Jhonnel Ababa went low to deal with the high wind that blew the bids of a slew of contenders, sizzling with a tournament-best 67 to shoulder past halfway leader Tony Lascuna and closer to snapping a spell on the Philippine Golf Tour.
The multi-titled ace from the noted Davao golfing clan surprisingly made it look easy at the Pradera Verde Golf and Country Club when the majority scrambled trying to come up with the right club selections on a wind-blown day in Lubao, Pampanga, and setting up birdie chances on the unreceptive surface. He birdied all four par-5s and added two more on Nos. 6 and 16 that more than made up for his lone mishap at the par-3 15th.
“My game was just super – driving, tee-shot, and putting. It’s also so nice to hit shots on the well-maintained fairways and when I look at greens, the holes seem to be so big and I felt it’s so easy to make birdies,” said Ababa in Filipino, whose back-to-back 71s and five-under card netted him a 54-hole aggregate of seven-under 209 and a two-shot cushion over Lascuna and Van der Valk heading to the final round of the ICTSI Pradera Verde Championship.
“I also dealt with the wind pretty well and stayed positive all day. I just hope to do it again tomorrow,” said Ababa,
The Calatagan pro, whose campaign is backed by the Borough Lasik Center, has not won since ruling the ICTSI Del Monte Championship in 2019 after coming off a prolific season when he won five titles, including four in PGT Asia and the inaugural ICTSI Club Filipino de Cebu Invitational, in 2018.
But it won’t be easy to break the slump as Van der Valk bucked what he termed as a “dull” backside stint to shoot a second straight 70 that proved enough to tie him at second with Lascuna, who settled for a 72, at 211, while Keanu Jahns sneaked into contention with a gutsy 71 for a 213.
“Irons no good,” rued Van der Valk, the Splendido Taal leg winner, who actually shot four birdies against a double bogey at the front to put himself back into contention. “But I had a very boring backnine – one three-putt bogey and a birdie. Other than those, a lot of birdie putts missed, so, I got to hit the iron a lot better because it’s been pretty bad in the week.”
“Hope I can get in the lead and stay unlike today where sadly I didn’t quite keep it up but Jhonnel played really well,” added the Manila-based Dutch ace.
Despite squandering the lead he anchored on a solid 70 Wednesday, Lascuna was more than satisfied salvaging an even par round and staying just within striking distance off his fellow Davaoeno.
“It’s tougher out there with the wind blowing from all over and the greens just wouldn’t bite. But overall, I think my game was okay and I believe that I still have a chance. I’ll just have to prepare and try to enjoy the game tomorrow,” said Lascuna, a four-time Order of Merit who is due for big win after back-to-back finishes at Eagle Ridge-Aoki and Riviera.
Two down halfway through the P2 million season-ending championship put up by ICTSI in a flight behind Lascuna, Van der Valk, and Art Arbole, Ababa tied for the lead with a birdie on the first par-5 (No. 3) coupled with Lascuna’s bogey on the fourth.
Birdies on the sixth and ninth kept Ababa on top but with a new co-leader in Van der Valk, who hit back-to-back birdies from Nos. 3 and 8 to negate a double bogey miscue on the seventh.
But while Ababa sustained his charge with three more birdies, including on the last two par-5s (Nos. 12 and 18), against a bogey for a 33-34, Van der Valk settled for a backside 36 for a 70 and stayed at joint second for the second straight day, this time with Lascuna, who birdied the 14th for a 72 after wresting control with 69-70.
Arbole succumbed while playing in the featured threesome, fumbling with eight bogeys and a double bogey against three birdies for a 79. He tumbled to joint 16th at 220 with Sean Ramos, who rallied with a 71, Dino Villanueva, who turned in a 75, and Mars Pucay, who stumbled with a 76.
Jahns fought back from a frontside 37 with two birdies in the last five holes as he carded a 71 to seize solo fourth at 213 while Angelo Que, in joint second with Van der Valk and Arbole after 36 holes, bogeyed two of the first three holes but shot two birdies against another bogey at the back for a 73.
The former three-time Asian Tour winner, who is gearing up for next week’s Asian Tour LIV golf leg in Morocco, dropped to joint fifth at 214, five strokes off Ababa, with Ira Alido, Gerald Rosales, and Reymon Jaraula, who fired 68, 70 and 71, respectively.
Legend Frankie Miñoza birdied the third to stay within striking distance of the leaders who changed hands practically in every swirl and twirl of the wind at the front until Ababa firmed his hold of it with a sustained attack at the back.
But Minoza ended up with a bogey-birdie card from No. 16 for a 71 in solo ninth at 215 while amateur Elee Bisera missed closing in on the leaders with disastrous stints on Nos. 9 and 18, both par-5s.
The Nomura Cup-bound Davaoeno shot three birdies against two bogeys after eight holes but double-bogeyed the ninth. He then posted another three-birdie, two-bogey card after seven holes at the back but also dropped two strokes on the finishing hole.
He wound up with a 74 and slipped to 10th at 216, seven strokes off Ababa.
The rest are too far behind to pose a threat with Eagle Ridge-Aoki leg winner Michael Bibat, who skipped the Riviera stop due to health issues, matching par 72 for a share of 11th with Josh Jorge, who turned in a 73 for a 217, just one stroke behind Bisera in there to remain in the hunt for low amateur honors in the event organized by Pilipinas Golf Tournaments, Inc.