A sharp, sudden cheer followed Kiyoshi Murota off the ninth green Friday, where he had just made a birdie putt to move to 5 under par at the U.S. Senior Open. After hitting his tee shot on No. 10, Murota pursued it down the fairway in long, loose strides, not looking to his right at the electronic leaderboard, which displayed his name at the top.
Such was the case for much of Murota’s round Friday morning, though he retreated a little on the back nine, finishing at 3 under through the championship’s first two days. Although perhaps one of the lesser-known names among the leaders, the 59-year-old Japanese pro is not in uncharted waters. In 2011, Murota led the U.S. Senior PGA Championship after 36 holes, ultimately finishing third, one stroke behind eventual winner Tom Watson.
Friday, Murota was asked if there’s something about U.S. senior majors that brings out his best. He chuckled before answering, through interpreter Hiro Takeda, “I just enjoy playing golf.” Then he pointed to himself and added in English: “No champion.”
Perhaps not on American soil, where Murota competed in a handful of PGA Tour events as a younger player and owns a career-best 17th-place finish in four previous U.S. Senior Open appearances. He may be regarded differently in Japan. Murota won six Japan Tour tournaments from 1991 to 2003, and has become a successful senior player, winning the Japan PGA Senior Championship three times, most recently in 2012.
Last year, according to a tournament biography, Murota played a full schedule on the regular Japan Tour (in fields crowded by players half his age), captured his 12th win on Japan’s Senior Tour at the Fujifilm Senior Championship, won a senior tournament in Korea, and played in the U.S. Senior Open – withdrawing after one round.
“(He) may be the most busy player in Japan,” said Murota’s friend, Yoshi Nobe.
Nobe was following Murota around Del Paso Country Club on Friday, slogging through the mid-morning heat. Nobe said the two met more than 40 years ago as students at the Nippon Sport Science University, where they were introduced to a range of sports. Nobe was a skier. Murota, he said, had played baseball in high school and expressed an interest in trying American football at college before gravitating toward golf.
Nobe said Murota has changed little since. “He’s very gentle,” Nobe said, “very soft, very kind.” As a golfer, he described Murota as “clever,” not a big risk-taker. Nobe said he was not surprised to see Murota leading the Senior Open as of Friday morning.
“He has (much) potential,” Nobe said. “If he tried to play the American senior tour, maybe he has a chance to win, like (Kohki) Idoki,” the Japanese player who won the 2013 U.S. Senior PGA Championship and is playing this week in Sacramento.
Murota played the front nine Friday morning in 3 under, and stayed at 5 under for the championship through the 12th hole. He bogeyed the long par-4 13th hole, and on No. 16 missed a mid-length putt for par. As it rolled wide, Murota smiled and held his arms out to his sides, looking at his caddie and motioning for the ball to cut back left.
He seemed equally bemused after a missed birdie putt on No. 18, zooming his hand out as though he’d expected, or wanted, the ball to take off. Otherwise, Murota’s expression during his round was mostly impassive, his attention drawn by the occasional outburst of cheering from another location on the course. Flashiness appeared confined to a pair of white golf shoes with earth-toned trim that bore his name – Murota – in block letters on the sides.
Yet part of why he plays U.S. tournaments, Murota said, is for the stimulation. Through his interpreter, Murota said that “United States courses are very good, (better) than Japan. So I am more challenged, and more excited, playing golf.”
Asked about Friday’s round, Murota complimented the course and the weather, the latter more agreeable than during his afternoon round Thursday. Pressed about which aspect of his game was best Friday – driving, irons or putting – Murota, clutching a can of Diet Coke, looked directly at the questioner and said in deadpan English: “Everything.”
Murota, who smiled for most his news conference, indicated his focus this weekend will be not on the leaders, but “getting better each time” that he plays the course. At the 2011 U.S. Senior PGA Championship at Valhalla, Murota was 11 under after two rounds but couldn’t maintain that pace, shooting a combined 2 over the final two days while reportedly playing with back pain.
Murota was asked about his back Friday and, in response, bent over in mock pain. “Next month, 60,” he said. His birthday is July 26. Yet as he stepped down from the interview podium, heading for a door leading outside and toward the second half of a championship in which he could well be a factor, his movements looked spry.