Yuka Saso began her final preparations for the Ladies Professional Golfers Association (LPGA) tour championship by firing a two-under 68 at the start of the Pelican Women’s Championship on Thursday in Belleair, Florida.
Saso will have work to do in the next three rounds, though, as a mishap on the par-3 No. 12 marred her opening salvo and left her six strokes of the lead currently being held by Ireland’s Leona Maguire, whose bogey-free eight-under par 62 to set a course record and put her two shots ahead of her closest pursuer.
Saso went two under at the front before undoing that effort with a double bogey on 12. She had three birdies in her last four holes, however, to keep her two-under card.
Saso has already qualified for the season-ending CME Championship, the LPGA’s showdown of the best 60 golfers in the Tour. Saso, ranked sixth in the world, is currently 15th in the CME points ranking and her management team confirmed in an e-mail to the Inquirer that she will be competing in what is the LPGA’s tour championship tournament.
Maguire, the 26-year-old European Solheim Cup standout seeking her first LPGA title, grabbed a two-stroke lead over fourth-ranked South Korean playing partner Kim Sei-young.
“It was pretty stress-free. I played the par-3s really well and birdied all of them, which really helped,” Maguire said. “It was just really solid. Hit a lot of greens, gave myself a lot of chances, and rolled some nice putts.”
Sharing third on 65 were Japan’s Nasa Hataoka and Americans Nelly Korda, Lexi Thompson, Christina Kim, Danielle Kang, Jennifer Kupcho and Lauren Coughlin.
Maguire, a former world amateur number one, fired the best final-round score in any major tournament, men’s or women’s, with a 61 in July at the Evian Championship.
In September, she set a rookie record with 4.5 points to help Europe win the Solheim Cup over the United States.
On Thursday, Maguire opened with a birdie and added another at the par-3 third hole, then closed the front nine with birdies at the par-5 seventh and par-3 ninth.
She followed with birdies at the par-3 12th, par-5 14th and par-3 15th and added another at the par-4 18th.
Ranked 46th in the world Maguire has finished runner-up twice in this LPGA season.
Saso, the Filipino-Japanese ace, made headlines last week when she announced that she would be opting for Japanese citizenship, meaning she would no longer represent the Philippines in major international meets.
Saso last carried the Filipino flag in the Tokyo Olympics, finishing ninth there after a solid last three rounds. —WITH REPORTS FROM AFP
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