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Expect fireworks to erupt right in the first round of the JLPGA Tour Championship Ricoh Cup with 18 explosive pairs face off in a virtual mano-a-mano kicking off LPGA of Japan Tour’s final major championship and concluding event of the pandemic-hit season in Miyazaki Prefecture Thursday.

And there couldn’t be a more fitting way to unwrap the Y120 million championship, which stakes Y30 million to the winner, than to put rookies Ayaka Furue and Yuka Saso in the final pairing of a star-studded cast at 10:54 a.m. on No. 1 of the Miyazaki Country Club.

Furue, 20, and Saso, 19, are locked in a furious battle not only for the coveted Player of the Year plum but also for the money list title and their face-off could go down as one of the most explosive duels in JLPGA history.

The local ace actually subdued Saso in last Sunday’s finale to claim the Daio Paper Elleair Open crown in a follow-up her playoff victory over Miki Saki in the Itoen Ladies the previous week that enabled her to dislodge the Fil-Japanese from the top spot in the Player of the Year derby.

But Saso is out for redemption with the ICTSI-backed ace setting her sights not only for a first major crown but also for a record feat of sweeping the Player of the Year and money list titles.

Both are also out to become the first player in JLPGA history to exceed Y100 million in winnings in just 14 tournaments although Saso, with an accumulated earnings of Y89,253,170, needs just a third place effort to accomplish the feat.

Furue, who moved to world No. 16 on the strength of her back-to-back victories, is behind with Y73,102,292 in winnings.

But Furue has surged ahead in the POTY race, posting %u202A1131.78%u202C points as Saso dropped to second with %u202A1048.85%u202C points with Sunday’s winner to gain 400 points, the runner-up to earn 240 points and the third placer to receive 180 points.

While Saso, who improved to No. 48 in the world, is banking on her power game that netted her victories in the NEC Karuizawa and Nitori Ladies, Furue is flourishing with her consistency and accuracy she had put in full display in outplaying Saso in the final round of the Daio Paper Elleair Open.

But the pressure to deliver in a nerve-wracking battle – where four records could be set – could be too much to bear for the rookie campaigners with the veterans in the fold, including last year’s top player Ai Suzuki, defending champion Bae Seon Woo of Korea, world No. 15 Hinako Shibuno, and this year’s two-leg winner and 2018 champion Shin Jie, ready to pounce.

Other marque match-ups pit Japan Women’s Open titlist Erika Hara and Golf5 Ladies champion Sakura Koiwai at 10:46 a.m., Earth Mondahmin Cup champ Ayaka Watanabe and Mitsubishi Electric winner Yuna Nishimura at 10:38 a.m., LPGA Tour campaigner Momoko Ueda and JLPGA Minolta Cup titlist Saki Nagamine at 10:30 a.m., Jie and Suzuki at 10:22 a.m., and Bae and Stanley Ladies titlist Mone Inami at 10:14 a.m.

Yui Kawamoto, the 37th and last player in the elite cast, plays by her lonesome at 8:30 a.m.

Saso surprised and impressed the field by fashioning out those back-to-back victories last August, wresting the early POTY lead and taking command in the money list. But her game took a downswing from there, her joint eighth place finish proving to be her best in her next six tournaments.

The slump likewise enabled Koiwai to seize the POTY lead and led to a first-ever missed cut in the Mitsubishi Electric in 10 tournaments. Saso, however, bounced back with a strong runner-up effort in the Toto Classic that put her back in the Mercedes lead while firming up her hold of the top spot in the money race.

A second missed cut in the Itoen Ladies and a share of third in last week’s Daio Paper Elleair Open coupled with Furue’s sweep of the two events put the latter on top of the Player of the Year race. (Jeanne Cortez)

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