Sunday, March 16, 2014

Yokohama Tire PRGR Ladies Cup Sunday: Yuki Ichinose Beats Miki Sakai in Playoff for Her 2nd JLPGA Victory

In what became a battle between Japanese young guns in the final round of the Yokohama Tire PRGR Ladies Cup, 25-year-old Yuki Ichinose and 22-year-old Miki Sakai went low to sneak past 2nd-round leader Bo-Bae Song and outsprint 17-year-old amateur Haruka Morita to the finish line.  Then Ichinose birdied the 1st playoff hole to take her 2nd JLPGA title in as many seasons.

The day started with Song hanging on to a 1-shot lead on 23-year-old Asako Fujimoto and a 2-shot lead on Sakai and 4 other players, including Ichinose, who found herself 2 groups ahead of the final pairing.  By the time the lead groups started their rounds, veteran Junko Omote was already lighting up the course with 5 birdies on the back 9 to move to E for the week.  But by the time Omote finished her round with 4 more birdies on the front, it was clear that even her bogey-free 63 was going to be too little, too late.  For Ichinose's playing partner Morita was pushing the leaders with a bogey-free 33 on the front that got her to -4.  And the final pairing responded with fireworks of their own.  Sakai fired a bogey-free 33 that brought her to -5, while Fujimoto birdied 2 of her 1st 5 holes to join her.  Song got off to a comparatively slower start, with a lone birdie on the 386-yard par-4 4th to make it a trio atop the leaderboard.  But after Ichinose went birdie-eagle-birdie as she made the turn to jump to -6, Song responded with birdies of her own on 9 and 10 to retake the lead at -7, even as Fujimoto fell off the pace with bogeys on the very same holes.

The 372-yard par-4 12th was the next turning point, as Morita birdied it to climb to -5, then Fujimoto birdied it to fight back to -4 and Sakai birdied to to get to -6, but Song bogeyed it to drop back to -6 and into another 3-way tie for the lead.  The 499-yard par-5 15th was another turning point, as Ichinose and Sakai 1st birdied it to get to -7 and -6, respectively, then Sakai birdied it to erase her bogey on the previous hole, a 163-yard par 3, to return to -6.  Even as Ichinose and Morita parred in to post 67s, Fujimoto and Song matched her with pars of their own until the former birdied the 157-yard par-3 17th to get to -5.   Meanwhile, Sakai erased a birdie on the 315-yard par-4 16th with a bogey on 17.  So Song and Sakai teed it up on the 370-yard par-4 final hole needing birdies to force a playoff with Ichinose (and Fujimoto an eagle).  Sakai made her birdie putt for a 67 of her own that got her to -7, while Song had to take solace in her best finish on the JLPGA since the 2012 Stanley Ladies and Fujimoto in her 3rd top 5 and 5th top 10 in her last 13 JLPGA starts.  For Sakai, who was looking for her 1st JLPGA victory, her silver medal was the best finish in her career, surpassing the 3 bronzes she earned last season.

Other golfers finished strong on Sunday, even if they didn't contend.  26-year-old Erina Hara fired a bogey-free 66 to fight her way to -3 for the week after a 77 started it; she finished T11 at -3 with the likes of So-Hee Kim (whose 69-67 weekend also made up for an opening 77) and Bo-Mee Lee (whose 4-birdie 69 today was her 1st sub-70 round since her JLPGA debut in 2014).  Joining Omote at -4 were defending champion Mi-Jeong Jeon (69), fellow recent JLPGA money-list title-holder Sun-Ju Ahn (70), and Japanese young guns Mami Fukuda (68) and Rumi Yoshida (70).  Sakura Yokomine helped secure her #3 position in the race for Team Japan in the LPGA's International Crown, as her bogey-free 68 got her to -2 and kept her 2 shots ahead of Miki Saiki, who moved to E with one of her own.  Things weren't as encouraging for #4 Rikako Morita (72, +4), even if #5 Mamiko Higa missed the cut, while Ji-Yai Shin (70, +4) and Onnarin Sattayabanphot (72, +5) will have to hope they don't lose too many Rolex Rankings points for their disappointing weeks after finishing 1-2 last week in Okinawa.

Back to this week's winner, Ichinose not only gets 2014 off to a fantastic start but also gives herself great momentum as she seeks to defend her title next week at the T-Point Ladies.  She also moves to the #2 spot on the 2014 JLPGA money list:

1. Onnarin Sattayabanphot ¥18.42M
2. Yuki Ichinose ¥14.40M

3. Miki Sakai ¥7.04M
4. Rikako Morita, Ji-Yai Shin, Airi Saitoh ¥6.67M
7. Ayaka Watanabe ¥6.51M

8. Mamiko Higa ¥6.16M
9. Bo-Bae Song ¥5.60M
10. Asako Fujimoto ¥5.51M

Let's see how high on the Rolex Rankings Ichinose's win lofts her.  At #81 entering this week, she'll need to gain a lot of points to challenge the players ahead of her vying for the last spot on Team Japan!  It would be a great story for a can't-miss kid who struggled to adjust to the level of competition on the JLPGA in her 1st 5 seasons, but seemingly has found her sea legs in the last year-plus, to represent Japan in the LPGA's 1st truly international team competition.

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