TRINITY, Texas—Malaysian team captain Zulkifli Ismail had modest expectations headed into The Spirit International Amateur Golf Championship. When the week began, Ismail said he would be pleased with a top-10 finish.
After Friday’s second round at Whispering Pines, Malaysia has its sights set on a much higher goal.
Paced by Michelle Koh’s five birdies, Malaysia shot a combined 11-under par to storm into contention in the country’s first Spirit appearance since 2003. Through 36 holes, Malaysia trails the U.S. Team by two shots headed into Saturday’s final round.
The U.S. leads the International Team Division with a score of 23-under-par 265. Malaysia, which started the second round seven shots back of the U.S., is 21-under.
"We’re in a perfect position,” said Malaysia’s Kelly Tan, who birdied the 16th and 17th holes to give her team momentum headed into Saturday. "We didn’t even think about where we were on the leaderboard today. We’re just trying to play our best and birdie every hole.”
They didn’t quite accomplish that, but they came close. Between Tan, Koh and their two teammates—Gavin Green and Abel Tam—Malaysia birdied 12 of its 18 holes in the second round.
"We’re playing really good,” Koh said. "The course is playing tough, but it’s the same for everyone. Everyone has a chance out there. It will come down to putting. The team with the best putters will be the ones who win it.”
Heavy rains on Wednesday and Thursday shorted the championship to 54 holes. The final round begins Saturday at 8:30 a.m.
France also made a move Friday with a combined score of 14-under par. France sits in third place at 19-under overall. South Africa, which shot 8-under Friday, is in fourth place at 17-under.
The U.S. Team seemed to be in command after the prolonged first round. Because of the weather it took three days to complete the first round, but by the end of it the Americans led the field by seven shots. That margin shrunk significantly Friday with the hot play of Malaysia, France and South Africa. The U.S. Team also came back to the field by dropping two shots on its final five holes.
"We really struggled today,” Scottie Scheffler said. "We just couldn’t get anything going.”
The U.S. Team combined to shoot 6-under for the day.
"We were hitting good shots into the greens, but we just couldn’t get the putts to fall,” Ashlan Ramsey said. "We just have to take today for what it was. A lot of our putts lipped out. We’re all mentally tough and we’ll be prepared for a long day tomorrow and try to play our best.”
Toward the end of the day, Green, the long-hitting Malaysian who plays collegiately at New Mexico, provided a highlight for the gallery on the 18th green. After pull-hooking his drive about 30 left of his target on the 499-yard par 4, Green found himself blocked out by a stand of trees far left of the fairway.
"I thought it was in the water,” he said. "But I got up there and it was (sitting) up. My caddie and I saw that I had about a five-foot window through the trees to try and hit a low cut shot through. I decided to hit a 9-iron and had to slice it about 20 or 25 yards.”
The shot came off perfectly. Out the trees it came screaming, bending right and tracking toward the pin. It landed short of the green, popped up and rolled onto the green. It finally stopped about 10 feet below the hole. The modest gallery at the 18th roared in approval.
Among those impressed with the creativity was Spirit International founder Corby Robertson.
"I had never seen anyone that far left on 18,” said Robertson, who also owns Whispering Pines. "I mean he was left of Barack Obama.”
Green ultimately missed the putt, but his five birdies on the day put Malaysia in a position to upset the heavily favored U.S. Team in tomorrow’s final round.
"We have a lot of confidence right now,” Green said. "We just have to stick to what we’re doing and be patience, but we can do it.”
In the Men’s Team Division, the U.S. holds a two-shot lead over Sweden. The Americans are 14-under par; Sweden is 12-under. Australia is a shot back in third place at 11-under. Green and France’s Julien Brun lead the Men’s Individual Division at 10 strokes under par. Argentina’s Alejandro Tosti is alone in third place with nine strokes under par.
Malaysia and South Africa are tied for the lead at 10-under for the Women’s Team Division. The U.S. is one shot back at 9-under. Canada’s Brooke Henderson leads the Women’s Individual Division at 10 strokes under par. Kim Williams from South Africa and Mathilda Cappeliez are tied for second place with nine strokes under par.
For complete results and real-time scoring, please visit www.thespiritgolf.com.
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