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Yuka drops to No. 6, eyes strong play

The first time Saso and Shibuno were paired in the first two rounds of a JLPGA event.

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YUKA Saso makes her return to Japan at the TOTO Japan Classic that kicks off Wednesday in Shiga Prefecture. / GREGORY SHAMUS/agence france-presse

Dropping back to No. 6 in the world rankings, Yuka Saso hopes to regain her previous career-best spot at No. 5 or move a rung higher with a strong finish in the TOTO Japan Classic firing off Thursday in Shiga Prefecture.

Idle the last three weeks, including a purposeful skip of the BMW Championship of the LPGA Tour in Korea to prepare for her Japan return stint, Saso yielded the fifth spot to Aussie Minjee Lee, who tied for 12th in Busan to switch places with the Filipina in the latest rankings.

But with the LPGA Tour taking its own break this week, a victory or a Top 3 finish in the TOTO Classic could push Saso back to No. 5 or even to No. 4 with current holder Sei Young Kim holding a slim lead in average points over Lee and Saso.

Kim has 5.89 average points with the Aussie posting 5.53 and the ICTSI-backed ace toting 5.51. But a so-so effort at TOTO might enable No. 7 Lydia Ko (5.38) of New Zealand to get past her.

But Saso is focused on the task at hand, confident of putting up a solid outing in her rare stint in the very circuit (LPGA of Japan Tour) where she launched her pro career — in smashing fashion, leading to invites and berths in the LPGA Tour and eventually scoring a major breakthrough in the US Women’s Open.

It, however, won’t be easy.

In fact, pressure mounts right in the first two rounds of the $2 million, 72-hole championship as Saso is paired with local darling Hinako Shibuno, who is fresh from topping last Sunday’s Mitsubishi Electric tournament.

The two aces will play with veteran Momoko Ueda at 9:10 a.m. of the Seta Golf’s North course.

The first time Saso and Shibuno were paired in the first two rounds of a JLPGA event, the Filipina missed the cut. Shibuno tied for 13th in the Daikin Orchid in Okinawa last March.

But Saso, 20, has vastly improved since then, highlighting her memorable 2021 LPGA campaign with a major victory that boosted her world ranking while netting her a five-year membership status in the world’s premier ladies tour.

Other marquee pairings in the blue-ribbon TOTO Classic event feature Olympic silver medalist Mone Inami, Yuna Nishimura and Serena Aoki at 9:30 a.m.; Ayaka Furue, Yui Kawamoto and Saki Nagamine at 9:40 a.m; and Sakura Koiwai, Minami Katsu and Ayaka Takahashi at 8:40 a.m., all on the first hole.

Jiyai Shin, who beat Saso by three in last year’s TOTO Classic played over 54 holes in Ibaraki, kicks off her title-retention drive alongside former top JLPGA campaigner Ai Suzuki and Ritsuko Ryu.

After the event, Saso flies back to the US this weekend to compete in LPGA’s last two events, the Pelican Championship on 11 to 14 November and the CME Group Tour Championship on 18 to 21 November, both in Florida.

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