Solid start puts Saso in the mix
Yuka Saso
Photo courtesy of usga.org

Solid start puts Saso in the mix

Dante Navarro (The Philippine Star) - December 12, 2020 - 12:00am

Pagdanganan 5 adrift

MANILA, Philippines — To sit atop the leaderboard ahead of the world’s best in the sport’s biggest stage could indeed be an unnerving moment for Yuka Saso, who floundered on a backside windup and settled for a 69, slipping two strokes off American Amy Olson at the start of the US Women’s Open in Houston, Texas Thursday.

Four birdies at the front of the 6,617-yard, par-71 Cypress Creek layout shoved Saso past a slew of top guns and a host of rising stars making up the stellar 156-player field, half of which tackled the Jackrabbit Course, and into the lead that, however, proved fleeting as she fumbled with a wet bogey on the 11th and three-putted the 18th.

The 19-year-old Fil-Japanese could only shake her head in disbelief after muffing a makeable par putt bid from just about four feet.

But she insisted her backside foldup didn’t have anything to do with her succumbing to early pressure, maintaining: “My goal is just to play (golf), so I didn’t pay much attention to it.”

The LPGA of Japan Tour campaigner, however, admitted playing a major in the US is really different, saying: “The courses are tough and long and the greens are firm. I have to use the driver off the tee unlike in Japan where I use shorter clubs. So yeah, I think that’s the big difference,” said Saso, who turned down a scholarship to the University of Georgia after falling short of her LPGA Q-School bid and qualifying for the JLPGA last fall.

Bianca Pagdanganan, meanwhile, likewise blew a fine start of back-to-back birdies from No. 10 of the 6,533-yard Jackrabbit layout, also a par-71, as she hobbled with two bogeys and a double bogey against one more birdie for a 72.

But the 23-year-old LPGA Tour driving leader, whose campaign together with that of Saso is backed by ICTSI, stayed well within reach of another weekend stint for the nine straight tournament as she tied for 37th after prevailing in the featured group of bombers.

Mexican Maria Fassi, who on the eve of the event had bragged to flaunt her driving prowess against Pagdanganan and Dutch Anne Van Dam and show “who the boss is,” bombed out with an 83.

Fassi did outhit Pagdanganan (265 yards) and Van Dam (269 yards) with a 287-yard average but paid dearly for her wild drives. She missed seven fairways and struggled with her irons, reaching regulation just nine times and finishing with 32 putts.

She shot three birdies but made three bogeys, three double bogeys and a couple of triple bogeys to lay second-to-last and virtually out of the weekend play of the $5.5 million event offering a hefty $1 million purse to the winner.

Van Dam had two bogeys in a birdie-less 73 for a share of 55th with the projected cutoff score pegged at two-over.

Despite her shaky windup, Saso, who normed 267 yards off the tee, actually missed five fairways and four greens but finished with 29 putts and left an impact on the grand stage, this being her first LPGA Tour appearance and a Major championship at that.

She credited her power and putter for her early surge, draining a 22-footer for birdie on No. 2, dominating the two par-5s and sinking another birdie from the fringe on the seventh.

“My putting clicked and I felt like I’m doing what I wanted and happened to get good results. But it’s just the first round. I hope to do it again,” she added.

A different kind of challenge, however, awaits the 2018 Asian Games double gold medalist in the second round when the field switches courses with Saso, who earned a spot here with an impressive rookie campaign in the JLPGA where she racked up two victories and emerged on top of the prized money race, hoping to make the necessary adjustments on the tighter Jackrabbit with smaller greens.

“Jackrabbit isn’t too short. Like Cypress, I want to keep my shots on the fairways and try to hit the greens and make the most of my chances,” said Saso, now on track to best 2008 champion Inbee Park’s record as the youngest winner of the fabled event.

Starting at the backside of Cypress, Olson bogeyed the 11th but aced No. 16 off a solid shot from the left side of the tee, the ball bouncing off the fringe once before dropping into the cup. She birdied the next and played so inspired and hit two more birdies at the front for a 67 and a one-stroke lead over three others.

A Lim Kim took the cudgels for a Korean squad that occupies five of the Top 10 places in the world ranking, including No. 1 Jin Young Ko and No. 2 Sei Young Kim, as she carded a 68 for joint second with Thai Moriya Jutanugarn and Japanese Hinako Shibuno.

Kim, winner of the last LPGA Major, the KPMG Women’s PGA, gunned down five birdies but stumbled with three bogeys and limped with a quadruple bogey on the par-3 11th for a 72 while Ko sputtered with a 73 on one birdie against three bogeys.

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