US-based Luis Castro and Gab Manotoc matched three-under 69s as they grabbed a two-stroke lead over Dan Cruz at the start of the two-stage SEA Games men’s team qualifier at the Luisita Golf and Country Club in Tarlac on Tuesday.

Castro, playing out of North Carolina, shot four birdies to negate a two-bogey mishap while Manotoc, an Academy of Art University student in California, anchored his similar 34-35 card on a 20-foot eagle putt off a solid 5-iron second shot from the rough at the par-5 No. 5 with the duo hoping to ride on their big starts to build some momentum for the three coveted spots in the national team seeing action in the Southeast Asian the country is hosting from Nov. 30-Dec. 10.

But it’s still a long way to go for the 43 aspirants with three more rounds to be played in Stage I where the top 12 players plus ties and players within 10 strokes of the leading scorer will advance to Stage 2.

After Stage 2, set June 10-13 also at Luisita, the top three players with the total combined scores from the two elims will make the SEA Games men’s squad.

The tight, hazard-laden Robert Trent Jones, Sr.-designed layout will also host the SEAG golf competitions for both men’s and women’s.

Cruz, meanwhile, mixed three birdies against two bogeys to stay in early contention with a 71 while Kristoffer Arevalo blew an impressive 33 start with three bogeys at the back as he settled for a 72 in a tie Carl Corpus, who also wavered with a last-hole bogey for a 35-37.

Aidric Chan, the reigning national junior champion, also floundered at the back after a fine 34 frontside, making three straight bogeys from No. 12 to hobble with a 73 and drop to joint sixth with Paolo Wong, Edward Dy, Jhondie Quibol and Lanz Uy.

Vince Lusterio and Alex Bisera turned in identical 74s, Ryan Monsalve and Santino Laurel put in a pair of 75s while Don Petil, Rolando Bregente, Sean Ramos and David Guangko struggled with 76s to fall seven strokes behind in the tournament organized and conducted by the National Golf Association of the Philippines and sponsored by the MVP Sports Foundation, the PLDT Group, Cignal and Metro Pacific and hosted by Luisita.

Hard-pressed to bounce back are Leandro Bagtas and Paolo Barro, who both had 77s, Ivan Monsalve, Elee Bisera and Josh Jorge, who limped with similar 78s, and Jacob Rolida, who skied to a 79.

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