Thai surges in crowded leaderboard

ILOILO – Thai Kammalas Namuangruk emerged on top of a crowded leaderboard that kept changing names up to the last putt, his run of closing even-par cards at the front preserving a two-under 68 and netting him a one-stroke lead over Michael Bibat and three others halfway through the ICTSI Iloilo Golf Challenge here yesterday.

As first round leader Makoto Iwasaki of Japan turned from awesome (64) to awful (76) at the short but tricky Iloilo Golf and Country Club layout, Namuangruk took command with a four birdie-two bogey effort under drizzle although the lead changed hands a lot of times before the Thai found himself on top at 134 at the end of the topsy-turvy day.

But a slew of others lay just a stroke, two or three behind, guaranteeing a shootout in the last 36 holes of the P3 million tournament wrapping up the four-stage Visayan swing of the circuit put up by ICTSI and organized by Pilipinas Golf Tournaments, Inc.

“I hit it well and my putting was relatively good although the greens are difficult,” said Namuangruk, 27, who struggled and finished down at joint 29th in Negros Occidental last week. “But I have to make two more good rounds to win.”

Bibat shared the lead in one stretch with an eagle on one of the two par-5s on No. 4 and a birdie on the sixth but fumbled with three bogeys to settle for an even par 70. He dropped back to where he started – in joint second at 135, this time with Rene Menor and Spain’s Marcos Pastor, who submitted identical 66s, and Aussie Tim Stewart, who rallied with a 68.

Menor, seeking a follow-up to his surprise PGT Asia leg playoff win over two foreign rivals at Splendido in 2017, fired a bogey-free 34-32 round while Pastor, went five-under after 14 holes but missed joining Namuangruk at the helm with a second straight bogey on the tough par-4 15th.

The big-hitting Stewart forced a four-way tie at second, coming in one of the late flights with three birdies in the last six holes at the front, saving a 68 and putting himself in contention again for the second straight time after losing by two to absentee Jobim Carlos last year.

Art Arbole took charge with a solid four-under 30 at the back but faltered with two bogeys against a birdie in the last six holes at the front. He wound up with a 67 to slip to joint sixth with Reymon Jaraula (66), Albin Engino (67) and Aussie Fidel Concepcion (70).

Juvic Pagunsan, who opened with a so-so 69 Wednesday, moved up from joint 12th and threatened the leaders by going three-under in the day on back-to-back birdies from No. 14. But the fancied Negrense, eyeing a third straight victory after sweeping the Bacolod legs in Binitin and Marapara, bogeyed the par-3 16th and fell to joint 10th at 137 with JR Salahog (68), just three strokes off the Thai.

Elmer Salvador and Rupert Zaragosa also carded a pair of 66s to join Enrico Gallardo (68), Jhonnel Ababa (69), Colombia’s Mateo Gomez (69), Anthony Fernando (71) and Club Filipino de Cebu Invitational winner Guido Van der Valk of the Netherlands (71) at 12th at 138.

After a bogey-free 64, Iwasaki found the country’s oldest course not to his liking, hobbling with three bogeys, a double bogey and a triple bogey against two birdies as he groped with that six-over card that dropped him from the top to joint 21st at 140 with Orlan Sumcad (68) and Keanu Jahns (70), a shot behind Joenard Rates (70) and Jay Bayron (71), who pooled identical 139s, but now six strokes behind the new leader in the event backed by Custom Clubmakers, Meralco, Champion, Summit Mineral Water, K&G Golf Apparel, BDO, Sharp, KZG, PLDT and M.Y. Shokai Technology, Inc.

“I didn’t hit the ball solid today (yesterday). My irons were good but my putting was terribly bad,” rued the 30-year-old Hokkaido native, who dropped three strokes on the par-4 No. 2 on a couple of errant shots and holed out on No. 9 with a three-putt miscue.

Forty players made the cut at 143 with Swede Sebastian Hansson (70), Ramil Bisera (71), Rico Depilo (72), Korean Myung Chal Hwang (72) and Mars Pucay (73) barely making it at joint 36th.

Among the notables who failed to advance were last week’s joint third placer in Negros Occidental Nilo Salahog (71-144), former PGT Asia leg winner Justin Quiban (74-145), Bacolod leg runner-up Rufino Bayron (74-148) and last week’s second placer James Ryan Lam (74-149).