So Yeon Ryu was rarely so nervous, with so many great players all around her.
She was in high heels, not golf shoes. She was giving a speech as the LPGA rookie of the year, not competing at the Titleholders. Compared with standing before a room full of stars under bright lights, playing golf Saturday while trying to stay close to Na Yeon Choi and Ai Miyazato seemed easy.
”I was pretty nervous to prepare the speech,” Ryu said about the Friday night awards dinner. ”After speech, I was so much relieved, and I slept so well because I don’t have to worry about speech thing. So maybe that’s why I’m playing great.”
She wasn’t alone in that regard.
Choi overcame a careless three-putt on the third hole and was steady the rest of the blustery day at The TwinEagles Club. She drilled a hybrid 5-wood to 15 feet for one last birdie on the par-3 17th for a 3-under 69 that gave her a one-shot lead over Miyazato.
Miyazato took two chips to get onto the green and made double bogey on the par-5 second, and then laid up into a bunker on the par-5 fifth to make bogey and fall behind. She rallied with four birdies on the back nine to salvage a 71, and stay in the game.
Right behind was Ryu, so relieved from the Friday night stress that she ran off four straight birdies on the front nine before she slowed on the back. Maybe there was a reason for that, too. The 22-year-old South Korean says her lower back tightened at the turn, which she said might have been caused by wearing high heels to the dinner.
”I’m not really big high-heel fan,” she said. ”Yesterday was a special day, so that’s why I took a high heel. I think it looks pretty great.”
What feels just as good is being in the final group with Miyazato, one of the friendliest players in golf, and Choi, whom Ryu regards somewhat of a big sister. The South Koreans are good friends, and they happen to be the last two U.S. Women’s Open champions.
”We know each other very well, so I can talk about non-golf, just like `What are you doing in the winter?’ or something like that,” Choi said. ”So I think that’s going to be a help for focusing on the game. I think it’s good to be rivals for each other. Even during the tournament, if she has birdie, I feel I can have birdie, too. I think it motivates each other, so it should be fun tomorrow.”
Choi was at 12-under 204.
There were plenty of mistakes early – Miyazato giving up her 36-hole lead with a double bogey on No. 2, Choi three-putting on No. 3, Brittany Lincicome missing a 3-foot par putt and then hitting a fat chip that rolled back to her feet for another bogey.
Karrie Webb made her mistake later, but it was costly, and it included so many drops around the green that it’s a wonder she didn’t run out of tees.
The Australian star pulled her approach on the 18th to the left, and the ball bounced down a walkway and under a table. She had to stick four tees in the ground to get relief twice, from a picket fence and the corner of a grandstand. Her chip went through the green and next to the grandstand, leading to another free drop. Her next chip came out heavy and rolled back against the grandstand, and a third drop. Webb had to hole a 15-foot putt for double bogey, dropped her back to a 71, five shots behind.
Lincicome overcame her consecutive bogeys for a 70 and was at 9-under 207 with Karine Icher, who also had a 70.
Stacy Lewis, the LPGA player of the year, won’t be winning the money title. The 27-year-old American has to win the Titleholders and its $500,000 prize to have any chance of catching Inbee Park, but Lewis had a second straight 72 and was 10 shots out of the lead at 214.
Park was at 4-under 212 and likely sewed up the Vare Trophy for the lowest scoring average. Lewis would have to beat Park by at least seven shots in the final round to pass her for the season scoring average.
The only theater left is at the top of the leaderboard, with two good friends – Choi and Ryu – in the final group, both wanting to pass the time and calm the nerves with conversation about anything but golf. They will be alongside Miyazato, who spent Saturday bantering with her caddie.
Miyazato’s lead was gone early when her third shot to the par-5 second when over the green down a steep slope. Her first chip came back to her feet, and she failed to get up-and-down, giving her a double bogey. Choi made birdie on the hole and suddenly had a two-shot lead.
On the par-4 third, Miyazato again went over the green and faced a tough chip up a steep slope. She said her caddie ”made a mistake” and she let him know it. But the Japanese star hit a delicate bump-and-run up the hill to 5 feet for par, and when her tee shot on the par-4 third settled 5 feet away, the caddie said, ”Welcome back.”
Miyazato looked at him and said, ”Welcome back, me?” And the caddie replied, ”No, me,” to suggest he was in good graces again.
She said they shared fun conversations the rest of the round, which was key for Miyazato. This is the last event of the year, and Miyazato says that has allowed her to play more freely because she won’t have any serious golf for the next few months.
It won’t be just the three players in the final group going after the title, not with Lincicome only three shots behind and with enough length to reach at least three of the par 5s.
”I have a lot of good players chasing me,” Choi said.
Suzann Pettersen had a 72 and was in the group at 7-under 209, along with Webb and Brittany Lang, another long hitter who had a 69.
At stake for Choi is a chance to win for the second time this year and collect a big check, which could come in handy. Before returning home, she will be shopping for a new house in Orlando on Monday, most likely in the Isleworth neighborhood. What she picks might depend on the size of her check Sunday.
”I need a good result,” she said with a laugh.
Lewis, Lincicome, Park and Angela Stanford already cashed in to some degree on Saturday. They were selected to receive ”performance” awards – distance off the tee for Lincicome, a ”drive to the top” for Lewis, compelling play by Park and community service by Stanford. Each was given a Kia Optima.