Cassius Casas banged in a 12-foot birdie putt on the ninth to cap a fiery windup for a two-under 68 as he joined a charging Arnold Villacencio and erstwhile leader Elmer Salvador in a crowded leaderboard halfway through the ICTSI Iloilo Golf Challenge in Sta. Barbara in Iloilo on Thursday.
Casas, out to nail his first win on this year’s ICTSI Philippine Golf Tour after a couple of near-misses, hit three birdies in the last nine holes at the front, including a chip-in from 20 yards on No. 3 and a tap-in on the next as he put himself in contention for the top P200,000 purse with a three-under 137 at the Iloilo Golf and Country Club.
Salvador settled for an even par 70 after a 67 while Villacencio shot the day’s best 67 to force a three-way tie for the lead even as a host of others stood a stroke or two behind, ensuring a wild chase for the top plum in the last two rounds of the P1 million event sponsored by International Container Terminal Services, Inc.
Michael Bibat stayed in the hunt for a second pro win with a 68, the same score churned out by the long-hitting Orlan Sumcad for joint fourth at 138 while reigning back-to-back Order of Merit champion Tony Lascuña inched his way closer at 139, also after a 68, in the company of Miguel Ochoa, who shot a 68, Ferdie Aunzo, who matched par 70, and Jun Bernis, who hobbled with a 71.
Angelo Que, also eyeing a first win this year, also bounced back into contention with a 68 after a 72 and tied ICTSI Splendido winner Jay Bayron, who carded a 71, guaranteeing a shootout in the final 36 holes of the ninth leg of the 16-stage circuit organized by Pilipinas Golf Tournaments, Inc.
“This is the plan, to be on the lead because that takes off some pressure on me,” said Casas, who closed out last season’s circuit with a victory at ICTSI Wack Wack Championship and opened 2014 with a second win at The Country Club Invitational last February.
But the country’s former No. 1 struggled at the start of the tour, missing the cut a couple of times and fading in the final round in two other tournaments. But in the share of the lead this week, the ace Davaoeño shotmaker is upbeat of his title chances with two rounds left in the 72-hole tournament.
“It is up for the rest to think of how to catch up with me. But it’s going to be tough with a wet course and unpredictable putting surface,” said Casas in Pilipino.
Salvador did grope for form on the greens after an impressive 67 in tough condition Wednesday, flubbing birdie putts on Nos. 13 and 18 and missing keeping the solo lead with an even 70.
“Those putts on Nos. 13 and 18 were fairly easy but I just couldn’t drop my putts,” said Salvador, seeking to score a follow-up to this victory at ICTSI Riviera fashioned out in equally demanding condition.
But Casas and Salvador will have Villacencio to contend in their battle for the lead in today’s third round as the 45-year-old Fernando Air Base pro got a view of the top with that 67.
Villacencio, hoping to finally nail the elusive win after previously blowing a couple of title chances with a final round meltdown, made four birdies inside eight feet to negate a lone bogey on No. 6.
“I played well today [yesterday]although I never expected to tie Cassius and Elmer for the lead. But I am lucky to be where I am now,” said Villacencio, who placed third at Mt. Malarayat in 2009 and at Eastridge in 2011.
But focus will also be on Lascuna, Bayron and Que, who are expected to make their charge in moving day in the event backed by Nike Golf, Pacsports, Srixon, FootJoy, It’s More Fun in the Philippines, Callaway, Mizuno, Custom Clubmakers, Titleist, Sharp and KZG.