Japanese, Korean forge Champion Tour title duel

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Fumika Kawagishi of Japan hits her tee-shot on the par-3 No. 8

Fumika Kawagishi of Japan hits her tee-shot on the par-3 No. 8

Fumika Kawagishi exploded with an early birdie-binge then eagled No. 10 on her way to a seven-under 65 while former Philippine Ladies Open champion Lee Jeong-hwa shot a 66 as they virtually sealed a title showdown in the ICTSI Champion Tour presented by Champion and Taiwan LPGA in Tagaytay on Thursday.

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The duo bounced back from a pair of mediocre opening 72s to pull away from the field with the 21-year-old Japanese rattling off five birdies in a six-hole stretch from No. 2 to surge past a faltering Mookharin Ladgratok and Kanpahnitnan Muanghkumaskul of Thailand then stayed on top with an eagle-birdie start at the back before running off seven pars for a 32-33 card and a 137.

For a while, Kawagishi stood five shots clear off her nearest pursuer until Lee, who humbled the cream of the local crop to snare the Phl Ladies Open crown at Manila Southwoods in 2012, charged home with four birdies for a 32 and 66 for a 138.

Amateur Princess Superal actually seized control with a three-birdie string from No. 2 only to drop off the leaderboard with bogeys on No. 6 and 7. She fought back with birdies on Nos. 10 and 12 but The Country Club ace hit an errant shot on the par-4 13th and wound up with a double-bogey, settling for a 71 and a 143, six strokes off Kawagishi.

Taiwanese Chen Yu-ju matched par 72 and tied Superal at third but the Filipina ace took the third slot in the championship flight in a marquee matchup with Kawagishi and Lee.

Korean Lee Jeong-hwa hits her approach shot on the par-5 No. 9. CONTRIBUTED PHOTOS

Korean Lee Jeong-hwa hits her approach shot on the par-5 No. 9. CONTRIBUTED PHOTOS

Chen Min-jou, also from Taiwan, double-bogeyed No. 16 for a second 72 and 144 while Ladgratok and Muanghkumaskul, who took the 1-2 posts in the opener of the $75,000 event sponsored by International Container Terminal Services, Inc. Wednesday, hobbled with 76 and 75, respectively, and tumbled to joint sixth at 145 with fellow Thai Chorphaka Jaengkit, local ace Mia Piccio and Korean Kang Ji-won, who all carded 72s, Taiwanese Shih, Huei-ju and Symetra Tour campaigner Dottie Ardina, who both turned in 73s.

LPGA Tour campaigner Cyna Rodriguez hardly recovered from a 76 with a 74 for a 150 and bowed out of contention in the 54-hole championship organized by Pilipinas Golf Tournaments, Inc. and backed by adidas, Custom Clubmakers, KZG, TaylorMade, Champion, Summit Natural Drinking Water, Pacsports, Sharp and Rustans Supermarket.

Despite turning in a lead-grabbing 65, Kawagishi said she could’ve shot better if not for her flubbed birdie putts at the back side of the windswept layout.

“I hit solid iron shots but struggled with my putting,” said the Yokohama native seeking to complete her maiden stint on the local turf with a victory in this kickoff leg of the ICTSI Ladies Philippine Golf Tour and the fifth leg of the Taiwan LPGA Tour.

She birdied Nos. 2 and 3 inside five feet then strung up three straight from No. 5 to negate a missed-green bogey mishap on No. 8. A superb pair of hybrid shots of the tee (220 yards) and on the fairway (200 yards) sent her ball landing on the 10th fringe then knocked down her chip shot for an eagle before birdying the par-5 11th.

Bracing for a shootout with Lee, Kawagishi vowed to put the pressure early on her Korean rival and hoped to sustain her charge for a crack at the top $15,000 purse.

“I hope to keep on going tomorrow (today) and push for more birdies,” said Kawagishi.

Lee didn’t stray too far from Kawagishi by rebounding from an opening bogey with birdies on Nos. 2, 4 and 8 then bettered the Japanese’s closing 33 with a pair of back-to-back birdies from No. 10 and 14.

Tied with Kawagishi and Lee and five others at the start of the day, Superal took charge with birdies on Nos. 2, 3 and 4, sparking hopes of a surge by the former US Girls’ Junior champion. But she reeled back with muffed par-putts inside six feet on Nos. 6 and 7 and blew her chance to close in with that double-bogey miscue on the 13th.

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