Torn between going to the green through an iron fence and playing out, Yuka Saso opted for the first and escaped with a gutsy par on No. 16 and went on to fire a two-under 69 at the start of the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship paced by Katherine Kirk and two other Koreans in Rogers Friday.
Although she stood six shots of the hot-starting Australian, Eun-Hee Ji and A. Lim Kim, who all shot bogey-free 63s in calm conditions at the Pinnacle Country Club at joint 44th, the reigning US Women’s Open champ liked how she fared, this being her first tournament since finishing tied for 39th in the AIG Women’s Open in Scotland five weeks ago.
“I’m really grateful that the condition is very good and I’m able to play again,” said Saso in a Japanese news portal.
“I think it’s okay for the first day since I had no tournament for a month.”
Teeing off at the backside of the par-71 layout in one of the late flights, the ICTSI-backed ace shot four birdies against two bogeys, lacing her 36-33 card with a brilliant par-save on the par-4 16th where she hit an errant drive to the right and barely missed going out-of-bounds off a fence.
She pulled her trusted 8-iron and cleared the barrier with a draw shot, the ball resting on the left edge of the green. She two-putted for par.
“There was an option — play it out on the fairway or go for the green,” she said.
“Well, I might have played it out if the lie was bad. But there was nothing on the right side, so I think it’s easy.”
“I was just lucky I didn’t hit it OB off the tee.”
That somewhat fired up the 20-year-old Filipino-Japanese, who birdied the next, a par-3, from five feet and gained another stroke on the par-5 18th, which she reached in two.
Saso, however, settled for a one-bogey, one-birdie card at the front, flubbing a couple of chances that would have boosted her bid in a $2.3 million event spread just over 54 holes.
“I hope I can enjoy and pass the qualifying,” said Saso, who missed four fairways on a 269-yard norm off the tee, and failed to reach regulation seven greens but finished with 28 putts.
But making it to the final round is one thing, gaining a crack at the crown is another as Saso faced a huge task of getting into contention with a curious mix of players churning out low scores to fuel their respective title drives.
Kirk flaunted superb iron play, birdying the three par-3s at the back for a 32-31, which Ji matched with her four-birdie splurge on both nines, while Kim, the 2020 US Women’s Open titlist, highlighted her 33-30 card with an eagle on No. 18.
The troika took a one-stroke lead over Sarah Burnham of the US with five others putting in similar 65s, including India’s Aditi Ashok and Japanese Nasa Hataoka, with another six carding 66s, led by Thai Ariya Jutanugarn and Korean In Gee Chun.
Canadian Brooke Henderson and American Lexi Thompson lead the 67 scorers, who included Aussie Minjee Lee, the recent Evian Championship winner, and American Jennifer Kupcho, while another shot back at 68 were Danielle Kang of the US, Kiwi Lydia Ko, ANA Inspiration champion Patty Tavatanakit of Thailand and last week’s Portland Classic champion Jin Young Ko of Korea.
But while Saso flourished despite a long layoff, fellow ICTSI players Dottie Ardina and Bianca Pagdanganan floundered coming off stints in the Portland Classic.
Ardina, who tied for 30th in the weather-shortened Portland tilt, gunned down two birdies to negate a double bogey on No. 17 in a decent backside start but scrambled for a four-birdie, three-bogey and a double-bogey frontside finish.
She ended up with a one-over 72 for a share of 98th, two strokes below the projected cutoff score.
Pagdanganan, who limped to tied 54th last week, made three straight bogeys from No. 2, dropped two strokes on the par-3 15th, birdied the next and bogeyed the 17th for a dismal five-over 76 for joint 135th in a field of 144.
Meanwhile, Abby Arevalo corrected a big flaw in her scorecard in the final round of the Delta Downs Invitational in Louisiana Thursday where she wound up tied for 22nd with a 222 after a 69.
She did close out with a three-under card at the National Golf Club in Westlake but not with an albatross on the par-5 No. 11 as what earlier reported based on the tournament site’s scorecard that remained unchecked up to this time.
In fact, she said she made a bogey on the hole.
“For the final round, I got a 6 (bogey) on No. 11,” Arevalo said.
“Not sure why the scores are so weird this week.”