ANTIPOLO – Jhonnel Ababa came out a lot better than seven others in local tour’s most crowded final round duel in recent years, unleashing a strong start and a rock-solid finish to overwhelm the field instead and ran away with the ICTSI Forest Hills Championship crown by three on a closing 64 at the Nicklaus course here.
Ababa broke out of a tight four-way tie with back-to-back opening birdies then disposed of his rivals, including Jobim Carlos, Thai Itthipat Buranatanyarat and John Salah of the US, and four others who lurked just a stroke behind after 54 holes, with a kind of game that netted him back-to-back Philippine Golf Tour Asia crowns last January before he went on a six-month slump.
But he downplayed his fierce form in the last two days and instead attributed his victory to the good fortune that the region’s newest circuit seems to bring to his campaign.
“I think I’m lucky playing on the PGT Asia,” said Ababa, who snapped a long title drought with a seven-shot romp at PGTA Eagle Ridge then followed it up with a two-stroke victory at Pradera Verde in the sixth and seventh legs, respectively, of the inaugural PGT Asia last January.
“But I really played solid in the last two days and I thank God for giving me the chance to win again,” said Ababa, who precariously stayed on top despite three more birdies in a five-hole stretch from No. 6 then pulled away with another back-to-back birdie feat from No. 16 – a tap-in and a 16-footer – as his rivals fell by the wayside one after the other trying to match his impeccable game.
He actually closed out the last 36 holes of the $100,000 championship put up by ICTSI without a bogey and totaled 18 birdies in all against a double-bogey in the opening day and a bogey in the second round for a whopping four-day total of 15-under 269 worth another $17,500.
Carlos kept the pressure by staying just within one with a four-under card after 11 holes but the PGTA Riviera and PGT Apo legs winner wavered when it mattered most, fumbling with a costly bogey on No. 15 that dropped him two shots back. He finished with a 67 for a second straight runner-up finish, after losing to Kim Joo Hyung at PGT Pueblo De Oro last week, at 272 and pocketed $11,500.
Kim, who squandered a huge four-shot halfway lead but stood just a shot behind the leaders with 18 holes to play, reeled farther back with two bogeys in the first four holes. But the young Korean recovered with six birdies in the next 12 holes only to stumble with a final hole bogey for a 68. He tied Buranatanyarat, who fell by two despite a 33 start and wound up with a two-under 69, at third at 274 in the fourth leg of the second season of the circuit organized by Pilipinas Golf Tournaments, Inc. Each received $6,300.
James Ryan Lam, who got into the mix with two eagles to match Ababa’s four-under card in the third round, also equaled the ace Davaoeño’s shotmaker flawless 31 start in second-to-last flight but cracked under pressure, dropping costly strokes from No. 11 to 14 before birdieing No. 16 for a 70. He ended up solo fifth at 276.
Albin Engino, one of the four who trailed the joint leaders by one in the third round, carded a 71 and wound up tied for sixth at with Salah, who hobbled with a 72, at 277 while Reymon Jaraula rallied with a 68 to finish eighth at 281.
Keanu Jahns fumbled with a 73 and slipped to ninth at 282 while American John Michael O’Toole and Thai Natchanon Varapornkittirat shot identical 73s to share 10th place at 283 in the event backed by BDO, KZG, Custom Clubmakers, Meralco, Sharp, Champion, Summit Mineral Water and PLDT.
Ababa, who stunningly bucked a poor iron game with superb putting that saw him miss all greens Friday but still emerged with the lone under-par card of 67 to gain a share of the lead, pressed his bid early with four birdies in a solid frontside charge, shoving him ahead of Lam and Carlos at 12-under overall.
Carlos fell by three with a bogey start but fought back with three straight birdies from No. 4 then added another on the eighth to join Lam at second, just a stroke off Ababa at 11-under.
Buranatanyarat, eyeing a follow-up to his PGT Sherwood win in 2015, also had a bogey-free frontside stint of 33 but struggled at the finish with two bogeys against the same number of birdies in the last six holes. But they all failed to at least match Ababa’s toughness at the back, enabling the ace Davaoeno’s shotmaker to turn what had been billed as a wide-open finale to another runaway triumph.