Guido van der Valk employed an early backside slip to ignite yet another scorching frontside run, securing a second consecutive 66 and maintaining his grasp on the lead midway through the ICTSI Mimosa Plus Championship in Pampanga on Wednesday.
The lead changed hands multiple times during both the early and late stages of the round on another blistering day. However, Jhonnel Ababa fell short by just one stroke, matching van der Valk’s total of 132 despite setting a new course record of 65 at Mimosa Plus’ Acacia, finishing at 133.
Michael Bibat briefly seized the lead at 10-under 134 with a solid six-under card, but it was short-lived as the Dutchman charged home with back-to-back birdies, capping a splendid closing frontside marked by a three-birdie spree from No. 3.
Nonetheless, the title chase remains tightly contested heading into the last 36 holes of the season-ending P2 million championship. Nilo Salahog maintained his bid for a Philippine Golf Tour breakthrough with a 135 after a 68, and Dino Villanueva, despite squandering a nearly perfect start and finishing with a second 68, stayed in contention for his maiden win with a total of 136.
Reymon Jaraula, the runaway winner of the Valley leg, slowed down with a 70 following a 67 but remained in contention at 137, tied with young Sean Ramos, who also shot a 66. Paul Echavez and Elmer Salvador matched 68s, while Kristoffer Arevalo and Keanu Jahns produced a pair of 69s, resulting in a joint eighth-place finish at 138.
Japanese Toru Nakajima and Korean Min Seong Kim, who were in the early mix with 67 and 68, respectively, faced tougher conditions and finished with 72 and 71, dropping to joint 12th at 139 along with Marvin Dumandan, Rupert Zaragosa, and Elee Bisera, who all carded 70s, and Luis Bagtas, who turned in a 70.
Taiwanese Ting Yu Chen struggled with a 79 after a 67, falling to a tie for 33rd place at 146 but still making the cut at 147.
For a brief moment, Bagtas threatened to shake up the competition with a scorching frontside 32. However, he faltered with three bogeys in a birdie-less backside stretch, falling off the leaderboard.
Nonetheless, at Acacia, any player has the potential to excel, especially the big hitters, setting the stage for an exciting conclusion to the 72-hole championship, which is the 10th leg of this year’s circuit organized by Pilipinas Golf Tournaments, Inc. and sponsored by PGTI official apparel Kampfortis Golf.
No player enters the pivotal round with more confidence than van der Valk. He stated, “I started slow and three-putted No. 10. I think it was because of the rain Tuesday night. The greens were a bit slower at the beginning of the day and they dried up a little bit.” He managed to birdie the 16th to salvage a 36, allowing others to challenge for the top spot.
However, he turned his game around as he made the turn, saying, “I really hit good shots (at the back) but I just didn’t hole anything. It was quite frustrating but I knew that if I keep it hitting it good, the birdies will come.” And they did.
He birdied the first hole, nearly aced the par-3 No. 3, recorded a birdie on No. 4, and gained another stroke on the par-5 next before finishing with back-to-back birdies. “It’s a nice little run, and I managed a six-under (on the front) and got myself back into the tournament,” he added.
Ababa and Bibat also enjoyed a flurry of birdies, but they, along with other contenders, failed to surpass the reigning back-to-back The Country Club Invitational winner by the end of another day of low scores.
Ababa, who was joint fifth after 18 holes, made a pitch-in eagle on No. 18 and followed it up with three consecutive birdies at the turn, closing with three birdies and one bogey in the last five holes for a 31-34 score.
Bibat recorded two birdies on the back nine and dominated the front with four more, matching van der Valk’s closing birdies and giving him another chance at the crown after winning the PGT Eagle Ridge leg last year. He said, “I practiced hard the week after Davao and focused on my short game and putting, that’s why I played well in the first two days here,” highlighting his round with a scrambling par on No. 18 after errant shots.
Salahog expressed his readiness to make up for his South Pacific performance and contend for PGT glory, saying, “Mas matibay na ako ngayon pero dapat ma-maintain ang palo. Maganda naman lahat sa first two days,” referring to his performance in the first two rounds at South Pacific, where he led but ultimately finished joint 11th after closing with 76-75.
Meanwhile, Villanueva started with a fiery back nine but experienced a rocky finish, needing to birdie the par-5 No. 9 to salvage another 68. He initially took command by playing the first three holes at the back in four-under par, featuring a birdie-eagle-birdie run for a 9-under overall score. He birdied the par-5 16th for the second consecutive day to solidify his lead. However, despite a solid drive on the dog-leg par-4 No. 1, he finished with a bogey and had to scramble his way to the finish, giving up shots on Nos. 4 and 6 but gaining strokes on Nos. 5 and 9.