PH boxers, golfers soldier on as Games near end

Published August 4, 2021, 11:42 PM

by Tito Talao

Philippines’ Yuka Saso watches her drive from the 5th tee in round 1 of the women’s golf individual stroke play during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Kasumigaseki Country Club in Kawagoe on August 4, 2021. (Photo by YOSHI IWAMOTO / AFP)

TOKYO — The Bigger Bang Theory is in play for Team Philippines.

Boxing and golf, the two remaining disciplines for the country in the XXXII Olympiad, track their respective destinies Thursday as the Games wind down four days before the curtains fall.

Safe in the vault when Team PH wraps up operations and flies home Monday are the country’s first-ever gold medal courtesy of weightlifting champion Hidilyn Diaz at the Tokyo International Forum on July 26, and its second boxing silver medal, delivered by featherweight bet Nesthy Petecio at the Kokugikan Arena on August 3.

Already at hand, but with a chance to change sheen and color, are two bronze medals, secured by boxing middleweight Eumir Felix Marcial and flyweight Carlo Paalam, who fight Thursday for berths in the gold medal bout, bringing the total to four.

The four-medal performance in the pandemic-delayed Games has, at this point, already surpassed the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics collection of three bronzes, with the distant golf fairways here a potential source for one or two more.

Also in the hunt for podium finishes, even gold medals, are golfers Yuka Saso, the reigning US Women’s Open champion, and top LPGA campaigner Bianca Pagdanganan who started their Olympic campaigns Wednesday at the Kasumigaseki Country Club in Saitama, a rolling estate 40.9 kilometers northwest of central Tokyo.

“Hopefully, God willing, they will be victorious and delivering multiple golds,” said Rep. Bambol Tolentino, president of the Philippine Olympic Committee.

“Let us not be contented with one gold.”

Philippine Sports Commission chairman Butch Ramirez reiterated his support for the Filipino athletes, especially those still in Tokyo.

“We continue to support our remaining Olympians.  We believe in you,” said Ramirez, who returned a few days ago from Japan to personally supervise legally-mandated incentives for the Philippine athletes.

“The PSC has believed in you from the very beginning. Thank you for giving your best performance in every match, knowing in your heart that on stage is not just you, but all the other Filipinos praying and rooting for you,” he added.

Pagdanganan plunged into action in the women’s individual stroke play with promising results, firing a two-under par 69 to join the early leaders, Madelene Sagstrom of Sweden, at 5-under 66, and Nelly Korda of the United States, 4-under 67.

Amid the cool morning weather and controlled wind conditions before temperatures abruptly rose, Pagdanganan, 23, third during the LPGA Drive On Championship at Reynolds Lake Oconee in Greensboro, Georgia in 2020, opened with back-to-back birdies, then added two more in the par-5 5th, par-5 14th and par-3 16th.

She bogeyed the 4th, 11th and 15th before regaining her touch on the last hole to keep her in strong contention.

Saso, meanwhile, struggled a bit from the start, bogeying the 2nd and 5th, and gaining no relief in the back nine with more of the same in the 11th, 15th and 16th, her two birdies a rare occurrence in her 34-34 scores to stand at 3-over par 74 for the day

The reigning US Women’s Open champion is expected to whip herself back into the main fold in the second round Thursday from joint 48th place at 3-over par 74.

The midday sun at the sprawling golf course continued to claim casualties, with the caddies of Saso and American Lexi Thompson dehydrated before and during the opening, and Pagdanganan’s coach Carito Villaroman, a former world junior golf champion, also overheating.

Paalam and Marcial face gargantuan tasks in their bid to align themselves with Petecio’s singular achievement of becoming the country’s first medal winner in 25 years after Mansueto ‘Onyok’ Velasco who also took the silver in the Atlanta Olympics in 1996.

Paalam takes on Japan’s Ryomei Tanaka in the 48-52kg semifinals at 1:30 p.m., followed by Marcial in the 69-75kg division at 2:03 p.m. against top seed Oleksandr Khyzhniak of Ukraine.

Paalam earned a technical split decision over 2016 Rio Olympics gold medalist Shakhobidin Zoirov of Uzbekistan following a head collision that left both fighters bleeding in the second round of their quarterfinal showdown, forcing the referee to stop the contest on the advise of the ring physician.

Marcial, on the other hard, took the faster route to the semis,  hardly working up a sweat in knocking out Armenian Arman Darchinyan in the first round in the quarters, the quickest of three stoppages in the tournament so far.

The volume-punching Tanaka, ranked ninth during the 2018 Asian Games in Palembang-Jakarta, emerged victorious by a 4-1 split decision in his quarterfinal slugfest against Columbia’s Yuberjen Herney Martinez Rivaz last Tuesday.

While no hometown crowd will be cheering for Tanaka, a close fight could have dire consequences for Paalam in the aftermath of the Petecio final against Japanese Sena Irie, who went on to become her country’s first woman Olympic boxing champion via a 5-0 victory.

Khyzhniak, meantime, could present a nightmare matchup for Marcial, with the Ukrainian packing a sterling record which he accumulated with triumphs in the Strandja Memorial in Sofia, Bulgaria from 2019 to 2021, European Championships in Minsk, Belarus in 2019, and the World Championships in Hamburg, Germany in 2017.

Seeded to the Round of 16 here, Khyzhniak crushed Japan’s Yuito Moriwaki 5-0, and then defeated Dominican Republic’s Euri Cedeno Martinez in the quarterfinals 4-1.

“Coach Don (Abnett) says Eumir will have a tough fight but he feels they have devised a good plan for Khizniak,” said Ed Picson, secretary-general of the Association of Boxing Alliances in the Philippines.

“He also thinks Carlo should prevail over the Japanese but will not put anyth