Saso rallies with solid 63 to clinch 2nd, regains top ranking
MANILA, Philippines — It took a misfortune before Yuka Saso could rake in another fortune.
The rookie Fil-Japanese fell three strokes short of her title crack in the Toto Japan Classic but still more than made her point, nearly pulling off the unthinkable when she rallied from six strokes down to force a tie at 16-under on a stirring three-birdie finish for a solid nine-under 63 in a drama-fraught final round of the Y160 million event in Ibaraki Prefecture on Sunday.
But Korean Shin Jie steeled herself up in a nerve-wracking finish three flights behind, banking on her experience and poise to foil Saso with her own kind of endgame brilliance to nail the LPGA of Japan Tour’s third major championship with a closing 66 for her second victory in just five tournaments in the restructured JLPGA calendar.
Severely threatened by the surging Saso, the unflappable Korean former No. 1 who boasts of 67 career victories, including 25 in the JLPGA, 21 in the Korean Tour and 11 in the LPGA Tour, eagled the reachable par-5 17th to build another two-shot cushion then capped her exploits with another birdie for a 34-32 and a three-shot romp on a 19-under 197 total at the Taijeiyo Club Minori course.
Most notably, the 32-year-old Jie completed a rare championship in a JLPGA major without dropping a shot over 54 holes.
But the margin of victory hardly diminished the impact of Saso’s blistering windup that saw the ICTSI-backed ace fight back from six down at joint 12th with a 32 start then gunned down five more birdies in the last eight holes, including the last three.
She tied Jie at 16-under after holing out from close range on the 18th for a 32-31 and a 200 total but the former dashed her hopes for a third crown with her own blazing finish for a 197.
Though she came up short of her title bid, Saso succeeded in reclaiming the Player of the Year lead from rival Sakura Koiwai with 928.85 points heading to the last three events in the next three weeks in Chiba, Ehime and Miyazaki Prefectures.
Her Y14,637,920 (P6.8 million) earnings likewise virtually netted her the money list honors with Y82,753 (P38.6 million), Y24 million ahead of Koiwai, who stayed in the Top 10 with a frontside 33 but fumbled with one bogey in a birdie-less backside finish for a 70. She wound up tied for 18th at 208 worth Y1,846,400 for total earnings of Y58,862,542 and 891.46 points in the Mercedes ranking.
Saso also found herself back on top of the rankings in several categories, including average stroke (69.9), top 10 finishes (6), number of birdies (137), average number of birdies (11), number of eagles (6), par-5 average score (4.69) and final round average score (68.6).
More importantly, her strong runner-up effort more than heralded her return to form after her game took a downswing after scoring back-to-back victories last August. She would struggle with mediocre finishes in her next six tournaments, finishing no higher than tied for eighth in the Desant Tokai Classic last Sept with the slump leading to a missed cut stint in last week’s Hisako Higuchi Mitsubishi Electric tournament in Saitama that ended an impressive run of nine consecutive cuts made.
Saso’s tournament-best 63 likewise matched her closing output to capture her first JLPGA diadem in the NEC Karuizawa last mid-August before claiming the Nitori Ladies title the following week.
World No. 5 Nasa Hataoka also fired a 66 to finish tied for third at 202 with Korean Jeon Mi-Jeong (65) and Maiko Wakabayashi (66) while last year’s champion Ai Suzuki also rallied with a 65 to share sixth place with Lee Min-Young (70) and Ayako Kimura (71) at 203.
Saso actually continued to grope for form this week, carding a 70 on a four-birdie, two-bogey game in Friday’s opener but picked up her game with an eagle-spiked 68 in the second round.
But she remained too far behind to pose a threat as Jie kept her bogey-free run to stay ahead by one over Ayako Kimura and remain six strokes ahead of the 2018 Asian Games double gold medalist.
Aiming for a solid finish, Saso missed a couple of birdie chances and settled for pars in the first three holes. But after drilling a birdie on No. 4, she knocked back-to-back feats from No. 6 then birdied the par-5 ninth to keep her going.
After missing an uphill 16-footer on No. 10, Saso dropped a bending downhiller from 14 feet on No. 11 then nearly buried an edge-to-edge eagle putt on the 12th to close within two off Jie, who missed a birdie putt inside eight feet on No. 10.
Then she went for broke after parring the next three holes, birdying the last three to finish with an eye-popping 24 putts after a 32-28 norm in the first 36 holes and stir up chase for the hotly disputed championship.
But Jie had won too many championships to be rattled a bit in such pressure-packed stretch, picking up another win and pocketing the Y24 million purse with that decisive eagle-birdie finish.