gathered scribes, few as they might have been.

But nobody’s laughing at Iwata’s game. He’s gone from obscurity to at least a measure of fame. When you’re in the golfing history books alongside people such as Nicklaus and Norman—and Tom Weiskopf and Rory McIlroy—you’ve gone from nowhere to brilliance.

Iwata seemed no less excited to be interviewed than he was to shoot that record score. “I have seen these kind of media centers on TV,” he said after being asked to appear. "But I’m honored to be here. But I thought there would be more people, more media.”

Easy there, Iwata. Shoot 62, and you’ll fill the press tent.

Art Spander is a winner of the 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award in Journalism from the PGA of America. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.

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