Today at the Kraft Nabisco Championship was everything a Saturday should be at the first major championship of the year. The energy on the course was palpable, virtually radiating down players’ arms and through the shafts and off the faces of their clubs, catapulting balls again and again toward ever-changing, ever-advancing targets. The lead shifted back and forth between a serenely focused Se Ri Pak, Michelle Wie, who played under an aura of confident, composed determination, and Lexi Thompson, uncoiling one powerful shot after another and finding her way back onto the short grass and the putting surface from several impossible lies. Fearless and pragmatic Charley Hull edged up in the chase after the turn and by the end of the day the scene for tomorrow’s battle was set. Lexi Thompson and Michele Wie, at -10, will go into the final round sharing the lead and Se Ri Pak and Charley Hull, at -8, will press hard to get to the top, as will Cristie Kerr and Catriona Matthew who at -6 are also within easy reach of victory tomorrow. Sunday at The Dinah is going to be absolutely delicious!
The Top of the Board
Lexi Thompson, nineteen years old, chasing her first major victory, is going into Sunday with rounds of 73, 64, and 69. The difference between yesterday and today for Thompson is the difference between 25 putts in a round of 64 and 31 putts in a round of 69. She left five birdies on the course today.
Michelle Wie, also chasing her first major victory, is going into Sunday with rounds of 67, 71, and 68. Not as powerful off the tee or even going down the fairway as Thompson, Wie will have to stay aloof from the temptation to compete shot-for-shot with Thompson tomorrow. In that contest she would surely lose to Thompson’s more power ball-striking. Wie must stay focused on sustaining game consistency.
Thompson and Wie will both face challenges from a quartet of players close behind them and in hot pursuit of the top of the board and the coveted leap into Poppy’s Pond.
Within Reach of the Win
Se Ri Pak is going into Sunday with the Kraft Nabisco Championship the only LPGA major not in the victory column on her resume.
What happened to Pak today? She made the turn at -10 and leading Thompson and Wie by two strokes. Then her steady, sure-footed game faltered. She bogeyed 10, 13 & 15, all par-4s. Her confident ball-striking seemed to vaporize. She birdied 16 and got back one stroke, and ended with a pair of pars. Pak needs to reclaim her early round self-assurance before tomorrow’s tee time.
Hall of Famer Pak is paired with nineteen-year old LET 2013 Rookie of the Year Charley Hull for Sunday. Hull played a stunning game today, a flawless, bogey-free round of 66 that matched Shanshan Feng’s first round and is the low score for the tourney.
Everything worked for Hull today. Can she pull the same magic out of her bag tomorrow and do it again?
With Pak and Hull trailing Thompson and Wie’s lead by two strokes, the top of the Kraft Nabisco leaderboard seems packed for a final round. But Cristie Kerr and Catriona Matthew trail Pak and Hull by only two strokes, further complicating the situation. Both are deeply experienced, steady, consistent players who don’t cave in under the pressure of the final round at a major championship. Expect a battle.
Kerr seems to play harder when the competition gets stiffer and commands compliance from her ball at every shot. Her self-confidence is apparent in her stance at address, her walk from shot to shot, her clear intention to sink every putt she makes. Kerr has 16 career wins and 143 top-10 finishes. She knows how to come from behind and she knows how to close the deal on Sunday.
Matthew is a cool, calculating, competitor who plays effectively under pressure. She’s delivered three consistent rounds and would also like to take the leap into Poppy’s Pond tomorrow.
Sunday could bring a tight six-way fight to the finish and it will involve a test of the strength of youth — Thompson and Hull — against the power of experience — Pak, Kerr and Matthew — with Wie, the teen phenom who’s matured into a power player and now seems ready to take a place at the table of major champions — somewhere between the two groups.
Beyond the Spotlight
Defending champion Inbee Park will go into Sunday one shot over par and well down the leaderboard. Park’s famous putter is performing adequately but other parts of her game are not in synch.
Top-ranked American Stacy Lewis, at -4, will go into Sunday with a share of 9th place and trailing the leaders by six strokes. That’s a long distance to climb in one round of golf but Lewis can collect another top-10 finish if she maintains her performance and with Park likely to finish outside the top-20 and Rolex ranked number 2 Suzann Pettersen not in the field, Lewis will make some progress in reclaiming the top spot in the world rankings.
Gerina Piller and Azahara Munoz are also at -4 and a share of 9th place. Piller’s comeback second round pulled her up and a sustained Sunday round could keep her inside the top-10. Both are playing consistently strong golf and another top-10 finish will just move them closer to that inevitable victory they’re hunting.
Lydia Ko and Minjee Lee are keeping company with Inbee Park at even par. Lee’s not likely to achieve her goal, finishing in the top-10. Ko’s likely gained more insight into the complexities of life on the Tour.
Round 4 at the Kraft Nabisco Championship begins at 8:15 local time Sunday morning with co-leaders Michelle Wie and Lexi Thompson teeing off at 2pm. Four hours of live Golf Channel coverage begins at 5pm ET and I’ll provide a wrap-up of the tournament as well.