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PGT: Michael Bibat takes command with solid 68 in Luisita

Michael Bibat bucked the heat and endured a year-long wait, flashing top form to fire a solid four-under 68 and wrest a one-stroke lead over Miguel Tabuena at the start of the ICTSI Luisita Championship at the Luisita Golf and Country Club in Tarlac on Tuesday.

Bibat carried out a well-laid plan to dominate the long, challenging Robert Trent Jones, Sr-designed layout, keeping the ball in play and hitting superb approach shots that set up a number of chances, four of which he birdied to seize control of the compact 48-player field and the event that marked the resumption of the Philippine Golf Tour.

“I think what I did right was to keep the ball in play considering the course is tough and long. My driving was okay and hit the right approach shots,” said Bibat, who placed fifth in the last PGT event ruled by Tabuena at Eagle Ridge-Aoki in March 2021.

Tabuena shrugged off a wobbly start to card a 69 and stalk Bibat while Nilo Salahog shot birdies linking both nines but flubbed a par-saving putt from close range on the 18th to settle for a 71 for joint third with Jhonnel Ababa and rookie pro Sean Ramos.

Ababa, who went into farming during the long break, mixed two birdies against a bogey while Ramos rebounded from a bogey on No. 2 with three birdies but missed seizing solo third with another mishap on Luisita’s signature par-3 17th.

“We’re thankful for the tour resumption. I hit it pretty well but struggled with my putting,” rued Ababa, a multi-titled campaigner in the circuit organized by Pilipinas Golf Tournaments, Inc.

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Ramos, a former national team mainstay, relished the chance to compete with the best and dished out a fine start, saying: “It was really a good experience. It’s amazing playing against the top players and I’m happy with how I played.”

Rupert Zaragosa also bogeyed the 17th to end up with a 72 and fall into a tie with former Philippine Open champion Clyde Mondilla and last year’s runner-up Zanieboy Gialon, while Jay Bayron, Joenard Rates, Marvin Dumandan, and Reymon Jaraula struggled with 73s and the likes of Tony Lascuña, Frankie Miñoza, Johvanie Abaño, former Masters winner Jerson Balasabas, Anthony Fernando, and amateur Perry Bucay turned in identical 74s to typify their struggle due to lack of competitive play.

But Bibat stayed in shape during the long lull and whipped himself up to fighting form through regular practice and training at Southwoods. The former winner at PGT Pueblo de Oro underscored his readiness to vie for another championship by birdieing Nos. 11, 13, and 15 in a sizzling backside start. He then snapped a par-game with another birdie on the seventh while ruing a couple of missed chances on the layout’s long holes.

But he liked where he stood and hoped to at least duplicate his feat in Wednesday’s second round in an attempt to build some cushion heading to the crucial stretch of the 72-hole, P2 million championship put up by ICTSI.

“Plan is to put it (ball) somewhere where I can score better and give myself chances again. So, it’s a question of positioning, hopefully, it leads to another same score,” he added.

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In contrast, Tabuena stumbled coming off a long layoff, bogeying two of the first three holes and bracing for a long, tough day on a course where he reigned at least three times, including in the 2015 Philippine Open. But he quickly regained his bearing, re-claiming the strokes with birdies on Nos. 5 and 6.

After three pars to close out the front side, he birdied the 10th then dominated the last two par-5s (Nos. 12 and 16) to put himself back in early contention.

“It was very hot and getting hydrated was my priority,” said Tabuena, who unlike the rest last played last December on the Asian Tour restart.

“Pretty glad that we’re able to get back on tour, especially here,” added Tabuena, who unlike Ababa struggled off the mound but flourished on the greens. “My driving was so-so but my putting was okay. Overall, my game is still a bit rusty and there’s still a lot of work to do. Still, I was very happy with the way I played.”

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