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Yukari Baba’s last win on the JLPGA, in the 2011 Japan Women’s Open, was her 1st major and 3rd victory in her now-10 full seasons on tour, and it capped off a run of 3-straight seasons during which she finished in the top 10 on the money list. She hasn’t played badly the last 2 years, hanging around the tour’s top 20, but today she’s put herself in a position to return to the tour’s elite. Baba fired her 2nd-straight 68 in the Daio Paper Elleair Ladies, highlighted by an eagle on the short par-5 17th, to take a 1-shot lead on Yuri Fudoh and Momoko Ueda and a 2-shot lead on Sun-Ju Ahn, who also notched an eagle today, on the short par-5 5th. With the 3 former money-list leaders all matching her 68, Baba has her work cut out for her on the weekend. But you’ve got to beat the best to join the best.
Speaking of which, current money-list leader Sakura Yokomine matched Shiho Oyama’s opening 67 to catch her at -4, along with the woman who led the money list for most of the year, Rikako Morita, and Ji-Hee Lee, a 3-time runner-up on the money list. Ex-LPGAers Na-Ri Kim and Mizuno Classic champion Teresa Lu also made nice moves to pull within 5 of the lead, joining the 17 players in Baba’s lead chase pack.
There was a surprising amount of drama around the cut line, as well. It looked for most of the day that #51 on the money list Saiki Fujita would miss the cut and give #50 Ayako Uehara a new lease on keeping her JLPGA card. But Fujita eagled 17 and made the cut on the number. #4 on the money list Miki Saiki wasn’t so fortunate–even though she birdied 5 of her last 10 holes today, she missed the cut by a single shot. Joining Saiki on the wrong side of the cut line were #63 Yuko Mitsuka and #70 Shinobu Moromizato, who needed great finishes this week to have a hope of breaking into the top 50. Heartbreakingly, Moromizato eagled 17 but bogeyed 18 to join Saiki 1 shot shot of making the cut.
So who can knock Uehara out? #52 Mihoko Iseri has the best chance, as she’s currently -3 and T13. #56 Hiroko Azuma is -2 and T19, but needs to finish very high up the leaderboard to leapfrog enough people. Despite making a double and a bogey down the stretch today, #53 Ji-Woo Lee joined Fujita on the right side of the cut line. And if the JLPGA counts #55 Ueda’s winnings, she, too, can jump into the top 50 (or qualify for the season-ending Ricoh Cup with a win).
All I can say is it’s a good thing Uehara had a good 1st round in Naples! It’s looking more and more likely she’ll need to go to JLPGA Q-School to maintain her membership on tour in 2014. Winning LPGA Rookie of the Year would take the sting out of that a bit, eh?