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Young Pinoy golfers set to make a splash in SEA Games

Ace Rupert Zaragosa leads the youth movement of the Philippines in golf as it dreams of medals in Kuala Lumpur

HOPEFUL. The Lyceum Philippines University standout Rupert Zaragosa now hopes for another shot at glory in the SEA Games, as he ponders turning pro next year. Photo by Bob Guerrero/Rappler

MANILA, Philippines – For 19-year old Rupert Zaragosa, this 2017 SEA Games is all about redemption.

The Laguna native is playing in his fourth South East Asian Games. But his closest brush with gold came in 2011, when he led the field in the individual men’s competition by a stroke going into the last day in Indonesia.

But it wasn’t meant to be. Stricken with food poisoning on the last day, the 13-year-old stumbled around the Jagorawi Golf and Country Club track with an 81, leaving himself far from the podium.

The Lyceum Philippines University standout now hopes for another shot at glory in the SEA Games, as he ponders turning pro next year. He has previously won the Philippine Amateur 4 times and finished 4th in the World Junior 15-17 year old category in 2015.

SEA Games golf is played both individually and as teams. Four players in the men’s side and 3 from the women’s play in 54-hole individual tournaments. Then the best three men and best two women in the top 8 of 10 nations square off against other nations in match play, going from quarters to semis to gold and bronze medal matches.

It will be a grueling 5 days of play beginning August 22, but the Philippines is sending in young legs into the fray.

Recently the Philippines’ two top amateurs, Clyde Mondilla and Jobim Carlos, turned pro. That left Zaragosa and other young Pinoys holding the fort for Pinoy amateur golf. (SEA Games golf is reserved for amateur players.)

Joining Zaragosa in the men’s side are Wei Wei Gao, 17, Paolo Wong, 16, and Carl Corpuz, 15. Jolo Magcalayo, 14, is the alternate.

The women’s team is comprised of 16-year-old Harmie Constantino and a pair of Cebuanas. 17-year-old Lois Kay Go and 15-year-old Junia Gabasa.

Rupert’s father Boyet coaches the team but at present they are also receiving intensive training by Canadian Rick Gibson, a former Asian Tour pro who has been living in the Philippines for decades.

Gibson is a typical Canadian, exceedingly polite and well-mannered, who dishes out high-fives to his charges along with pointers on their technique.

“My philosophy is to challenge them, instill discipline, and have some fun,” says Gibson.

On Sunday, their idea of fun was a 6-club challenge, meaning they needed to play the Langer course in Riviera with only 6 clubs instead of the usual 14. Zaragosa takes a driver, rescue club, 6 iron, 9 iron, 56-degree wedge and a putter. Playing off the blue tees he fires a 3-under par 69.

Gibson praises the work ethic of the squad but singles out Constantino as especially diligent. Constantino has already won in the Ladies Philippine Golf Tour, winning the ICTSI Malarayat leg last year by a whopping 8 strokes over a field that included some seasoned Thai pros. She had to forfeit the top prize of P150,000 since she is still an amateur.

Regrettably, the Philippines will not field the prodigiously talented Yuka Saso, 16, who won a world juniors team title with Constantino and Sofia Legaspi in Canada last year.

National Golf Association of the Philippines officials believe she prioritized other international events over the SEA Games and dropped her from the team. The Saso family reportedly feels that there was a lack of communication from the NSA. At any rate Saso, who is “LPGA material,” according to golf journo Mike Besa, will be sorely missed.

LPGA stands for Ladies Professional Golf Association, the top tour for professional women’s golf in the world. Dorothy Delasin and Jennifer Rosales are the Filipinas who have played in it.

Saso is currently in Canada for the Canadian Amateur championship, where a win gets her a spot in an LPGA event.

The ladies will attempt to replicate the feat of the 2013 women’s team. In the Myanmar SEA Games Princess Superal took individual gold and combined with Legaspi and Katrina Pellen-Briones to take team gold as well.

But Zaragosa remains our best hope. The NGAP’s Pepot Inigo says the 19 year old is equal to the world-beating Thai players. Thailand remains the strongest nation in South East Asian golf, with a well-oiled, well-funded infrastructure that produces world class players like Kiradech Aphibarnrat, a veteran of the European Tour, and Thongchai Jaidee, who made the cut in last week’s British Open.

“Iba’t iba silang pinapadala every year,” (they send different players every year) says Zaragosa, of the Thai golfing machine that churns out world-class golfers by the spades. Zaragosa looks to prove he is at their level.

“He has a lot of experience, and he is our best amateur golfer now. The rest are playing catch-up” says Gibson. Zaragosa is mulling turning pro after graduating with a degree in foreign service from LPU, where he stars for their varsity golf team.

Standing perhaps 5’3” in his cleats, Zaragosa nonetheless has decent length off the tee thanks to a technically superb swing.

All eyes will be on the team when they take on the Mines Resort Golf Course south of Kuala Lumpur starting August 22. According to NGAP president Carlos Coscolluela the team will go early to try and familiarize themselves with the Ben Crenshaw-penned layout that sits on the site of an old phosphate mine.

Might the course be a gold, silver or bronze mine for the Philippines instead? –

Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH. Rappler thanks Carlos Coscolluela and Pepot Inigo of the NGAP for their assistance with this story. Thanks also to Mike Besa for additional information.