Saso running 5th after 68

YUKA SASO missed piecing together an explosive start and settled for a four-under 68 to trail Min-Young Lee and Serena Aoki by two strokes in the rich Japan Ladies Professional Golf Association Championship Konica Minolta Cup at the JFE Setonakai Golf Club on Thursday in Okayama.

The 19-year-old Saso missed birdie chances in the first five holes, nailed three straight birdies from No. 6, added another on the 13th and had a chance at the lead with another birdie on the par-3 16th.

But she flubbed a straightaway 5-foot putt inches short of the cup at No. 17 and hit a wayward 3-wood tee-shot on the treacherous par-5 18th.

The International Container Terminal Services Inc.-backed Filipino-Japanese needed to take a safety shot off an awkward stance behind a pile of rocks, only to find her third shot hit the edge of the green and take a bad bounce into the bunker.

Saso blasted poorly, the ball rolling past the sleek surface and into the ankle-deep rough. She chipped to within 6 feet and made the putt for a 33-35 and a share of fifth with seven others, including an in-form Sakura Koiwai.

Lee and Aoki seized the day with the Korean spiking her fiery 66 with an ace on the 180-yard No. 8 on her way home and Aoki, who missed the cut at Golf5 Ladies, churning out a bogey-free pair of 33s to seize control of the elite field.

The 28-year-old Lee, who missed the Nitori Ladies cut but tied for fourth in last week’s Golf5 Ladies ruled by Koiwai, used a 5-iron and bucked the wind with a low fade 5-iron tee-shot that landed 10 yards off the cup before rolling in.

The duo took a one-stroke lead over Ayako Kimura and former champion Teresa Lu, who shot identical 67s, while Koiwai likewise took advantage of an early start to shoot four birdies and tie Saso, Eri Joma, Erika Kikuchi, Yuri Yoshida, Erika Hara, Seira Oki and Mi-Jeong Jeon.

Momoko Ueda, meanwhile, groped for form coming off a sixth place finish in the British Women’s Open, dropping three strokes after a birdie on the 11th from where she teed off. But the veteran campaigner recovered big at the front, hitting three birdies for joint 37th at 71.

Two-time champion and 16-time JLPGA winner Ai Suzuki, however, failed to get going with a two-birdie, two-bogey effort, her 72 dropping her to a share of 54th in a day of torrid scoring in near-ideal conditions in one of Japan’s rare links courses.

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