Saso feted but flounders at halfway mark of CME Group Tour Championship

© PhilSTAR Daily, Inc

Jan Veran

– Philstar.com

November 20, 2021 | 2:19pm

MANILA, Philippines — From a near-brilliant 66 to a middling 73, Yuka Saso found herself trailing new leader Celine Boutier by nine – a huge deficit to hurdle indeed given the Frenchwoman’s form and confidence that anchored a pair of 65s for a record 36-hole total.

But with still two rounds to play in the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship, everything is possible.

But first, the Fil-Japanese ace must make it happen.

Coming off a social affair where she was one of the awardees, she did kick off her second round bid right by birdying the first hole Friday.

But she bogeyed Nos. 3 and 4 and went on a rollercoaster round the rest of the day, gaining a stroke on No,. 6 but dropping two shots on the par-4 seventh. She picked up strokes on the next and on No. 13 but closed out with a bogey-birdie-bogey card for a 37-36 at the Tiburon Gold course.

From two down after 18 holes, the ICTSI-backed shotmaker tumbled to joint 29th from a share of sixth, now too far behind the target but still hopeful to mount a charge that would put her back in the hunt in the $5 million event staking the richest winner’s purse ever put up in women’s pro golf – $1.5 million.

Her second day struggle came after she was feted, along with five others during the 2021 Rolex First Time Winners on the LPGA Tour at the posh Ritz Carlton Golf Resort Thursday night.

“First of all, I’m thankful that I was able to come here to the awards party. I’m a little bit nervous. This is really not my thing but I think it’s fun,” said Saso, who scored a major breakthrough in the US Women’s Open last June.

The victory didn’t only earn her a five-year LPGA membership status which she failed to obtain after falling short of the LPGA Q-School Stage 2 in 2019 but it also helped boost her world ranking, reaching as high as No. 5 before settling for No. 6 the past two weeks with six other Top 6 finishes despite competing only halfway through the busy season.

But she will have a lot of catching up do in the last two days with Boutier looking good with a big cushion after coming out of the turn sizzling with six birdies en route to a second straight seven-under card and a record 14-under 130 aggregate.

“I just feel like I was a little bit frustrated with my front. I just left a couple shots out there, so I was really good to get after it on the back,” said Boutier, whose 36-hole haul shattered the tournament’s previous best of 132 posted by four players, including Lydia Ko in 2016, Sung Hyun Park in 2017, Lexi Thompson in 2018 and Sei Young Kim in 2019.

Gaby Lopez of Mexico and Aussie Minjee Lee fired identical 68s while American Mina Harigae, who turned in a 69 as they pooled 134s for joint second while world No. 1 Nelly Korda and Korean No. 2 Jin Young Ko, locked in a fierce battle for the Player of the Year honors, also stayed within striking distance.

Korda, coming off a victory in last week’s Pelican Championship to match Ko’s four-title haul this year, shot four birdies against a bogey for a 69 that put her in the 135 group that includes England’s Georgia Hall and Korean Eun Hee Ji, who shot identical 68s, and first day leader Jeongeun Lee6, who slackened with a 71 after a blistering 64.

Ko, who could not seem to get her game going in a 69 start, bucked a slight wrist injury and gunned down five birdies for a solid 67 that moved her to joint ninth at 136, still six shots off Boutier.

Other eight-under overall scorers were Ally Ewing, who shot a 68, and fellow Americans Megan Khang and Lexi Thompson, who carded similar 69s even as Danielle Kang, also of the US, fought back with a 77 for a 137 in a tie with Thai Wichanee Meechai, who fired a 67, Kiwi Lydia Ko, Nanna Madsen of Denmark and American Jessica Korda, who all turned in 69s.

From a 259-yard driving norm in the first round, Saso stepped up her attack to 304 yards, missing just two fairways. But she struggled with her short irons and failed to reach regulation seven times, marred by a bogey off the greenside bunker.

She also finished with 29 putts after a 26-putt showing Thursday that helped push her to joint sixth.

Meanwhile, joining Saso on the podium were co-first-time Tour winners Ryan O’Toole of the US (Scottish Open), Thai Pajaree Anannarukarn (Handa World Invitational), Matilda Castren of Finland (LPGA Mediheal), Taiwanese Wei Ling Hsu (PureSilk Championship) and Patty Tavatanakait, also of Thailand (ANA Inspiration).

Others feted during the rites, graced by Hall of Famers Annika Sorenstam and Nancy Lopez, were Lydia Ko (Founders Award), Madelene Sagstrom (Heather Farr Perseverance Award), Deb Vangellow (Ellen Griffin Rolex Award), Judy Rankin (Commissioner’s Award). Tavatanakit also bagged two honors, including the Rolex ANNIKA Major Award and Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year.

“It’s been a great year. I’m learning a lot from my fellow golfers and I’m really having fun,” said Saso, hopeful to cap a remarkable maiden LPGA campaign with a strong finish Sunday.

“So, I’m really thankful for the whole year.”