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Saso ends up 6th after a 73 as Kang takes crown

Jan Veran - Philstar.com
Saso ends up 6th after a 73 as Kang takes crown
Yuka Saso of Japan plays her shot from the sixth tee during the final round of the 2022 Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions at Lake Nona Golf & Country Club on January 23, 2022 in Orlando, Florida.
Julio Aguilar / Getty Images / AFP

MANILA, Philippines – Yuka Saso pulled to within two behind an early charge in chilly conditions, but she cooled down with wobbly putting midway and never recovered. 

Saso finished with her worst round in four days, a 73 that dropped her to sixth in the Tournament of Champions topped by a hot-finishing Danielle Kang in Florida Sunday (Monday, Manila time).

Kang battled back from three strokes down with a scorching backside charge of four birdies in the first six holes then watched Gaby Lopez, Nelly Korda, Brooke Henderson and Saso fumbled one after the other to turn what had started out to be a wild final round chase into a runway three-stroke triumph at the Lake Nona Golf and Country Club.

The 29-year-old American closed out with a 68, the kind of output needed to net one a victory on a blustery day when making birdies became an exemption rather than the rule for all but one of the contenders in the $1.2 million championship kicking off the new LPGA season.

The only player in the select field of 29 to break 70s in all four days (68-67-69), Kang finished with a total of 16-under 272, beating Henderson by three as Lopez, who stormed ahead by three after a three-birdie string from No. 5, blew her bid with three bogeys in the last six holes.

Kang pocketed $225,000 for her career sixth victory that came after a winless campaign in 2021.

Henderson shot a bogey-free 70 marred by an errant second shot on the par-5 No. 15 which she however saved for a par from the bunker as she snatched runner-up honors with a 275 worth $177,229 while Lopez settled for third with a 276 after a 72. She earned $128,567.

Celine Boutier turned in a 71 to a tie Korda, who struggled with a 75, at fourth at 278 worth $89,754 each while Saso claimed solo sixth with a 279 after a 73, seven strokes behind Kang, and received $65,497 (P3.4 million).

Saso, who put herself in contention with a third round 68, threatened to within two off Lopez with birdies on Nos. 5 and 7. But the reigning US Women’s Open champion reeled back with back-to-back bogeys as she muffed par-saving bids from short range on the difficult par-4 No. 8 and on the par-5 ninth before yielding another stroke on the par-4 No. 12.

The ICTSI-backed world No. 8 also missed a couple of birdie chances in the closing holes, finishing with 33 putts after going 9-of-14 off the mound and reaching the greens in regulation 14 times.

But her sixth place finish still proved to be a good start for a player looking forward to contending in her next tournaments in her first full season in the world’s premier ladies circuit after gaining a five-year exempt status following her major win. She next vies in this week’s Gainbridge LPGA at Boca Rio and in next week’s LPGA Drive On Championship at Fort Myers, both in Florida before heading back to Southeast Asia for the HSBC Women’s World Championship in Singapore on March 3-6 and the Honda LPGA Thailand on March 10-13.

“There were some positives but there are also some points that I want to work on but I don’t think I have to rush or anything,” said Saso, underscoring her mantra of “trusting the process.”

“I will just focus on my game and, you know, do my best, play good golf,” she added.

Korda, who appeared headed to another romp after seizing control of the elite field after 54 holes, slipped off the leaderboard with a bogey on No. 4 coupled with Lopez’s blistering start.

But despite making the turn at 37, Korda had hoped for a big backside charge, having mastered the last nine holes with an eight-under card in the first three days, the best record among the contenders.

Like Saso, however, the world No. 1 grappled with her putter, missing a number of short birdie putts, her first birdie in the challenging day coming too late on the par-5 No. 15. But, by then, she had already lost her focus based on her body language, bogeying the next two and ending up with a 75 that also snapped an impressive run of rounds in the 60s.

On the other hand, Kang, who stalked the leaders all week with her steady play, spiked her big comeback with a clutch birdie off a brilliant bump-and-run chip from a mown area on the par-5 15th, putting her three shots clear of Lopez and Henderson. She then secured the win with a hard-earned bogey at the tough par-4 16th where she pulled her approach shot into the left bunker near the penalty area. After a couple of club changes and a number of practice swings, she opted to play away from the hole, blasting to the edge of the front green, some 90 feet off the cup.

Her putt went way past the hole but returned a clutch 10-foot bogey, a mishap that hardly put a dent on her three-shot lead as Lopez, playing in a flight behind, also bogeyed the 15th, the second of three mishaps that marred her disastrous finish.

“My mental game was really good,” said Kang, who went winless last year after having won in each of her previous four LPGA seasons. “I had a really good attitude all day today (yesterday). I know I left some putts out there, but I never let it get to me, and I kept having to give myself birdie chances as much as possible.”

She didn’t only give herself birdie opportunities, but also didn’t give her rivals the chance for a comeback with her gutsy play at the finish.

GOLF

YUKA SASO

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