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Saso, Ardina way off pace; Zhang takes command

MANILA, Philippines -- Yuka Saso and Dottie Ardina failed to get cracking on moving day when majority of the rest stepped up their respective bids in near-ideal conditions, ending up with 71 and 74, respectively, and bowing out of the Maybank Championship title race in Malaysia Saturday.

But the battle for the crown remains as tight and fierce as ever, with LPGA Tour rookie and former amateur hotshot Rose Zhang pulling ahead of the stellar pack with a brilliant 65 capped by a big par-save on the 17th and a birdie on the closing par-5 hole of the Kuala Lumpur Golf and Country Club.

Winner of the Mizuho Americas Open last June, Zhang zeroed in on her second championship with a 54-hole total of 18-under 198, one stroke ahead of a hot-charging Atthaya Thitikul and Jasmine Suwannapura, both of Thailand, who matched 199s after a solid 62 and a gutsy 67, respectively.

Korean Sei Young Kim also fired a 65 to move to solo fourth at 201, while Japanese Nasa Hataoka also fought back with a bogey-free 64 to tie American Megan Khang, who sizzled with a 65, at fifth with 202s.

Saso, who put herself in the early mix with a 67 Thursday but fell to joint 30th with a second round 73, bogeyed the par-5 third hole which she eagled in the previous round. Though she recovered the stroke on the next, the ICTSI-backed 2021 US Women’s Open champion missed a couple of chances in the next six holes then bogeyed the par-3 No. 11.

But she struck back with birdies on Nos. 13 and 14 but wound up with four straight pars for a 36-35 and a three-day haul of 211, 13 strokes off Zhang at tied 40th.

Ardina, who rebounded from a 73 with a 68, never recovered from a par-bogey-par-bogey start, yielding another stroke on No. 12 before hitting her first and only birdie in the day on No. 14 for a share of 58th with 215.
Ardina actually wrestled with her irons and wedge shots, missing 11 greens although she saved a number of shots with a 26-putt performance.

A final round shootout, however, looms with Zhang pressed to deliver against two of Thailand’s top players. For one, Thitikul seeks to dish out another impeccable iron play after hitting all 18 greens in the third round and finishing with 26 putts.