RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. – LPGA fans have seen this coming for months. The tour’s best and brightest have been lighting up leaderboards all season with unusually low numbers. That steady crescendo has led us to the year’s first major, where American Lexi Thompson holds a two-shot lead over Suzann Pettersen at 13-under 203 heading into the final round.
Thompson, winner of the 2014 ANA Inspiration, loves the way she can attack the Dinah Shore course with driver, aiming down the right side of the fairways with a baby draw. The 22-year-old’s obsession with the gym certainly paid off on a marathon Saturday in which she played 27 holes and didn’t flinch. The key to Thompson getting a second dip in Poppie’s Pond: her putter.
“It’s just an overall confidence with my putting,” said Thompson, who got so shaky last season she started putting with her eyes closed. “I worked extremely hard in the offseason.”
Last summer Thompson fell for a Bettinardi putter known as the Queen Bee. Kind of funny given that’s Inbee Park’s nickname back in Korea, and she’s far and away the best putter on tour.
Like Thompson, Pettersen felt this course suited her from the moment she first played it in 2002. A three-time runner-up at the ANA, Pettersen said she’s driving the ball well this week, a major key.
“I’ve got a big job to do tomorrow,” she said. “I mean, the leaderboard is packed behind me, as well. You’ve got to expect to go out there and shoot low. There’s a lot at stake, but I’m all in for it.”
The biggest threat on the board to both Thompson and Pettersen might be Park, the seven-time major winner who sits in a tie for third three strokes back with So Yeon Ryu, Minjee Lee and M.J. Hur.
There’s a reason Park has won six majors in her last 17 starts. Caddie Brad Beecher said it’s like his boss flips a switch at the big ones. While many questioned Park’s motivation to keep competing after qualifying for the LPGA Hall of Fame and then claiming gold in Rio, Park put an end to such suspicions with a victory in Singapore last month.
She’s still hungry.
“It doesn’t matter how many trophies I have,” said Park. “It doesn’t matter how many majors I have. I think when it comes to a major on a Sunday, I think everybody is in the same position and everybody just wants to have one more … or one.”
A victory on Sunday would give Park eight major titles, moving her to eighth on the all-time list with Betsy Rawls. Only Annika Sorenstam (10), Babe Zaharias (10), Louise Suggs (11), Mickey Wright (13) and Patty Berg (15) have more.
Park could easily post a number low enough on Sunday to crank up the pressure. She’s already thinking she needs to get to 17 under.
Michelle Wie’s 28-hole marathon Saturday took a number of familiar twists and turns. The four-time LPGA winner spent much of the front nine atop the leaderboard before she aggravated a back injury that first flared up in February at the Australian Women’s Open.
It’s the story of Wie’s career, unfortunately.
“Just not a young stallion anymore, I guess,” she said.
Wie tweaked her back coming out of the rough on the par-5 ninth hole. It wasn’t long before a trainer tended to her on the course. She held her hand to the area throughout the back nine while walking in between shots. Off the tee, her left leg buckled after impact.
Wie said it’s been “pretty bad” since Australia but that she knows how to handle it.
“It’s OK,” she said. “You know me, 20 pieces of tape at all times.”
Wie bogeyed the ninth hole and played the back nine in even par. She’s five strokes behind Thompson in a tie for seventh with Ariya Jutanguarn, Cristie Kerr and Karine Icher.
Wie, the LPGA’s most well-known player, hasn’t won on the LPGA since June 22, 2014, when she triumphed at the U.S. Women’s Open. The floodgates didn’t open after Pinehurst as many predicted and everyone desired. Instead, the mystery of the one-time prodigy grew deeper as WDs piled up quicker than top 10s. As the number of injuries climbed, her confidence waned.
If anyone goes into Sunday of the ANA with baggage it’s Pettersen, who has finished outside the top 25 only once in 11 starts here, including four top-three finishes, yet never won.
None of those close calls stung more than the 2007 ANA, when Pettersen blew a four-stroke lead with four to play. Pettersen, however, seemed as optimistic as ever about her chances.
“My expectations for tomorrow?” she asked rhetorically. “To get wet.”