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Saso stays hot with 65, but Thitkul proves hotter in Walmart NW Arkansas Championship

Jan Veran - Philstar.com
Saso stays hot with 65, but Thitkul proves hotter in Walmart NW Arkansas Championship
Yuka Saso of Japan during the second round of the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship Presented by P&G at Pinnacle Country Club on September 24, 2022 in Rogers, Arkansas.
ANDY LYONS / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / GETTY IMAGES VIA AFP

MANILA, Philippines — Yuka Saso sustained her remarkable bogey-free run with a 65, but so did Atthaya Thitikul, who pounded the short Pinnacle Country Club with a tournament 18-hole record-tying eagle-spiked 61 to snatch the lead after two rounds of the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship in Rogers, Arizona Saturday (Sunday, Manila time).

The Thai ace turned the par-71, 6,438-yard layout’s frontside into a virtual playground, putting up an eagle-birdie-birdie finish for a 29 fanned by birdies on Nos. 1, 3 and 5. 

She birdied the 10th to kick off her second round bid then dominated the two par-5s (Nos. 14 and 18) for the second straight day on her way to a stirring 10-under card that came after a solid four-under 67 Thursday (Friday in Manila).

It tied the previous mark set by major champion So Yeon Ryu in 2017. The 61 was also the 19-year-old Thitikul’s best in a young LPGA Tour career, eclipsing her previous low of 63.

“I also had a really good game in the first round but I just didn’t make the putts that much,” said Thitikul, who nailed her first LPGA win in the JTBC Classic last March. 

“But today (Saturday), I hit pretty good shots and then just keep rolling the ball, patient and make the putt more than yesterday. Just missed a couple as well yeah, totaling pretty good.”

From joint 15th, Thitikul stormed ahead with a whopping 14-under 128 total, also a new career low after pooling a 131 in last year’s Honda LPGA back home.

Her surged also dropped erstwhile joint leader Saso to solo second at 129 as the latter produced three birdies on both nines for a 65 following a brilliant 64 in the first round to likewise extend her solid run and arrange a showdown with former regional amateur rival.

“Just trying to be patient and trying to play consistent, trying to have fun,” said Saso. “That’s been my mindset this week. I don’t think I’m going to change anything. Trying to have fun and learn a lot tomorrow.”

Thitikul edged Saso, Wenyung Keh of New Zealand and Japanese Yuna Nishimura in playoff to rule the inaugural Women's Amateur Asia Pacific Championship in Singapore in 2018.

American Lilia Vu also carded a second straight 65 for solo third at 130 while fancied Danielle Kang, also of the US, likewise turned in a bogey-less six-under card to stay in the hunt at 132 for a share of fourth with seven others.

Saso, Thitikul and Vu slug it out at 8:54 a.m. on the first hole with the winner pocketing a juicy purse of $345,000 (P20 million).

Other 10-under overall scorers were Koreans Chella Choi and Hye Jin Choi, who fired a 63 and 65, respectively, American Jennifer Kupcho, who also shot a 65, England’s Charley Hull, who put in a 66, Americans Megan Khang and Ryann O’Toole and Korean Jeongeun Lee5, who matched 68s.

After going 12-of-14 off the mound in the first round, the ICTSI-backed Saso wrestled with her long game and missed five fairways on a sustained 298-yard driving norm. She also went out of regulation five times but pulled off a couple of sand saves and kept her bid for a second LPGA Tour title with a sterling 26-putt showing in a weather-delayed round.

That was the 2021 US Women’s Open champion’s finest 36-hole effort in a long while, finally breaking a run of struggle both in the regular LPGA events and majors marred by a number of missed cut stints and forgettable finishes.

But her brilliant 36-hole showing this week didn’t only assure her of a spot in the final round of the 54-hole championship but it also gave a clear shot at a second crown.

“I think we’ll see how it goes in the first few holes,” said Saso when asked of her final round game plan on whether to attack or play it rather conservatively. “I think just trying to play consistent again.”

But she stressed the key will be her putting, saying: “If I don’t make the putt, I don’t make the birdie, so it’s like putting.”

Thitikul, however, proved a lot tougher, missing just one fairway and two greens while matching Saso’s performance on the greens, setting the stage for a final round shootout between two of Southeast Asia’s former premier amateurs.

GOLF

YUKA SASO

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