With thin high clouds blowing east on a chill wind off the Pacific, Saturday’s weather here in the Bay Area felt more like a raw November day than late April. It was sufficient improvement over Friday, however, that golf fans, young and old, came out in great numbers to the Swinging Skirts LPGA Classic at Lake Merced Golf Club to see the ladies of the LPGA take on the challenging Rees Jones-designed course.
It should come as no surprise that plenty of fans came out today – these are the same Bay Area sports fans that used to collect “Croix de Candlestick” pins for staying to the end of extra-innings Giants night games at the famously frigid Candlestick Park.
Conditions at Lake Merced for Saturday’s third round were tough, but fair. Unlike Friday’s round, when heavy rains late morning and midday made it tough for the players who were on the course at that time, and later-finishing players had (somewhat) more benign conditions, the weather stayed consistently chilly & blustery for most of the day today, the winds dying down noticeably only as the last few groups were wrapping up their rounds.
Early moves by some relative back-markers were overshadowed by the match of the day, a showdown between American Stacy Lewis and Lydia Ko, the Korean/New Zealander teen who celebrated her 17th birthday during yesterday’s round.
Lewis and Ko were grouped with Karine Icher, of France, whose 1st-round 66 is the low round of the tournament so far, but it was the Lewis & Ko Show all the way today, as the Frenchwoman made some early bogeys and dropped off the torrid pace her companions set in the third round. A pair of birdies on the back nine allowed Icher to recoup some of her losses for a T-5 position at the close of the day.
Ko trailed Lewis by a stroke at the beginning of the third round, but jumped out to a 1-stroke lead over the former World #1 with a pair of birdies in the middle of the front nine, at holes 5 and 6, while Lewis could only string together a succession of pars.
Lewis credited her caddy with keeping her on an even keel in the early part of the round, “(On t)he front nine he just kept telling me to be patient, be patient, be patient, because there would be birdie opportunities later.”
Ko dropped a shot at the par-4 eleventh hole, evening the score, when she couldn’t get up and down for par after leaving her approach shot short of the green despite a good lie and good position in the fairway. It was at this point that the contest between the two turned into a punch-counterpunch contest that kept their gallery on edge for the final seven holes.
Both players birdied the par-3 twelfth, Ko on an arcing 25-foot putt from below and left of the back-right hole position, Lewis with a much shorter, but tricky, downhill slider from the right. The duo split the next two holes with pars, Ko missing a birdie opportunity at the par-5 fourteenth when she duffed a chip from short of the green, leaving a long come-backer for birdie, which she missed.
At the 15th hole, a long par-3 playing into the wind, Lewis stuffed her tee shot to four feet for an excellent birdie chance while Ko left her tee shot short of the green and right. A deft chip and a long curling rollout gave Ko her fourth birdie of the day, rendering Lewis’ short drop for her two almost anti-climactic.
The table were turned at the 16th hole, a 335-yard par-4 with a steep drop to the green from the end of the usable fairway. This time it was Ko’s turn to stiff her approach to the front-right flag and leave herself a short downhill putt for her three, while Lewis’s third was a 45-foot slider from the far end of the lozenge-shaped green. Lewis rolled the putt perfectly, with the right speed, and on the right line, to drop into the heart of the cup. Ko’s delicate downhill 3-footer for birdie dropped in neatly, but Lewis’s long roll was the star of the hole.
The 17th hole turned out to be the deciding factor on the day. Both Lewis and Ko placed their tee shots near the bottom of the fairway’s steep downslope, but Ko was in the right rough and Lewis just near the right-hand edge of the fairway. Ko’s approach was a bit too shallow to hold the green, and though it hit short of the center flag, it released and ran through to a foot or two off the back edge.
Lewis stiffed the difficult uphill approach shot, leaving herself a fairly simple 4 – 5 footer for birdie. Ko’s chip from off of the back edge released and rolled past the hole, and all she could do was hang on for her par after Lewis sank her birdie putt to retake the lead at 10-under, which is where the round ended after both made routine pars on the par-5 eighteenth hole.
The rounds of 68 shot by Lewis and Ko were matched by a trio of other players – Jenny Shin, Hee Young Park, and Shanshan Feng, who finished the day 3rd, 4th, and T-5 respectively, but Lewis and Ko have opened a gap between themselves and the rest of the field, with Shin at -6 and the other two each a stroke further back. Sunday’s final round promises to be similarly dramatic, with both players on their games, and light showers in the morning predicted to clear out by noon, leading to conditions similar to the third round for the leading duo.
The best of the Northern California-connected players in the field at the end of the third round was Michelle Wie, T-13 at 1-under. Monterey’s Mina Harigae turned in a +1 round of 73 for a +5 T-40, where she is joined by Pleasanton-native Paula Creamer. Los Altos resident Juli Inkster, who at age 51 is in her last year as a fully active LPGA competitor, is T-48 at 6-under.