Thai prodigy Phachara Khongwatmai stayed on track to win a first Asian Tour title after carding a one-under-par 69 in the penultimate round of the Asia-Pacific Diamond Cup on Saturday.
The overnight leader, who is only 17 years old, traded three birdies against two bogeys to continue his one-shot lead with an eight-under-par 202 total at the highly-acclaimed Ibaraki Country Club’s West course.
Local prospect Ippei Koike reeled off 17 straight pars before closing with a birdie to put himself in second place on his own at the ¥150 million (approximately US$1.3 million) event sanctioned by the Asian Tour and the Japan Golf Tour.
Korea’s Younghan Song, a one-time Asian Tour winner, returned with the day’s best score of 65 to stay three shots off the pace in third alongside Japan’s Kazuhiro Yamashita, who signed for a 69, at the Asia-Pacific Diamond Cup.
Thitiphun Chuayprakong of Thailand and Daisuke Kataoka of Japan, who posted rounds of 71 and 69 respectively, were amongst those bunched in fifth place on 206 in the Japanese showpiece.
“I am just disappointed with my iron-play. The rest was good, especially my short game. I wasn’t thinking much. I just played my own game. I told myself that I am playing against myself, not other players. I was focused on shooting under-par today,” smiled Phachara, who became the youngest winner on the Asian Development Tour at the age of 15.
Playing in the event on a sponsor’s invitation, Phachara impressed with a brilliantly controlled round where he fired two birdies in his opening four holes before dropping a shot on fifth. He went on to add a birdie against a bogey on his way home.
“I wasn’t feeling nervous. Nothing much was going through my mind really. I only looked at the leaderboard when I came up to the 18th green. If I win tomorrow, it’s good for me. But if I don’t, it’s alright. It has been a great experience for me so far,” said the chilled-out Thai.
“It was pretty challenging out there. I kept hitting it close to the bunkers and near the water hazards. I could have easily shot over-par with the way I am hitting my irons today but I am glad I managed to hang in there. I will keep things the same tomorrow. Nothing changes,” Phachara added.
Koike, who is chasing for a breakthrough win, lamented a cold putter but took it in his stride as he scored his first birdie on the last hole 18 after sinking 17 straight pars.
“I played really well but I just couldn’t make putts. I missed about five or six birdie chances. The birdie on last was a relief. The golf course was playing difficult so I had to stay patient. If I can avoid making bogeys tomorrow, I should be in a good position,” said the 31-year-old Japanese.
Thitiphun was well in contention before stumbling with a double-bogey on 16 and a bogey on 17. Despite the setback, the 24-year-old Thai believes he still has a fighting chance to shoot for a second Asian Tour title on Sunday.
“I was hoping to play with Phachara in the final round but unfortunately I didn’t play well on the last few holes. The right ankle still hurts but I tried not to think about it. I actually played well before making costly mistakes on 16 and 17.
“It’s great to see Phachara leading and playing so well. It motivates me to play well too. I gained a lot of confidence after winning in Bangladesh and I know I have the capabilities to win tournaments now. The season has been good so far. I hope to make it even sweeter with a good result tomorrow,” said Thitiphun.
Scores after round 3 of the Asia-Pacific Diamond Cup being played at the par 70, 7320 Yards Ibaraki CC course (am – denotes amateur):
202 – Phachara KHONGWATMAI (THA) 66-67-69.
203 – Ippei KOIKE (JPN) 67-67-69.
205 – Younghan SONG (KOR) 72-68-65, Kazuhiro YAMASHITA (JPN) 69-67-69.
206 – Brad KENNEDY (AUS) 71-66-69, Daisuke KATAOKA (JPN) 68-69-69, Satoshi KODAIRA (JPN) 64-72-70, Thitiphun CHUAYPRAKONG (THA) 66-69-71.
207 – Tetsuji HIRATSUKA (JPN) 66-71-70, Sanghyun PARK (KOR) 68-68-71, Toru TANIGUCHI (JPN) 70-66-71, Michio MATSUMURA (JPN) 72-63-72.
208 – Katsumasa MIYAMOTO (JPN) 70-72-66, Hideto TANIHARA (JPN) 67-73-68, LIANG Wen-chong (CHN) 71-69-68, Richard T. LEE (CAN) 70-70-68, Tadahiro TAKAYAMA (JPN) 70-70-68, CHAN Shih-chang (TPE) 71-68-69, Hidemasa HOSHINO (JPN) 71-67-70, Nicholas FUNG (MAS) 69-69-70, Takashi IWAMOTO (JPN) 66-71-71, Thaworn WIRATCHANT (THA) 69-68-71, Ryuko TOKIMATSU (JPN) 69-66-73, Shugo IMAHIRA (JPN) 65-69-74, Rikuya HOSHINO (JPN) 68-66-74.