Iloilo—Rupert Zaragosa recovered his touch, kept his poise then produced clutch shots that checked an impending frontside skid, leading to a 68 and a two-stroke lead over an equally gutsy Elee Bisera midway through the ICTSI Iloilo Golf Challenge presented by MORE Power here on Thursday.
A late birdie and a brave run of pars spiked Zaragosa’s closing 36, more than preserving his superb backside 32 marred by a bogey on No. 10 but marked by a three-birdie binge from No. 12 as the diminutive but talented former national champion moved 36 holes away from scoring a career breakthrough on the Philippine Golf Tour.
“I’m not going to pressure myself. I will just follow the game plan, my routine and hopefully, I’ll be able to produce good results (in the last two days),” said Zaragosa, who took charge by one over Ferdie Aunzo with a first round 65 and padded his lead to two on a 36-hole aggregate of seven-under 133 at the Iloilo Golf and Country Club.
Breathing down his neck are two unlikely contenders who both missed the cut at Marapara last week but are now in hot pursuit of a maiden victory with back-to-back under-par rounds in the P2.25 million event put up by ICTSI and organized by Pilipinas Golf Tournaments, Inc.
Bisera, a rookie pro, followed up his opening 67 with a 68 to grab second place at 135 while Paul Echavez, looking for a first win in 14 years, holed out with back-to-back birdies to fire a 67 and tied fancied Guido van der Valk, who shot a 65, at third at 136.
Zanieboy Gialon pulled within one off Zaragosa with a scorching four-birdie run in the first seven holes at the front but drove out-of-bounds on the eighth and made a double-bogey then missed an eight-footer for par on the last to tumble to fifth at 137 after a 67.
After making the backside turn at 32, Zaragosa stepped up his assault on the challenging par-70 layout with a birdie on No. 1.
But he lost his putting touch and bogeyed the next two on three putt miscues and scrambled with a birdie-bogey-birdie card in the next three before holding sway with three straight pars.
“After making those three-putt bogeys, I told myself that I needed to focus on the allowance and speed (of the greens). So I was able to birdie two of the next three,” said Zaragosa, who also led in the middle rounds in the PGT bubble tournament at Riviera-Couples in 2021 but lost to Lascuna by four.
This time, he believes he would need a six-under card in last two days to join the elite circle of Tour winners.
But Bisera also continued to show flashes of brilliance and resiliency as he rebounded with birdies on Nos. 6 and 14 after blowing a two-birdie feat in the first three holes with back-to-back bogeys from No. 4.
He then put himself in strong contention with a slew of scrambling pars at the back.
“‘Di naman ako nasiraan ng loob dun sa mga bogeys ko. Nilaro ko lang shot-by-shot at hole-by-hole. Pagdating sa backnine, madami akong na-save na pars,” said Bisera, who miserably fared at Marapara with 74-79. “Basta focus lang at mag-enjoy sa laro, baka sakali.”
Echavez, who missed the cut last week by just one stroke, also hopes to sustain his two-day fine display of shotmaking and short game in an attempt to surpass his career-best fourth place effort at Anvaya Cove in 2015.
“Dapat lang mag-ingat sa driving at around the green,” said Echavez, who gunned down six birdies against three bogeys, including a three-putt mishap.
But if there’s one player likely to make a charge in moving day, it is van der Valk, whose blistering 65 anchored on solid iron play put the recent The Country Club Invitational winner within sight of Zaragosa after a so-so 71 Wednesday.
“I hit the ball close to the flag, actually with most of my shots into the green. So my iron play was really good, except for a couple of swings that I missed the greens,” said van der Valk, who drained three birdies within three feet and could’ve shot lower if not for a couple of missed putts. “I had a lot more chances but on these greens, there’s so much slope in them and it’s not that easy,” he added. “I hit good recovery shots on Nos. 3 and 5, then I had long putts for par, so the bogeys were well-deserved.”
Tony Lascuna, who lost by one to Ira Alido at Marapara, needed to birdie No. 9 to save a 69 as he tied Sean Ramos, who fumbled with a late bogey for a 68, at seventh at 139, while Jay Bayron and Michael Bibat matched 70s and Reymon Jaraula faltered with a 73 for 140s as the rest of the top guns struggled on the layout’s tricky surface for the second straight day and remained way off the pace.
Aunzo, whose impressive 66 put him just a shot off Zaragosa, limped with a 76 in a big 10-shot turnaround that dropped the former amateur standout to joint 14th with Albin Engino (69) at 142. Alido made the Top 40 and ties cut at joint 36th despite a 76 for 149, the same output put in by last week’s title contender Frankie Minoza and Arnold Villacencio, who battled back with 71 and 73, respectively.
Grabbing the last three spots in the final two rounds with 150s were Ivan Monsalve, Jonas Magcalayo and Dan Cruz, who put in 75, 77 and 78, respectively, while among those who missed the cut were PGT Q-School topnotcher Rho Hyun Ho of Korea (75-152) and rookies Kristoffer Arevalo (77-157), Russel Bautista (78-158).