Wobbly finish drops Saso 5 off gutsy Hara
Yuka Saso

Wobbly finish drops Saso 5 off gutsy Hara

Dante Navarro (Philstar.com) - November 27, 2020 - 3:11pm

MANILA, Philippines – Yuka Saso succumbed to Miyazaki Country Club’s tough finishing holes, bogeying two of the last five for a second 70 to further slip off the pace in a leaderboard that kept changing for every birdie and eagle made in another torrid scoring day in the JLPGA Tour Championship Ricoh Cup in Miyazaki Prefecture Friday.

Hard-pressed to make her move after falling by three off Erika Hara on a late charge of two birdies in the first round Thursday, Saso delivered with a birdie on the par-3 No. 4 and a three-string feat from No. 9, sparking hopes for a big surge by the Fil-Japanese in the face of the local aces and Koreans’ sustained assault on the 6543-yard layout despite its narrow fairways, thick roughs and unreceptive greens.

But the ICTSI-backed ace misread a six-foot par-putt on No. 14 that swerved to the right side then three-putted from the edge of the 18th green, her second putt from pin-high length curling and resting on the lip of the cup to her chagrin.

Though her 140 aggregate kept her in joint 10th, Saso fell farther back by five strokes behind the unflappable Hara, who fended off a series of threats from the best and the brightest with clutch birdies and unruffled composure.

Chasing a second major after a dominant win in the Japan Women’s Open last month in Fukuoka, Hara out-steadied world No. 15 Hinako Shibuno in a pressure-packed duel in the featured twosome, birdying two of the last six and rescuing a couple of pars, including a delicate five-foot putt on the 18th that netted her a 68 and a two-stroke cushion on a nine-under 135.

Like Saso, Shibuno, who forged ahead at nine-under overall on a brilliant five-under card after 11 holes, bogeyed Nos. 14 and 18 for a 69 and a 137, enabling Ayaka Furue and Yuna Nishimura to join her at second after a pair of day's best 66s.

Short in length but long in talent, Furue rebounded from an opening 71 and joint 15th to take the clubhouse lead at seven-under on a rare two-eagle feat on Nos. 11 and 13, both par-5s, and a birdie on No. 16. But she bogeyed the 18th for a 35-31 that nevertheless put her on track for a third straight victory after a playoff win in Itoen Ladies and a runaway triumph in Daio Paper Elleair Open the last two weeks.

Nishimura, brimming with confidence following a breakthrough victory in Mitsubishi Electric four weeks ago, hit seven birdies against a bogey for a pair of 33s on a day when pins were placed near the edge of the surfaces, forcing each bidder to ponder whether to attack them and risk missing the green or opt for a safer spot in the middle.

Majority of the elite 37-player cast, however, took up the challenge and went for the flags with Hara rewarding herself with back-to-back birdies from No. 1 before fighting back from a bogey mishap on the sixth with birdies on Nos. 9, 11 and 16.

Veteran Momoko Ueda also holed out with a bogey for a second 69 for a share of fifth at 137 with Korean Ji Hee Lee and Mikajima Kana, who also turned in a pair of three-under cards.

Two-leg winner Shin Jie, who matched par in the first round of the Y120 million closing event of the pandemic-hit JLPGA season, likewise crowded the pacesetters with a stirring six-birdie feat after 11 holes, highlighted by four straight from No. 6. But she slowed down with pars in the next six and yielded a stroke on the tricky 18th.

Jie finished with a 67 for a 139 and joint eighth with Sakura Koiwai, who bogeyed No. 13 for a 70, the other player next to Furue who are standing in the way of Saso’s drive for a record rookie campaign in the region’s premier ladies circuit.

But the NEC Karuizawa and NItori Ladies champion, who went 9-of-14 off the mound for the second straight day and missed five greens while barely improving by one putt on a 30-putt performance, will have a lot of rallying to do in the last 36 holes to complete a dream finish of nailing her first major and sweeping the Player of the Year and money list titles and becoming the first player to earn more than Y100 million in just 14 tournaments.

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