JAPAN’s Toru Nakajima teed off last and came out on top of the elite 30-player field, his two-under 70 netting him a two-stroke lead over Jhonnel Ababa and Angelo Que in the first round of The Country Club-Don Pocholo Razon Memorial Cup on Thursday at the TCC in Sta. Rosa, Laguna.
The new-look course proved tough with the local aces, including five of the six winners of what has been considered as one of the country’s premier championships, fumbling with over-par scores on a hot, breezy day.
“It’s a very difficult course, very long but beautiful and I’m enjoying it,” said Nakajima, one of the three foreigners given last-minute slots in what used to be an all-Filipino event.
“I’m happy to be given a chance to play in this tournament,” added Nakajima.
Nakajima came through with two birdies that anchored his impressive opening round at the Tom Weiskoph-designed layout.
Ababa had a back nine 31 spiked by a chip-in eagle on the par-5 No. 10 to bounce back from a disastrous opening 41.
Three-time winner Que shared second spot after a final hole bogey.
“I had a good start at the back and my putting clicked,” said Ababa, who chipped in for eagle from 35 yards then birdied Nos. 12, 17 and 18 inside six feet.
It was a big rebound after he stumbled with back-to-back double bogeys from No. 4 and dropping three strokes more against two birdies at the front.
Que, a three-time Asian Tour winner left as soon as he turned in his scorecard which revealed four birdies and two bogeys and a double-bogey.
Juvic Pagunsan tied for the lead at 36 at the turn but wavered with three bogeys and hobbled with a 75 for joint fourth with Miguel Tabuena, Justin Quiban and Arnold Villacencio.
Former winners Frankie Miñoza and Tony Lascuña stood another stroke adrift at 76, while Japan’s Ryoma Miki and Albin Engino carded identical 78s.
Orlan Sumcad shot a 79,while Dutchman Guido Van der Valk, Marvin Dumandan and Mhark Fernando carded 80s in the tournament put up by ICTSI chairman and president Ricky Razon in 2003 to honor the memory of his father, ICTSI founder Don Pocholo.
“Given the tough course and condition, I’m happy with my 76,” said Lascuña, winner of five events in last year’s ICTSI Philippine Golf Tour. “It will all depend on the ranking after the third round.”
Cassius Casas, winner of the inaugural of this event in 2003 and in 2014 before the TCC underwent a major facelift, shot himself in the foot with a 44 after nine holes and wound up with an 81 in a tie with Michael Bibat, Rufino Bayron and Jerson Balasabas.
“I’ll take it shot-for-shot and see what happens,” said Nakajima, who beat Jay Bayron in a playoff to win the ICTSI Wack Wack Championship in 2013.
The 32-year-old Japanese golfer mixed two birdies against the same number of bogeys at the front then birdied Nos. 10 and 17.
Ababa also hopes to sustain his solid finish, highlighted by a 20-foot birdie putt on the 18th that put him in early contention in the event also serving as the unofficial kickoff leg of this year’s local circuit.
“It’s a tough course, very long, windy and the greens are hard. Anything can happen here,” said Ababa, seeking an end to a long title spell.