ON a beautiful Sunday afternoon in beautiful Nagano Prefecture in Japan, the Philippines' Yuka Saso was beautiful, very beautiful.
In what could be her strongest round in a blossoming career as a professional, Saso fired a jaw-dropping nine-under-par 63 to win the NEC Karuizawa tournament in runaway fashion and become the first Filipina to rule a leg in the rich Japanese Ladies Professional Golf Association circuit.
The Fil-Japanese torched a field made up of Japan’s best and the brightest and tamed Karuizawa’s North course , capping her romp with a late eagle to nail a championship right in her second tournament.
The Fil-Japanese brandished a superb all-around game right from the outset of the final round of the NEC Karuizawa tournament tipped to go down-to-the-wire with a crowded leaderboard after 36 holes and sustained her sizzling run to the finish to beat Maiko Kawabayashi and Fujita Saito by four in Kitasaku-gun, Nagano Prefecture.
Her 63, which shattered Asako Fujimoto’s previous best of 64 at the Robert Trent Jones, Jr-designed layout in the second round, gave the 19-year-old two-time Philippine Ladies Open champion a 54-hole total of 16-under 200 worth $135,000 (roughly P6.5 million), raising her earnings to P10.5 million following a joint fifth place effort in her maiden tournament at the Earth Mondahmin Cup in Chiba last June.
Leader by two with a flawless 65 in the first round, Saso slipped to joint third with a scrambling 72 Saturday but dished out a gem of a closeout game rarely seen in a young bidder barely warming up for the region’s premier ladies circuit.
While joint leaders Miya Goto and Mao Saigo stumbled with rough starts, the ICTSI-backed shotmaker, who finished 28th in last year’s JLPGA Qualifying, sizzled with birdies on Nos. 2 and 3 to regain control then turned the rest of the day into a virtual target golf, splitting the fairways with power drives and setting up birdie putts with solid iron game.
She gunned down five more birdies (Nos. 6, 8. 9. 10 and 14) to hold off Kawabayashi’s fierce challenge and 2-up with three holes to play, the 2018 Asian Games double gold medalist eagled the par-5 16th to spike an impressive final round show for a young player who dreams of ruling the world someday, that is, winning the Olympic gold and emerging on top of the world ranking.
As the erstwhile leaders wavered, Wakabayashi mounted her own fightback six flights ahead, firing away birdies after birdies until she lost steam and ran out of holes. But her 64 netted her a joint runner-up finish with Saito, who birdied the last four holes for a 66, at 204.
In a no-audience tournament, the rest were reduced to a virtual gallery to Saso and Wakabayashi’s birdie sprees as Chie Ariemura ended up fourth at 205 after a 66, and Saigo wound up fifth at 206 after a 70. Goto bombed out with a 74 and tumbled to joint 14th at 210.
Saso’s triumph likewise thrust her into the top of the Mercedes Ranking. More importantly, the convincing victory will surely bolster her confidence heading to a gruelling three-month campaign featuring money-rich tournaments, including the NItori Ladies in Hokkaido on Aug, 27-30 and the Japan’s Womens’ Golf in Okayama on Sept. 10-13, both $1.8 million events.