Tseng roars into Kraft lead; Lewis 2 back

Yani Tseng during Round 3 of the Kraft Nabisco Championship.

Yani Tseng during Round 3 of the Kraft Nabisco Championship.

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. – Stacy Lewis’ three-shot lead dwindled to a single stroke after just four holes, and it vanished entirely after the turn. Nearly every time Lewis missed an opportunity, Yani Tseng jumped all over her – to the delight of Tseng’s sizable cheering section.

Lewis learned just how tough it’ll be to get between the world’s top-ranked player and a rare repeat victory at the Kraft Nabisco Championship.

Tseng roared into the lead with a third-round 66 Saturday, moving two shots ahead of Lewis in the LPGA Tour’s first major of the year.

“I just want to keep smiling all day tomorrow and have a lot of fun,” Tseng said. “I did it before, so I just want to do it again.”

Tseng showed a defending champion’s confidence with her aggressive, powerful play at Mission Hills, shooting the round’s low score to move to 12-under 204. She erased playing partner Lewis’ three-shot lead in the first seven holes before going ahead on the 11th.

After back-to-back birdies to open the back nine, Tseng went ahead for good with her sixth birdie on the 15th. She was a model of ruthless efficiency in a bogey-free round, looking more than capable of earning her second celebratory leap into Poppie’s Pond.

“I played pretty aggressive because I wanted to get over to catch Stacy,” Tseng said. “I love this course because you’re not hitting driver every hole. You have to be smart.”

The talkative 22-year-old from Taiwan also had the backing of about 300 boisterous fans from nearby Beaumont, Calif., where Tseng and her mother lived for about three years while Tseng practiced and attempted to qualify for the tour.

“It was really nice that they came out here and cheered for me,” Tseng said. “I feel very appreciative, because I need a crowd. I need a big crowd here to make me more excited.”

Lewis struggled to keep up in her quest for her first tour victory, managing just two birdies while repeatedly saving par with a steady short game and putter. Even after her lone bogey on the 16th hole, Lewis retained a measure of confidence simply by staying just two strokes back.

“I hit it in the rough all day, just struggling to make pars,” said Lewis, who finished with a 71. “I’m just really glad for it to be over. I got some confidence from it, but it’s really frustrating to be making those putts hole after hole.”

Morgan Pressel (69) was four shots off the lead in third place. Michelle Wie (69) was six strokes back in fourth, staying in the hunt for her first major title.

Tseng is chasing her fourth major title after winning the Kraft Nabisco and the Women’s British Open last year. She has already won four times worldwide this year, but a winning final round at Mission Hills would put her in historic company.

Annika Sorenstam (2001-02) and Canada’s Sandra Post (1978-79) are the only previous back-to-back winners in the 40-year history of the former Nabisco Dinah Shore tournament – and only Sorenstam has done it since the event was designated a major nearly three decades ago.

“These four, five tournaments, I’ve really learned a lot,” said Tseng, who recently bought Sorenstam’s house in Orlando. “I’m not afraid that I’m leading right now. I don’t think too much for tomorrow that I have to win. I just want to enjoy it.”

The first day of the weekend in Palm Springs could evoke a depressingly familiar scenario for Lewis, who lost a second-round lead to Tseng at the Australian Masters just seven weeks ago. Tseng roared ahead Saturday on the Gold Coast and finished strong to win the title, beating Lewis by four strokes in the final round.

“It seems like every time I play with her, she plays like that,” Lewis said. “It’s hard because she seems like she has a chance to make birdie on every hole. It puts pressure on me.”

Tseng, who hit a front-nine drive over 300 yards for the second straight day, and Lewis will be back together Sunday afternoon.

“I think she’s got more pressure on her tomorrow,” Lewis said. “I can just go out there and play.”

After triple-digit temperatures weighed on players during the first two rounds, the heat dropped into the 90s with cloud cover and a mild breeze. Lewis still was sweating even before she removed her Arkansas Razorbacks head cover for her first drive, while Tseng certainly appeared cool and collected.

Wie had another solid day after her opening-round 74, although she also missed a 2-foot putt while making two bogeys. Win or lose, the former child prodigy will be back in class Monday for the spring quarter at Stanford.

“It’s been a while since I’ve been in contention here,” said Wie, who made four top-15 finishes at Mission Hills before she turned 17. “It’s a lot of fun. I forgot how fun it was, and I’m really excited to play tomorrow.”

Brittany Lincicome and Jane Park began the third round even with Tseng, but both struggled. Lincicome, the 2009 Kraft Nabisco champion, double-bogeyed the ninth hole in a 74 that put her eight shots off the lead, while Park fell into 10th place with a 76.

Pressel made three straight birdies on the back nine to stay in contention for the title she won in 2007. Hall of Famer and five-time major winner Se Ri Pak shot her second straight 71, putting her 11 strokes off the lead.

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