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Saso seeks to snap skid, regain No. 1 ranking

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With six tournaments left in the pandemic-shortened LPGA of Japan Tour, rookie Yuka Saso could be running out of time in pursuit of the coveted Player of the Year honors which she had seemed to have put a lock early with a burst of back-to-back victories and one Top 10 finish.

But her so-so finishes in four of the next five legs after sweeping the NEC Karuizawa and Nitori Ladies crowns in August coupled with Sakura Koiwai's own surge that included a victory and four Top 5 efforts, including a couple of runner-up feats, enabled the latter to wrest control of the Player of the Year derby heading to the crucial stages of the rich tour.

But expect the ICTSI-backed Saso, 19, to bounce back strong in the circuit's stretch run, starting with the Fujitsu Ladies 2020 which unfolds tomorrow at the Tokyu Seven Hundred Club in Chiba City.

Saso's early surge, sparked by a joint fifth finish in her maiden event at Earth Mondahmin Cup, netted her not only the POTY lead but also the money race and majority of the stats categories.

But she lost her momentum, either on poor starts or shaky finishes, missing salvaging a Top 10 finish in all but one of the next five events.

Her struggle likewise paved the way for the rush of the other young stars, including Koiwai, who foiled Saso's three-title bid in the Golf5 Ladies, to emerge the new POTY leader.

That makes this weekend’s Y100 million event doubly interesting with the likes of Ayaka Watanabe, Saki Nagamine, Ayaka Furue, Erika Hara and Mone Inami all going all-out for a follow-up to their victories at Mondahmin Cup, JLPGA Championship, Descente Tokai Classic, Japan Women’s Open and Stanley Ladies, respectively.

Multi-titled Ai Suzuki, the winningest last year with seven victories but remained without a crown this season, is also raring for a big return after missing the cut at Stanley Ladies two weeks ago due to poor health condition.

LPGA Tour veteran Momoko Ueda, who placed sixth in this year’s British Women’s Open, is also expected to settle down and recall her fierce form that netted her a joint third finish in the Japan Open, along with last year’s leg winners Asuka Kashiwabara, Ji Hee Lee, Lala Anai, Minami Katsu and Bae Seon Woo.

Still, focus will be on the power-hitting Saso, who despite her slowdown has kept her world No. 76 ranking. She will be mixing it up again with Ueda and Kashiwabara at 10 a.m. on No. 1 of the Tokyu Seven Hundred Club in Chiba Prefecture.

The troika will tee off next to another explosive group featuring Nagamine, Hara and Furue with the Koiwai-Inami-Watanabe also promising a spirited, fierce battle at 9:40 a.m.

Suzuki, Anai and Arakaki Hina precede the Saso group at 10:10 a.m. followed by the threesome of Lee Min-Young, Mamiko Higa and Ayaka Takahashi – all top contenders for the Y18 million (P8.3 million) top purse in the 54-hole championship.

Next up for the JLPGA is the Y80 million Mitsubishi Electric Ladies on Oct. 30-Nov. 1 in Saitama Prefecture to be followed by the circuit’s third major – the Y160 million Toto Japan Classic on Nov. 6-8 in Ibaraki Prefecture where Suzuki is the defending champion.

The Itoen Ladies Golf will be played after the Toto Classic back in Chiba to be followed by the Daio Paper Elleair Ladies Open in Ehime Prefecture, both in November, before the circuit winds up its season with the last major – the Y120 million JLPGA Tour Championship Ricoh Cup on Nov. 26-29 in Miyazaki Prefecture. (Jeanne Cortez)

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