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Yuka Saso

Saso tumbles with 77; Shibuno clings onto Open lead despite 74

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Everybody was expecting, not necessarily the same but at least within range of her stirring stint at Cypress Creek the first time out. But two early mishaps had hinted at the coming of a bleak, dreary day for Yuka Saso.

It did as the Fil-Japanese failed to rise in a day of soaring scores, wobbling with a six-over 77 Saturday to all but bow out of the chase for the US Women’s Open diadem that is up for grabs for at least eight bidders in Houston, Texas.

Hinako Shibuno held on to the lead despite a 74 in a day when par is a norm as the par-71 course played longer than its 6635 yardage due to heavy rains after Friday’s second round with the surviving 66-player field scrambling in club selections and control of the mud-splattered ball.

Saso, who stayed in Top 6 with a second round 71 at Jackrabbit, dropped two strokes early on Nos. 3 and 4 and made the turn at 38 in stark contrast to her opening four-under 32 in taming the Cypress frontside in an impressive 69 start marred by two late bogeys Thursday.

Things got worse at the back for the ICTSI-backed ace, who had dished out stirring rallies in her amateur days and in her recent rookie campaign in the LPGA of Japan Tour as she bogeyed No. 10, yielded two strokes on the par-4 11th and put to naught a lone birdie on the 12th with bogeys on Nos. 15 and 18.

Saso actually missed just three fairways after toning down her power off the tee to an average of 241 yards. But she wrestled with her irons in challenging conditions, missing eight greens and finishing with 33 putts after a pair of 29s in the first two days. She also failed to rescue pars from the bunkers twice.

With a 217 total, Saso tumbled to a share of 25th after putting herself in Top 4 and Top 6 in the first two days, falling eight strokes off Shibuno, who hit just one birdie against four bogeys, including at the start and on the last hole, for that 74 and a 209.

Amy Olson, who spiked her first 18 holes with an ace on Cypress’ No. 16 but reeled back with a second round 72, got back into the thick of things with a gutsy 71 she highlighted with birdies on Nos. 13 and 17. She threatened Shibuno at 210 with six others still in the hunt for the hefty $1 million purse out of the $5.5 million total prize in the last major championship in pandemic-hit season.

From tied 47th after 36 holes, Korean Ji Yeong Kim2 moved into joint third with Thai Moriya Jutanugarn, who carded a 72, with a day’s best 67, a bogey-free 34-33 that was rare as gem in a punishing day.

Kiwi Lydia Ko and American Yealimi Noh shot identical 72s and remained tied at 213, just four shots off Shibuno, with Megan Khang and fellow American amateur Kaitlyn Papp, who turned in similar 74s.

World No. 1 Jin Young Ko likewise gave herself a crack at the coveted crown with a 71, improving to joint ninth at 214 with fellow Koreans Hae Ran Ryu, who fired a 70, A Lim Kim, who came up with a 72, and world No. 2 Sei Young Kim, who carded a 73, along with American Cristie Kerr and Thai Ariya Jutanugarn, who shot identical 74s.

But focus will be on Shibuno, nicknamed the “Smiling Cinderella” for her ever-beguiling smile that made the headlines after she bested the field and snatched the British Open in her first Major campaign last year.

“I made a mistake at the very beginning and because I’m not doing well today (Saturday), my premise wasn’t good,” Shibuno said about how a first-hole bogey disrupted her mindset and game plan. “So all the holes seems to be very difficult for me.”

Yet, she still managed to flash that now-famed grin after the round that had Ko, who became the youngest at 17 to become world No. 1 in 2015 and two-time Major champion, commenting: “I feel like it’s either a poker face or she’s that smiling assassin.”

Her third round playing partner Papp added: “Her demeanor was great. She was really neutral the whole day, never got too high or too low, depending on how she did on a certain hole. I think that’s what impressed me the most about playing with her.”

But the final round of a US Women’s Open isn't for the soft-hearted for the tough and mighty, for those with steely nerves and resolve and Shibuno will be as much tested, along with Saso, in Sunday’s finale that could go beyond the last 18 holes. Jeanne Cortez

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