Last-hole miscue drops Saso to joint 2nd in LPGA Tour opener

Jan Veran - Philstar.com
Last-hole miscue drops Saso to joint 2nd in LPGA Tour opener
Yuka Saso of Japan plays her shot from the 13th tee during the first round of the 2022 Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions at Lake Nona Golf & Country Club on January 20, 2022 in Orlando, Florida.
Julio Aguilar / Getty Images / AFP

MANILA, Philippines – A late eagle-2, a gimme birdie and another birdie thrust Yuka Saso into the lead of the elite, celebrity-spiced Tournament of Champions field. But a final hole mishap for a 68 coupled with Gaby Lopez's closing birdie on the ninth for a 67 put the Mexican on top after 18 holes of the season-opening tournament of the LPGA Tour in Florida Thursday (Friday, Manila time).

That fiery four-under feat in three holes from No. 14 spiked Saso's late rush, her name across a running five-under card suddenly popping up on top of the leaderboard packed by major champions until Lopez pounced on that two-shot swing on opposite nines of the Lake Nona course to wrest control in the $1.5 million championship she ruled over seven extra holes against Nasa Hataoka at the Tranquilo Golf Club, also in Florida, in 2020.

Brandishing a new golf equipment, Saso also wasn’t a bit bothered competing in a celebrity tournament format — and as a Japanese after switching citizenship earlier in the week — and in fact thrived playing in the company of Tom Glavine and Jon Lester, flaunting her world class skills before the World Series champions while quizzing them about their baseball exploits.

In return, she provided them with what to expect from the newest toast of women’s pro golf who bucked overwhelming odds to capture the US Women’s Open diadem last year, also over Hataoka in three playoff holes, that netted her a ticket in the 72-hole championship. She produced six birdies against four bogeys, highlighting her 35-33 round with a superb 60-yard, hole-out eagle on the par-4 No. 14 that set her title drive in motion.

“That eagle, that was unexpected, but I hit a good shot. Landed probably a foot left of the hole and spun back and went in. I was surprised, but that was really good,” said the ICTSI-backed Saso, who backed that eagle feat with back-to-back birdies to storm ahead, only to yield the first day honors to Lopez, who birdied three of her last six holes.

But her 68 proved enough to draw her level with world No. 1 Nelly Korda and fellow Americans Danielle Kang and Ryann O’Toole while defending champion Jessica Korda missed joining them with a bogey on the 18th to drop to joint sixth at 69 with Brooke Henderson of Canada and Thai Pajaree Anannarukarn.

French Celine Boutier towed the field in the early going with a four-under card after 11 holes but bogeyed three of the next four then birdied the last to save a 70 for a share of ninth with Thai Patty Tavatanakit, Swede Madelene Sagstrom and Stacy Lewis of the US.

Now settled in Dallas after securing a five-year LPGA exempt status following her historic major win, Saso basked playing in the select 29-player field composed of LPGA winners in the past two years in a format so different from what she had played in in an 11-tournament rookie LPGA season last year.

“I'm very thankful I was able to play in this event. It was very fun. (Tom, Jon and I) talked a little and it was really good. I knew they were baseball players, but I had no idea what they've done or what they do, so I asked a lot of questions. I like baseball, but I'm not a fan of any teams. But I like watching,” said Saso.

Glavine and Lester must’ve also liked what they saw in the 20-year-old ace, who hit all but two fairways and reached the greens in regulation 13 times. Her 279-yard driving norm also proved to be the best in Round 1 while capping her fine start with a 29-putt performance.

Still, she admits there’s still a lot to learn as she braces for a grueling campaign as a full-pledged LPGA member with a record $85.7 million in official purse staked in 34 official events across the globe this year.

“I wasn't really expecting anything to go good because this is our first tournament, and I didn't do much of anything during the offseason. I’m just trying to stay calm and not think about it,” said Saso. “I still have a lot of things to learn but having a good team who supports me and gives me maybe not more, but confidence with playing. So having new sponsors, it's great, and having a good team has helped me I think.”

Meanwhile, Lopez put up what she considered a near-perfect opening round to the new season — a six-birdie, one-bogey card with the two-time LPGA winner, bucking an early misfortune on the par-5 11th with three birdies in the last five holes then completing her surge with birdies on Nos. 4, 7 and 9.

But hot on her heels are a bunch of aces with Nelly Korda bouncing back strong from two bogeys in the first four holes with three birdies in row from No. 5. She birdied the 10th and eagled the next to go four-under while Kang and O’Toole matched five birdies against a bogey to crowd Saso at second.



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