CLARK Freeport Zone—Guido van der Valk used an early backside slip to stoke up another searing frontside run, leading to a second straight 66 and a continued hold of the lead halfway through the ICTSI Mimosa Plus Championship here in Pampanga yesterday.
The lead actually changed hands a number of times in the early going and late in the round in another scorching day but Jhonnel Ababa came up short by one to match van der Valk’s 132 total despite a new course mark of 65 at Mimosa Plus’ Acacia for a 133.
Michael Bibat also seized the lead at 10-under 134 on a solid six-under card but for a fleeting moment as the Dutchman came charging home with back-to-back birdies to cap a splendid closing frontside 30 marked by a three-birdie binge from No. 3.
But the title chase remains as tight and wide-open as ever heading to the last 36 holes of the season-ending P2 million championship as Nilo Salahog kept his Philippine Golf Tour breakthrough bid going with a 135 after a 68 and Dino Villanueva likewise staying in the hunt for a maiden win despite squandering a more than perfect start and finishing with a second 68 for a 136.
Valley leg runaway winner Reymon Jaraula slowed down with a 70 after a 67 but remained in the thick of things at 137 in a tie with young Sean Ramos, who also shot a 66, while Paul Echavez and Elmer Salvador matched 68s and Kristoffer Arevalo and Keanu Jahns produced a pair of 69s for joint eighth at 138.
Japanese Toru Nakajima and Korean Min Seong Kim, who were in the early mix with 67 and 68, respectively, found the going a bit tougher and finished with 72 and 71, respectively, as they dropped to joint 12th at 139 with Marvin Dumandan, Rupert Zaragosa and Elee Bisera, who all carded 70s, and Luis Bagtas, who turned in a 70.
Taiwanese Ting Yu Chen floundered with a 79 after a 67 and fell to joint 33rd at 146 but made the 40-and-ties cut at 147.
For a while, Bagtas threatened to stir up play with a scorching frontside 32 but the son of former pro Eddie wavered with three bogeys in a birdie-less backside stint and tumbled off the leaderboard.
But any player can explode at any given day at Acacia, particularly the big hitters, setting the stage for a wild finish to the 72-hole championship, the 10th leg of this year’s circuit organized by Pilipinas Golf Tournaments, inc. and backed by PGTI official apparel Kampfortis Golf.
But no player comes into the pivotal round with so much confidence than van der Valk.
“I started slow and three-putted No. 10. I think it was because of the rain Tuesday night. The greens were a bit slower at the beginning of the day and they dried up a little bit,” said van der Valk, who birdied the 16th to save a 36, enabling a host of others to take their shots at the top spot.
But he turned things around as he made the turn.
“I really hit good shots (at the back) but I just didn’t hole anything. It was quite frustrating but I knew that if I keep it hitting it good, the birdies will come,” he added.
He birdied the first hole, nearly aced the par-3 No. 3, came through with a birdie-blast on No. 4 and gained another stroke on the par-5 next before closing out with back-to-back birdies.
“It’s a nice little run and I managed a six-under (at the front) and I got myself back into the tournament,” he added.
Birdies also came aplenty for Ababa and Bibat and for a number of contenders but they all failed to topple the reigning back-to-back The Country Club Invitational winner at the end of the another low-scoring day.
Ababa, at joint fifth after 18 holes, hit a pitch-in eagle on No. 18 then strung up three straight birdies at the turn before closing out with three birdies against a bogey in the last five holes for a 31-34.
Bibat shot two birdies at the back then dominated the front with four more, matching van der Valk’s closing birdies to get another crack at the crown after ruling the PGT Eagle Ridge leg last year.
“I practiced hard the week after Davao and focused on my short game and putting that’s why I played good in the first two days here,” said Bibat, one of Tour’s long hitters who wound up 17th at South Pacific.
“We have to take advantage (in driving) since its a ‘friendly’ course,” added the 2006 Asian Games bronze medalist, who highlighted his round with a scrambling par on No. 18 after going out of position in his first two shots.
For his part, Salahog said he’s more than ready to make up for his South Pacific meltdown and earn a stab at PGT glory.
“Mas matibay na ako ngayon pero dapat ma-maintain ang palo. Maganda naman lahat sa first two days,” said Salahog, who led in the first two rounds at South Pacific but closed out with 76-75 and fell to joint 11th.
Meanwhile, Villanueva blew a fiery backside start with a rocky finish, needing to birdie the par-5 No. 9 to save another 68.
From joint fifth after 18 holes, he quickly took command by playing the first three holes at the back in four-under par behind a crackling birdie-eagle-birdie run for 9-under overall. Behind his awesome power, he birdied the par-5 16th for the second straight day to firm up his lead.
But despite another solid drive on the dog-leg par-4 No. 1, he holed out with a bogey and he scrambled his way to the finish, yielding shots on Nos. 4 and 6 but gaining strokes on Nos. 5 and 9.