Park survives Saso scare, wins by 2

LAGUNA – Sung Hyun Park scored an expected victory in the first The Country Club Ladies Invitational here yesterday but in startling fashion as amateur Yuka Saso put up a world-class challenge all day before yielding in the end, enabling the world No. 1 to clinch a two-stroke victory despite a closing 74.

Just when everybody braced for a Park romp following her bogey-free 66 that hiked her lead to four Thursday, Saso provided not only the challenge but also the drama in a third straight high noon duel with the world’s best, pulling to within one with two holes left only to blow it all with a wet double bogey on the par-3 17th of the TCC layout.

Sung Hyun Park holds her trophy after marking her rise to world No. 1 ranking with a wire-to-wire triumph in the TCC Ladies Invitational
Sung Hyun Park holds her trophy after marking her rise to world No. 1 ranking with a wire-to-wire triumph in the TCC Ladies Invitational

That gave Park the cushion she needed to secure the victory as she closed out with pars for her worst card (36-38) in three days for a seven-under 209 total, including an opening 69, beating Saso by two as the latter birdied the tough closing hole to save a 72 and a 211.

“We make mistakes…that’s okay,” said Park, referring to her bogey on No. 15 off an errant drive that allowed Saso to threaten within one and sparked hopes for a possible playoff or a shock reversal in the $100,000 championship the former was expected to dominate with her world class skills and form.

But the Fil-Japanese pulled her tee-shot into the water on the 17th. Instead of taking a drop, she opted to hit another shot but into the bunker, paving the way for Park’s march to victory in the latter’s first official tournament since claiming the world top ranking last Tuesday after ruling the Women’s World Championship in Singapore.

The two-time Major winner thanked her fans, including close to 30 Korean women making up the “Park’s Army,” and those who are based here.

“I really had fun in the past three days and the course was in great shape,” added the 25-year-old ace, who pocketed the top purse of $15,000, way off the $225,000 she received last Sunday.

Like in Singapore, the new Solaire brand ambassador took the TCC Ladies crown the hard way as Saso, unfazed by the status and caliber of her rival, more than proved her worth in the last 18 holes, battling the world’s best shot-for-shot and putt-for-putt.

“She’s a pro material,” said Park of the 17-year-old reigning Asian Games champion, who impressed her as early as Tuesday during her golf clinic.

For many, Saso also came out like a winner for her gallant stand. She pressed her bid early, gaining on a two-shot swing with a birdie on the par-5 second hole which Park bogeyed on a poor third shot that found the bunker.

Saso actually outdrove, albeit slightly, the power-hitting Park a number of times, including on the last three holes at the front but failed to completely cash in on them with flubbed birdie putts.

In contrast, the unflappable Seoul native banged in a curling 10-footer for birdie off a superb wedge shot on No. 7 to push her lead back to three although she three-putted the par-5 eighth after reaching the green in two.

It was a two-way fight from the start as the diminutive Princess Superal, the third player in the final group, was relegated to the background in a duel of long hitters, yielding an average of 30-40 yards off the mound. The former US Girls Junior champion actually held sway with pars in the first four holes but dropped four strokes, including a double bogey on No. 7, in the next five.

She hit two birdies at the back but made the same number of bogeys, finished with a 76 and ended up fourth at 221, enabling LPGA Tour campaigner Dottie Ardina to snare third place at 219 after a 73. Ardina took the runner-up prize of $9,000 with Superal settling for $6,000.

The Thais, who have dominated the Ladies Philippine Golf Tour with five victories last year, never figured in the title race with Pattaraporn Mounchoo (72), Supamas Sangchan (73) and former LPGT leg winner Wannasiri Sirisampant (76) winding up joint fifth at 224.

Chakansim Khamborn (74) and Chommapat Pongthanarak (75), also of Thailand, pooled 225 for joint eighth with Tzu-Chi Lin (77), who emerged the best placed Taiwanese in the event which served as the third leg of the LPGA of Taiwan and the fifth stop of the LPGT 2018-19 circuit organized by Pilipinas Golf Tournaments, Inc. and backed by Custom Clubmakers, Meralco, K&G Golf Apparel, BDO, Sharp, KZG, PLDT, Empire Golf and Sports and M.Y. Shokai Technology, Inc.