Just when it appeared that Jin Young Ko would craft a golf round as close to perfect as the sport allows, the shortest hole on the course brought her back to reality and her pursuers back into the fray.
Ko had built a four-shot lead Saturday in the third round of the ANA Inspiration with a mind-numbing display of precise full shots and flawless putting. But on the 124-yard 14th, she hit her tee shot into the water fronting the green, double-bogeyed the hole, then bogeyed the next to stall what had threatened to become a runaway at Mission Hills Country Club.
Still, Ko finished with a four-under-par 68 on the Dinah Shore Tournament Course in Rancho Mirage and stands at eight under after three rounds in golf’s first major championship of the year.
She holds a one-shot lead over third-round leader I.K. Kim, who struggled much of the day but managed to get her game under control on the back nine to shoot 73.
Mi Hyang Lee (68) and Danielle Kang (70) are three behind Ko at five under. Alena Sharp, who had the lowest score of the day at 67, Katherine Kirk (74) and Jeongeun Lee6 (71) are tied for fifth at three under. (Lee6 was given the numerical designation by the Korean LPGA tour because of the number of players with the same name. She chose to keep it.)
Mi Hyang Lee’s round included an ace on the par-three 17th, a shot that elicited the loudest and longest scream of the day.
Ko, the 2018 LPGA rookie of the year and a 10-time winner on the Korean tour, has a first, two seconds and a third in five tournaments this season. She began the day four shots behind Kim but erased that deficit quickly.
She birdied the second hole, dropped a 35-foot birdie putt on No. 4, and when she made her third birdie on the par-three fifth, she was at seven under and suddenly tied for the lead with Kim, who appeared uncomfortable with her swing from the first tee and struggled throughout the front nine.
Ko, 23, added a fourth birdie on No. 6 to take the lead outright at eight under par.
A two-time winner on tour, Ko got to 10 under with a birdie on the 10th hole, and at that point she had turned her four-shot deficit at the start into a five-shot lead. She needed only 13 putts through those first 10 holes.
The hiccups on Nos. 14 and 15 don’t appear to be getting her down.
“Don’t think about bad things,” said Ko, who is learning English. “Just looking for good things. Yeah, that’s it….
“OK, I’m fine. I’m not worry. I’m human. Sometimes happen on the course.”
Kim, playing in the final group with Kirk, had left the opening for Ko to speed through. She bogeyed the third hole and double-bogeyed the par-five ninth, usually a birdie hole and vulnerable on a day with no wind and perfect scoring conditions.
Kim lost this tournament seven years ago after missing a one-foot putt that would have won it on the 72nd hole, and she had the look of a golfer on the verge of throwing this one away throughout the front nine. After a missed put on No. 6, a long sigh was followed by slumped shoulders as she slowly walked toward her ball.
But she steeled herself with a birdie on No. 10 that trimmed Ko’s lead to four and another on the 18th hole to get back to within a stroke and into the final group with Ko in Sunday’s fourth round. Both are looking for a first major championship.
Kirk could never get anything going Saturday, scrambled her way around the course, and suffered through four bogeys.
Lexi Thompson, at three under to start the day, moved out of the high-rent district quickly Saturday. Two early bogeys followed by a triple bogey on No. 7 led toward a 74. She’s seven shots back.
Ko has not fared well in major championships since finishing second as a 19-year-old in the 2015 Women’s British Open. In eight other tries in majors, she is without a top-10 finish; her best in the ANA Inspiration is a tie for 64th last year.