Japanese Toru Nakajima teed off last and came out on top of the elite 30-player field, his wind-raked two-under 70 netting him a two-stroke lead over Jhonnel Ababa and Angelo Que at the start of The Country Club-Don Pocholo Razon Memorial Cup at the TCC in Santa Rosa, Laguna on Thursday.
The new-look course proved as tough as hyped for its length and the wind with the local aces, including five of the six winners of what has been considered as one of the country’s premier championships, fumbling with over-par scores on a hot, breezy day.
“It’s a very difficult course, very long but beautiful and I’m enjoying it,” said Nakajima, one of the three foreigners given last-minute slots in what used to be an all-Filipino P5 million event.
“I’m happy to be given a chance to play in this tournament,” added Nakajima, who leaned on his solid driving and putting to take control of the stellar field.
While majority of the select field stumbled at the backside of the Tom Weiskoph-designed layout, Nakajima came through with two birdies that anchored his impressive opening round in the event put up by ICTSI chairman and president Ricky Razon in 2003 to honor the memory of his father, ICTSI founder Don Pocholo.
Ababa actually bettered Nakajima’s backside effort, ramming in a 31 spiked by a chip-in eagle on the par-5 10th. But he needed to bounce back strong from a disastrous opening 41 to salvage a share of second at 72 with three-time winner Que, who missed moving within one off Nakajima with a final hole bogey.
“I had a good start at the back and my putting clicked,” said Ababa, who chipped in for eagle from 35 yards on No. 10 then birdied Nos. 12, 17 and 18 inside six feet.
It was indeed a big Ababa rebound after he stumbled with back-to-back double bogeys from No. 4 and dropping three strokes more against two birdies at the front.
Que, a three-time Asian Tour winner and with Juvic Pagunsan, seeking a record fourth crown in this P5 million event, left as soon as he turned in his scorecard which revealed four birdies and two bogeys and a double-bogey.
The smooth-swinging Pagunsan tied for the lead at 36 at the turn but wavered with three bogeys and hobbled with a 75 for joint fourth with Miguel Tabuena, Justin Quiban and Arnold Villacencio.
Former winners Frankie Miñoza and Tony Lascuña stood another stroke adrift at 76 after turning in identical 38-38s, while Japanese Ryoma Miki and Albin Engino carded identical 78s, Orlan Sumcad shot a 79 and Dutch Guido Van der Valk, Marvin Dumandan and Mhark Fernando carded identical 80s.
“Given the tough course and condition, I’m happy with my 76,” said Lascuña, winner of five events in last year’s ICTSI Philippine Golf Tour. “It will all depend on the ranking after the third round.”
Cassius Casas, winner of the inaugural of this event in 2003 and in 2014 before the TCC underwent a major facelift, shot himself in the foot with a 44 after nine holes and wound up with an 81 in a tie with Michael Bibat, Rufino Bayron and Jerson Balasabas.
Still, anything can happen in the next 54 holes with playing condition expected to get worse during the weekend.
“I’ll take it shot-for-shot and see what happens,” said Nakajima, who beat Jay Bayron in a playoff to win the ICTSI Wack Wack Championship in 2013.
The 32-year-old Japanese, who turned in a number of top 10 finishes in the PGT last year, mixed two birdies against the same number of bogeys at the front then birdied Nos. 10 and 17 while parring the rest to seize control.
Ababa also hopes to sustain his solid finish, highlighted by a 20-foot birdie putt on the 18th that put him in early contention in the event also serving as the unofficial kickoff leg of this year’s local circuit.
“It’s a tough course, very long, windy and the greens are hard. Anything can happen here,” said Ababa, seeking an end to a long title spell.