Saturday, March 22, 2014

T-Point Ladies Saturday: Rikako Morita Takes the Lead

Rikako Morita fired her 2nd-straight round in the 60s at the T-Point Ladies to move to -7 and take a 1-shot lead on Erina Hara, who birdied 4 holes in a row late in her round to pass Bo-Mee Lee (-3, but +2 over her last 10 holes of birdie-less golf), Hiroko Fukushima (-2, but her 39 on the back included 3 bogeys and a walkoff double), Yukari Nishiyama (-2, but shot a 7-bogey 75), and Mami Fukuda (-2, but made 5 bogeys and a double on the way to a 75 of her own).  In fact, the 1st-round leaders struggled so much that Sakura Yokomine moved into T7 at -1 (joining Eun-Bi Jang, Yukari Baba, and Onnarin Sattayabanphot) with a 71 and Bo-Bae Song moved into T11 at E (joining Ji-Yai Shin, Shiho Oyama, and Yuki Ichinose) after following up her opening 77 with a 67.

Yup, it was a tough day out there for most of the field, and even some of the best golfers on the JLPGA succumbed to it.  Mamiko Higa (73-76), Miki Saiki (72-78), Yumiko Yoshida (75-75), and Natsuka Hori (82-75) all missed the cut, as did Da-Ye Na (68-81), Asako Fujimoto (73-76), Kaori Ohe (74-75), Lala Anai (77-72), Na-Ri Lee (77-73), Airi Saitoh (76-74), Ayaka Watanabe (75-79), Yum-Jye Wei (77-77), and Hyun-Ju Shin (78-77).

So the fact that Morita put together a 5-birdie 68 is a huge deal.  The 2013 money-list leader is hanging onto the #4 spot on Team Japan for the LPGA's International Crown by the skin of her teeth, so with 3 of her closest pursuers (Higa, Saiki, Yoshida) missing the cut, Yokomine and Oyama well back of her, and defending champion Ichinose under pressure to finish strong from well back in the pack, Morita's literally sitting in the driver's seat heading into the final round.

Hara, meanwhile, is looking for redemption of a sort.  The 26-year-old is starting her 8th season on the JLPGA, but hasn't finished in the top 25 on the money list since her 3rd year on tour in 2009 (and that had been her worst finish to date!).  With a lone win back in 2008, this former whiz kid is looking to become a comeback kid.  She's coming off 2 top 15s to kick off the 2014 season and a 2013 that was her best since 2009, thanks to her 4 top 10s and 14 top 20s.  In fact, she has top 25s in 6 of her last 7 starts.  It would be a huge story if she could turn that streak into the springboard to her 2nd career JLPGA victory.

But of course it would be even bigger if the 24-year-old Morita were to follow up her 4-win 2013 with her 7th career JLPGA victory so early in 2014.  With her biggest-name pursuers well behind her, she's in a great position to improve on last year's runner-up finish here.

[Update 1 (7:44 am):  I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that Bo-Mee Lee can get her 6th JLPGA victory with a great round tomorrow.  The 25-year-old KLPGA star has 3 top 10s in her last 4 starts (dating back to last season; the 4th was a T11!), so is looking to improve in 2014 on her 2nd- and 7th-place finishes on the JLPGA money-list in her 1st 2 seasons on tour.]

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