Karen Stupples leads as buzz builds at Mission Hills

It took two full rounds and the better part of a third, but late Saturday afternoon the Kraft Nabisco Championship finally got the feel of a major.

A birdie barrage by many of the contenders on the final three holes sent roars throughout the Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage and ratcheted up the goose bump factor for players and spectators.

Karen Stupples, who made her move early and held the lead most of the day, shot a four-under-par 68 for a three-day total of 10-under 206 and a one-shot lead heading into the final round, but she has plenty of close challengers thanks to some late charges.

Suzann Pettersen birdied two of her final three holes to finish off a 32 on the back nine for a third-round 67 that has her a shot behind Stupples. Yani Tseng finished birdie-birdie for a 67 that has her tied with Pettersen.

Lorena Ochoa, the No. 1 player on the world who lingered down the leaderboard most of the day, also had birdies on the final two holes and is tied with second-round leader Song-Hee Kim at seven under.

“I had a good front nine and I had a big lead,” said Stupples, the 2004 British Open winner. “And the next time I looked up I’m like, ‘Oh wow, Yani and Suzann and a few others are all starting to make a move. It was really exciting.”

Stupples shot three-under 33 on the front nine and had a four-shot lead when she made the turn. But the late charges seemed to energize what had been a lackluster day.

“I think what it shows is that this is a major championship,” Stupples said. “Everybody wants to win, so they’re going to pull out all the stops to do it. And they should. This is what it’s all about.”

For Pettersen, ranked No. 4 in the world, it was the second consecutive day she had finished strong. In the second round, she made consecutive birdies to finish a round of 73 that appeared headed south after three bogeys and a double bogey over a nine-hole stretch.

She said the way she finished the second round was as important as the way she finished her 67 on Saturday. “My finish [Friday] put me back in the tournament,” Pettersen said. “It set me up a little bit for today.”

She said it would be a mistake, however, to hope for another late-round flurry.

“You don’t really wait for the finishing holes on this course,” she said.

That Tseng and Pettersen matched the best round of the day with 67s is more than coincidence. The two are close friends and, paired together Saturday, had a friendly side competition going.

“We played for the best score and we play for birdies,” said Tseng, ranked No. 6 in the world.

Both players had six birdies, so the match ended up even, though Pettersen won one of the side bets by outdriving Tseng by a yard on the par-five 11th hole.

Neither player would reveal the stakes, but Pettersen said, “It was worth it.”

Today, in the final round, the two will play together again, joining Stupples in the final threesome on the final day of the first major championship.

Then, the stakes will be pretty clear.