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Yuka hangs tough

Yuka Saso
Yuka Saso

The Philippines’ Yuka Saso found herself again staring at another crown and a cash windfall.

The rookie Saso dispatched Hikaru Yoshimoto with a blistering frontside windup but cooled down at the back for a 68, enabling a hot-finishing Sakura Koiwai to virtually seal a two-player duel for the Nitori Ladies golf crown in Hokkaido, Japan yesterday.

Everything she did right in the first two rounds she did again yesterday, plus more – her long game and putting clicking after a Day 2 struggle at Otaru Country Club, spiking a fiery three-birdie closing binge for an opening 32 that threatened to drive a wedge between her and the rest of her pursuers.

But the Fil-Japanese shotmaker, who went 4-up over her nearest rival at the turn, turned from being hot to cold in the last nine holes marred by occasional light rain as she either scrambled to salvage pars or muffed birdie chances.

Still, her four-under card and a 54-hole haul of 12-under 204 kept her a stroke ahead of Koiwai (66-205) and put the 19-year-old ICTSI-backed shotmaker 18 holes away from claiming her second straight LPGA of Japan Tour victory and a clear shot at the juicy Y34 million (roughly P16.5 million) top purse.

The 2018 Asian Games double gold medalist raked in P6.5 million for ruling the NEC Karuizawa tilt two weeks ago in Nagano after pocketing P4 million for her joint fifth place effort in her maiden JLPGA tournament in the Earth Mondahmin Cup in Chiba last June.

She also received her first earnings as a pro worth $10,637 for placing joint 25th in the Australian Women’s Open early in the season.

Another win will not only validate her claim as the region’s newest star but also make her one of the richest young athletes this side of the world.

She’s also bidding to become only the third player after Al Miyazato and Nasa Hataoka to score back-to-back JLPGA victories although she would be the first rookie to do so.

While she was able to fend off Yoshimoto, who started the day just a stroke behind but fell by four with a 36-35 for a 71 and 208, Koiwai mounted her own charge two flights ahead, scorching the backside with a 32 for that 66 as she took the challenger’s role at 11-under aggregate.

Like Yoshimoto, the rest of the surviving field practically lay too far behind to pose a threat with amateur Hinano Muguruma matching the former’s output despite a 69, Mayu Hamada at 209 after a 70 and Chie Arimura still at 210 despite churning out a bogey-free 65.

After missing eight fairways in the first day and four in the second, Saso went 9-of-14 yesterday but hit 14 greens and finished with 28 putts after a 29 and 31 effort in the first 36 holes.

Over in the US, rookie Bianca Pagdanganan checked an up-and-down round with a birdie on the last hole, carding a one-under 70 to trail Anna Nordqvist of Sweden and Americans Jackie Stoelting and Esther Lee by six at the start of the NW Arkansas Championship in Rogers, Arizona Friday.

In her third LPGA Tour event, the 22-year-old SEA Games double gold medalist actually hit three birdies against a bogey in the first seven holes. But she blew that two-under card with bogeys on Nos. 11 and 16, needing to birdie the par-5 closing hole to join 22 others at 65th place, including US-based Clariss Guce.

Dottie Ardina, however, groped for form coming off a stint in the British Women’s Open, fumbling with two bogeys and a double bogey against two birdies for a 73, three strokes below the projected cut-off score.

Nordqvist, Stoeling and Lee led the siege on the par-71 Pinnacle Country Club with a pair of seven-under 64s as they posted a one-stroke lead over Korean Sei Young Kim and five others in the 54-hole tournament.

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