STA. ROSA, Laguna - Jerson Balasabas birdied the tough par-3 17th to save an eagle-spiked 72 then watched his rivals fumble at the finish to wrest a one-stroke lead in an early test of will and wits in hot, windy conditions at the start of the rich The Country Club Invitational here Tuesday.
Balasabas, seeking to check a dip in form after scoring a breakthrough in the Philippine Masters last year, hit a pitch-in eagle on the par-4 No. 1 and went three-under with a birdie on the par-3 third hole. But like the rest of the select 30-player field in this P5 million championship, he stumbled in other baffling holes of the demanding Tom Weiskoph-designed layout, specifically on two other par 3s which he bogeyed (No. 6) and double bogeyed (No. 11).
He gained a stroke with another birdie on No. 13 but fell off the leaderboard with back-to-back bogeys from No. 15 before moving on top again with that birdie on the 17th to set the pace in the 72-hole championship kicking off the Philippine Golf Tour's milestone 10th season.
"After hitting the green, it bounced once and rolled into the cup," said Balasabas, referring to his rare eagle feat on the water-laced opening hole off an 8-iron shot from 158 yards. "The strong wind is but a normal thing here but it was super hot out there."
The lead kept changing hands as the buffeting wind changed its direction, forcing the bidders to adjust with their respective club selections while trying to set up birdie chances on difficult pin placements as the course kept its reputation as one of the toughest with no one able to break par.
Clyde Mondilla, winner in the Solaire Philippine Open here three weeks ago, appeared headed to keeping his familiar spot with a two-under card after 10 holes. But he bogeyed the next, regained the stroke on No. 13, only to drop strokes on Nos. 14, 16 and 17 and fall to joint second with 73 with Angelo Que and Tony Lascuña in the event also known as the Don Pocholo Razon Memorial Cup put up by ICTSI chair Ricky Razon in 2003 to honor the memory of his father and ICTSI founder.
Except for Balasabas and Peter Stojanovski of Macedonia, the rest of the early contenders floundered on the par-72 layout's tough finishing holes with three-time champion Que and former winner Lascuña holing out with bogeys and missing joining Balasabas on top.
Some, however, struggled early, including reigning PGT Order of Merit champion Jobim Carlos, who made a horrific "13" on the tight, tricky par-4 No. 4 with a hazard on the right and out-of-bounds on the left.
"You can actually see the green off the mound but you have to be extra cautious and precise in your shot to avoid getting into trouble. I just felt sad it happened to me," rued Carlos, who lost five balls on the hole on three OBs and two wayward drives on his way to an 85.
Jhonnel Ababa birdied Nos. 13 and 14 to recover from a three-over par round but bogeyed No. 15 to settle for a 74 for joint fifth with Keanu Jahns, who also bogeyed No. 18, while Korean Kim Joo Hyung also birdied Nos. 13 and 14 but bogeyed the last two to slip to a share of seventh at 75 with Aussie Tim Stewart, who bogeyed No. 16, and Stojanovski, who hit a birdie on No. 16.
Juvic Pagunsan mixed three birdies against the same number of bogeys at the front then birdied the par-5 10th to erase the stigma of his woeful 11 that cut short his stint in the Philippine Open and gain a share of the lead. But the former Asian number one fell with a thud again with a wobbly finish, bogeying No. 14 and dropping two strokes on the next before closing out with three straight bogeys.
He wound up with a 77 for joint 13th with Jay Bayron and one stroke behind the 76 scorers who included Albin Engino, Justin Quiban and Pete Vilairatana of the US.
Korean-American Micah Shin, who edged absentee and 2017 winner Miguel Tabuena by one to become the first non-Filipino winner of this event, recovered from a 41 start with birdies on Nos. 10, 12 and 14.
But he double-bogeyed the long par-4 16th and dropped three strokes on the 18th to limp with a 79 for joint 17th with Michael Bibat, James Ryan Lam and Nilo Salahog, a stroke behind American Lexus Keoninh and Dutch Guido Van der Valk, who hobbled with 78s.