JOENARD Rates produced a rare two-eagle feat in a round in varying fashions and spiked a fiery seven-under 65 with a three birdie-binge from No. 12 to seize a four-stroke lead over Jhonnel Ababa and young Korean Rho Hyun Ho at the start of the ICTSI Villamor Philippine Masters at the Villamor Golf Club yesterday.
He actually missed tying the course record set by Vic Santia in the late 1990s with a flubbed downhill putt from 12 feet on the par-5 18th but his brilliant 34-31 highlighted by eagles on the par-5 No. 8 and on the par-4 15th in sweltering heat proved enough to net him a big cushion in pursuit of a first Philippine Golf Tour crown since 2018.
Ababa also shot an eagle on the par-5 No. 2 but fumbled with three frontside birdies although he recovered in time with a four-birdie binge at the back to shoot a 69 and match flightmate Ho’s three-under card for joint second in the P2.5 million championship which used to be part of the country’s version of four majors.
Comebacking Toru Nakajima also hit two late backside birdies to card a 70 for a share of fourth with Reymon Jaraula, Nilo Salahog and back-to-back The Country Club Invitational champion Guido van der Valk, while Keanu Jahns, runner-up to absentee Tony Lascuña in the inaugural Villamor Match Play Invitational last November, bucked a two-over 38 card with a birdie-eagle feat from No. 12 to lead the 71 scorers, who included pro-am winner Jay Bayron, Marvin Dumandan, Rolando Marabe, Jr. and Gerald Rosales.
But the day belonged to Rates, who flourished despite lack of competitive play in the first five legs of this year’s circuit organized by Pilipinas Golf Tournaments, Inc.
“I really didn’t expect to score this low. I just tried to relax and hit as many fairways and greens,” said Rates, who battled back from six shots down in regulation then edged Finland’s Janne Kaske on the second playoff hole to snatch the PGT Asia Summit Crown in Lipa City, Batangas five years ago.
But he has struggled since, going winless in 2019 and in bubble tournaments during the pandemic. The diminutive shotmaker from Mt. Malarayat skipped the Visayan swing of this year’s circuit due to illness, wound up 26th at Caliraya Springs and didn’t see action again in the recent Luisita Championship.
Decision-making also played a big role to his early surge. Holding a 2-iron while facing a 232-yard second shot on the par-5 No. 8, he opted for a 5-wood to battle the gust, the ball landing on the right side of the green and kicking to the left 10 feet way past the hole.
He drained the putt for eagle then snapped a three-par run with a birdie-birdie-birdie spree, including a tap-in on No. 13 and a 25-footer on the next. He then went for conservative play on the short but tight par-4 No. 15, hitting his 5-iron tee shot to the center of the fairway then hacking a 9-iron approach from 115 yards that went it.
“We didn’t see it drop but I knew it was on target,” he said.
A couple of unfancied bets also appeared on the mark as they set the pace with superb backside starts but amateur Gary Sales and Lucio Osabel floundered in frontside finishes on a flat but tight course that punishes even the slightest of mistakes.
Rebounding from a double-bogey mishap on the par-3 12th with an eagle on the next and a birdie on the 14th, Sales charged into the mix with a birdie-birdie feat from No. 1. But the owner of Villamor pro shops reeled back with bogeys on Nos. 3, 5 and 9 and slipped to joint 13th instead with 72 in a tie with Art Arbole, Rico Depilo and Bonifacio Salahog.
Impressive with a five-birdie, one-bogey card at the back, Osabel dropped six strokes in the last six holes, marred by a double bogey on the par-4 No. 5 for a 42 and a 74 to fall to the group of Frankie Minoza, Elmer Saban, Russell Bautista, Dan Cruz, Fidel Concepcion and Jelbert Gamolo behind Korean Kim Seong Guk, Gabriel Manotoc, Elmer Salvador and Kuresh Samanodi, who matched 73s.