Yuka Saso battled back from a wobbly start with a birdie run midway through then toughened up at the finish to salvage a 72 after 36 holes of the NEC Karuizawa golf tournament now paced by Miya Goto and Mao Saigo in Kitasaku-gun, Nagano Prefecture in Japan yesterday.
Though she slipped from the top to joint third, Saso kept her sight on the crown in just her second tournament on LPGA Tour of Japan as she stood just a stroke off the new joint leaders at 137 heading to the final 18 holes of the $750,000 tournament.
The Fil-Japanese actually turned from flawless to flawed as she hobbled with a bogey-birdie-bogey-double bogey start despite near-ideal conditions after scorching Karuizawa’s North course with a seven-birdie binge for a solid 65 and the lead Friday.
But she fought back with three birdies in a six-hole stretch from No. 7 to offset her shaky start then recovered from a bogey on No. 15 with a birdie on the par-3 17th to save a 37-35 and back in the title hunt after finishing tied for fifth in her maiden tournament at the Earth Mondahmin Cup in Chiba last June.
But it will take Saso a lot of birdies and recoveries to realize a dream win with a slew of talented rivals crowding the leaderboard in pursuit of the top $135,000 purse, guaranteeing a wild, wooly finish with only two strokes separating 11 contenders and 10 others just three shots adrift at 139.
Goto, for one, blistered with a bogey-free 66 in another day of torrid scoring at the flat layout, jumping from the middle of the pack to a share of the lead at 136 with Saigo, who shot a second straight 68.
Joining Saso at third were
Rumi Yoshiba, who fired a 67; Saiki Fujita, who rallied with a 68; Pei Ying Tsai, Fumika Kawagishi, Karen Tsuruoka and Ayano Yasuda, who carded identical 69s, and Yoko Maeda, who slowed down with a 71.
Asako Fujimoto turned in the tournament-best 64 to lead the 139 scorers, who included Erika Kikuchi (67), Mao Nozawa (68), Chie Ariemura, Ayaka Takahashi and Ebisu Minami, who all carded 70s; Kana Nagai, A. Miyazaki and Saki Nagamine and Mika Miyazato, who all shot 71s; and Haruka Kudo, who matched par 72.