Na Yeon Choi was just a kid when Se Ri Pak won the U.S. Women’s Open at Blackwolf Run in 1998.
Today, Choi is living proof that Pak’s landmark victory 14 years ago really did have the power to inspire girls in South Korea to try to make it in professional golf. And after posting one of the best rounds in Open history, Choi is poised to repeat Pak’s feat in the same event at the same course.
Choi shot a 7-under 65 on Saturday in the third round at Blackwolf Run, taking control of the tournament.
”I couldn’t believe how I got eight birdies today,” Choi said. ”But I did. And I’m very happy, and I’m very satisfied and I’m very excited.”
The fifth-ranked South Korean star’s remarkable round put her at 8 under for the tournament, giving her a six-stroke lead over fellow South Korean Amy Yang. Only four players ever have posted a lower round in the Open, and the 65 tied the lowest third-round score in the event’s history.
As Choi surged despite windy conditions, Michelle Wie faded, shooting a 6-over 78 to fall to 2 over. Wie shot a 66 in the second round and came into the day a stroke behind second-round leader Suzann Pettersen.
”It was a lot of fun being in contention,” Wie said. ”I’m still not out of it. Don’t count me out just yet.”
Pettersen also shot 78 on Saturday and slid to 1 over, but still hoped to get back into contention.
”You know what, there’s birdies out there,” she said. ”I think the wind is going to be a little bit less tomorrow from what I’ve seen. So if you get off to a hot start, hopefully put a number down early in the clubhouse. Who knows?”
Yang had a 69. Choi and Yang were the only players to break 70 in the round.
”I’m just going to keep being patient tomorrow, try to do my best,” Yang said.
Lexi Thompson, Mika Miyazato and Sandra Gal were tied for third at 1 under. The 17-year-old Thompson had a 72, Miyazato shot 73, and Gal had a 74.
”Seven under at an Open is pretty good, I would say,” Thompson said about Choi’s round. ”So she’s leading by a good amount, but I’m still going to go for it.”
Top-ranked Yani Tseng struggled, shooting a 78 and fading to 8 over.
Tseng said she had trouble feeling comfortable with her club selection at times as she tried to deal with the wind and tough pin placements.
And Tseng said she didn’t see too many opportunities for low scores out there, adding, ”Except Na Yeon.”
Choi has five career LPGA Tour victories. She tied for second in the 2010 U.S. Women’s Open.
And she credits Pak for helping to inspire those accomplishments.
Choi recalls watching the 1998 Open on television. At the time, she said she already was thinking about trying to make it as a golfer in South Korea – but when Pak won, her conceptions of what might possible changed dramatically.
”I changed my goal: `I have to go to the LPGA Tour and I want to win on the LPGA Tour,”’ Choi said.
And given the source of her inspiration, winning at Blackwolf Run would be extra special.
Choi came into Saturday at 1 under for the tournament and started posting low numbers right away.
She had only 26 putts, and is optimistic she’ll be able to continue putting well.
”I have a good feeling about my putting speed and putting strokes,” Choi said. ”So I hope to get good results tomorrow.”
Choi had four birdies on the front nine, including back-to-back birdies to start the round. She made y 20-foot putt to birdie No. 7.
Then Choi birdied the first three holes on the back nine, draining a birdie putt on the 12th hole to go to 7 under on the day.
Choi’s only slip-up of the day was a three-putt on the 13th, her only bogey of the day. Choi then made a 15-foot putt to birdie the par-3 17th, going back to 7 under for the day and 8 under for the tournament.
The lowest round in U.S. Women’s Open history was a 63 by Helen Alfredsson in 1994. Three other players have shot a 64 in the Open.
With another low number Sunday, she could run away with the tournament.
”Honestly, it will be a lot of pressure tomorrow,” Choi said. ”But you know, I know what I have to do, and I know what I can control.”