Saso braces for ‘fun but major’ challenge as Founders Cup unwraps

Saso braces for ‘fun but major’ challenge as Founders Cup unwraps

Saso braces for 'fun but major' challenge as Founders Cup unwraps

MANILA, Philippines – More than the enjoyment and lessons she expects to relish and learn, Yuka Saso is embarking on another LPGA mission with lots of reckoning as she sets out against a major-like roster on a major-style course setup in the Cognizant Founders Cup firing off Thursday in West Caldwell, New Jersey (Friday, Manila time).

For one, world No. 1 and Olympic champion Nelly Korda is back after a much-deserved three-week break following a grueling campaign that brought her from all over and all but one of the world’s Top 15 players are vying in the $3 million championship, the first of the last four top-notch events in the season.

Pitted against two of South Korea’s leading players – Sei Young Kim, a 12-time LPGA winner, including the 2020 Women’s PGA Championship, and 2019 US Women’s Open champion Jeongeun Lee6, Saso will have a lot of fighting to do when they tee off at 8:10 a.m. on No. 1 of the par-71 Mountain Ridge Country Club which features a combination of short, medium and long par-3s, a number of par-4-and-a-half holes and one three-shot par-5.

“It’s been the same for me, I’m more about having fun,” said Saso.

But if one were to go over her finishes following her record major breakthrough in the US Women’s Open last June, the 20-year-old Fil-Japanese actually didn’t have much joy and relief to speak of.

She did post three top-5 efforts, including a share of fourth in Arkansas Championship last month. But on each time she would put herself in contention for a second title run, the ICTSI-backed ace would stumble and miss completing a strong finish.

That’s what happened in last week’s ShopRite LPGA Classic in Galloway, also in New Jersey, where she got into the mix with a first round 67 before slipping and fading with 70 and 69.

But many expect her to do better this week, the Founders Cup being a 72-hole championship where there would be room for rebound and for making adjustments.

But the event also features the return of Korda from a long respite, giving the rest of the stellar 132-player field added challenge and test aside from the layout, a new venue for the women of the tour with a major-style setup.

“There were so many weeks, so much travel, so much luggage that I had to get off the carousel that (my shoulder) was just overused and I needed to rest,” said Korda, who, along with majority of the campaigners, had hopped from one state to another then to France for the Evian Championship, to Japan for the Olympics, to Scotland for the Women’s Open and back to the US for the Solheim Cup in Ohio.

“My body has actually been pretty decent. My mind, I’ve definitely been very tired just because I have been in contention in big events, and you just go through so much pressure you just get a bit more tired. And the travel, different time zones, just kind of gets to you. I was definitely needing that break, needing to sleep in a little longer, which felt really nice.”

Rainfall the last few days also made the course longer than its 6,656 yardage.

“The greens are really big and undulated,” said Korda. “It’s going to play long. I know they’ve gotten a lot of rain recently so it’s soft, too. It’s playing kind of like a major because of the tough greens and the length.”

Korda tees off at 7:48 a.m. on the first hole with fellow American Stacy Lewis and Thai major winner Patty Tavatanakit.

But a slew of aces are also itching to get going, led by 2019 champion and former Korean world No. 1 Jin Young Ko, Lexi Thompson of the US, Koreans Inbee Park and Hyo Joo Kim, American Jessica Korda, returning Evian Championship winner Minjee Lee of Australia, Canada’s Brooke Henderson, Madelene Sagstrom of Sweden, American Danielle Kang, Swede Anna Nordqvist, Ariya Jutanugarn of Thailand, Germany’s Sophia Popov, Jodi Shadoff of England, last week’s winner Celine Boutier of France and Japanese Nasa Hataoka, who missed the cut in in ShopRite Classic after winning the Arkansas Championship the previous week.

Only world No. 8 Lydia Ko of New Zealand has opted to skip the event.

Meanwhile, Dottie Ardina has salvaged a spot in the star-studded, rich event and will play alongside Daniella Darquea of Ecuador and American Wenyung Keh at 8:54 a,m., also on No. 1, but fellow ICTSI player Bianca Pagdanganan failed to land a spot as a reserved entry.

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