The conditions were chilly enough that Yuka Saso had to put a jacket over her layered clothing in between swings. Her game? A bit frostier in the beginning. But all that was nothing compared to the ice in her veins.
Saso fired a one-under-par 71 in a rain-delayed final round and held her nerve in a you-or-me showdown against Sakura Koiwai to rule the Nitori Ladies Golf Tournament by two strokes on Sunday at Otaru Country Club in Hokkaido, Japan, and establish herself as a real force on the Japan LPGA that is loaded with so many talented players.
The 2018 Asian Games champion, Saso tallied a 72-hole 13-under 275 over the tough-as-nails layout that played hardest in the final round because of the weather. She pocketed the top prize of 36 million yen (about P16.5 million) after winning her second straight start.
And she did so by outlasting Koiwai in a close battle of shot-making and nerves, unlike in her breakthrough win two weeks ago where she was practically untouched and won by four strokes.
Koiwai, whom Saso described as a “very good player,” closed out with a level 72 with Kana Mikashima (71), Lee Ji-Hee (74) and Mayu Hamada (76) all finishing 10 shots off the pace in a tie for third spot.
Saso had a wet start after the players emerged from a two-hour rain delay, dumping her approach into the water on the 355-yard par four second hole for a two-shot swing that gave Koiwai a one-stroke lead.
From there, Saso displayed what she is made of inside as she methodically tore away at whatever form of control Koiwai had to take the fight out of the game hometown bet heading into the closing holes.
“She’s very good, but I really did not watch how she was playing,” Saso told the Inquirer over the phone, referring to Koiwai in their virtual match play for the title. “I think I just got the breaks [in the back nine]. I looked at the leaderboard several times, yes. But to be honest, I was just minding my own game.”
The 19-year-old Saso regained the lead with a birdie on the sixth made possible by a brilliant approach to within eight feet.
“The birdies were hard to come by because of how tough the course played, also because of the weather,” Saso went on. “My putting saved this tournament for me, especially [in the final round].”
Saso, who went two ahead with a birdie on the 12th, said she averaged around 29 putts per round.
The 22-year-old Koiwai eventually blinked by dropping a shot on No. 16 to fall behind by three, all but extinguishing her hopes as the Filipino-Japanese has now won a total of more than P27 million in just three events. INQ
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