Saso, Nishimura re­main tied for lead

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Yuka Saso and Yuna Nishimura went toe-to-toe for the sec­ond straight day and wound up with iden­ti­cal 70s to re­main tied for the lead in the Daio Pa­per El­leair Ladies Open in Ehime Pre­fec­ture in Ja­pan on Fri­day.

Saso and Nishimura were locked atop the leader­board with 135s, fol­lowed by Ayaka Fu­rue and Mi­nami Katsu who as­sem­bled sim­i­lar 136s af­ter a 68 and 71, re­spec­tively.

Three oth­ers, in­clud­ing Sakura Koi­wai, pooled 138s to guar­an­tee an ex­cit­ing chase head­ing into the last two rounds of the cham­pi­onship that of­fers a top purse of Y18 mil­lion from a to­tal prize fund of Y100 mil­lion at the El­leair Golf Club Mat­suyama.

Saso and Nishimura, who matched six-un­der 65s Thurs­day that saw the Filipino-ja­panese siz­zle with 23 putts, failed to shake off each other in a fiery duel in cold, windy con­di­tions. Nishimura birdied two of the first four holes and Saso coun­tered with birdies on Nos. 3 and 6.

The two-leg win­ner Saso bo­geyed No. 5 and Nishimura dropped a shot at No. 8 and the duo headed to the last nine holes tied again.

The In­ter­na­tional Con­tainer Ter­mi­nal Ser­vices Inc.-backed Saso missed a good look for a birdie af­ter her chip shot in the par-5 ninth green caught the slope of the fringe and barely rolled onto the green.

But she went up with a birdie on No. 11 as Nishimura parred the first five holes at the back but the lat­ter birdied the 15th to join the for­mer in the lead again. They bo­geyed the par-3 16th and parred the last two to ar­range an­other face­off in the piv­otal third round.

Katsu, cham­pion here in 2018, shot a sec­ond 68 to earn a spot in the fea­tured group as erst­while leader Fu­rue, com­ing off a play­off vic­tory in last week’s Itoen Ladies, failed to sus­tain her open­ing 65 with a two-birdie, one dou­ble-bo­gey round for a 71.

Korean Bae Seon Woo fired a 67 to lead the 138 scor­ers, in­clud­ing Na-ri Lee, who carded a sec­ond 69, and Koi­wai, who fi­nally hit her stride and out­shot Saso and Nishimura with a 68 af­ter start­ing out with a 70.

Seven oth­ers turned in 139s, four strokes be­hind, in­clud­ing Suzuhide Mat­suda (70), Asako Fu­ji­moto (70), Kana Na­gai (66), Lee Min-young (71), Ji Hee Lee (71), Yon Chae Young (70) and Earth Mon­dah­min Cup win­ner Ayaka Watan­abe (68).

But fo­cus will be on Saso and Nishimura with the Player of Year and money race fron­trun­ner seek­ing to be­come the first player to amass more than Y100 mil­lion with a vic­tory this week­end. The Pi­nay rookie has raked in Y82.753 in earn­ings in 12 tour­na­ments spiked by back-to-back vic­to­ries at NEC Karuizawa and Ni­tori Ladies last Au­gust.

But Nishimura, a rookie like Saso, has picked up her game af­ter miss­ing all but one cut in her first four tour­na­ments, reach­ing peak form to win the Mit­subishi Elec­tric crown be­fore ty­ing for ninth in Toto Clas­sic.

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