Kohler, Wis. – The six-stroke lead that Na Yeon Choi carries into today’s final round of the 67th U.S. Women’s Open at Blackwolf Run appears insurmountable.
Might as well hand her the trophy now, seeing how no one in the history of the championship has ever come from more than five shots back over the last 18 holes.
But since there is one round remaining, and the weather is supposed to be quite nice, we might as well let them play it.
A stunning 7-under-par 65 on a wind-swept Saturday lifted Choi to the championship pace-setting role at 8-under 208 and relegated the rest of the field to that of frantic pursuers.
Fellow Korean Amy Yang, who is at 214, will play in the final pairing today with Choi at noon CDT. Lexi Thompson, Mika Miyazato and Sandra Gal are next with 215 aggregate scores. Nobody else is under par.
Everyone will be under duress. Even the leader.
“Honestly, it will be a lot of pressure [today], but I know what I have to do, and I know what I can control,” said the 24-year-old Choi, seeking her first major title.
What’s interesting is that Choi isn’t the kind of person comfortable in the spotlight or with a bull’s eye on her. When Stacy Lewis passed her for No. 2 in the world behind Yani Tseng, Choi didn’t mind one bit.
“I like chasing somebody rather than leading. Chasing, I can play aggressive,” she said last month.
Now everyone else has no choice but to chase.
"I'm a chaser. I love chasing, you know, so definitely I have a confidence factor in the fact that I have won a national championship and I can do it again," said 2010 champion Paula Creamer, sitting nine back at 217. "It's just having some putts fall and getting some good breaks out there."
“Going to go low [today]. We'll see if the conditions allow,” said Cristie Kerr, the 2007 winner, who also trails by nine.
Conditions and course setup have allowed one low round the last two days – Michelle Wie’s 66 preceding Choi’s 65. Both were course records.
Perhaps one of the nearest pursuers will be able to conjure up a few birdies on Sunday’s course configuration, but the scouting report suggests a deep foray into red figures will require a special performance.
Ben Kimball, director of the U.S. Women's Open, said hole locations for the final round vary from medium to hard, much like Saturday. Scoring opportunities, as they have all week, might be found on the par-5s. Hitting fairways with the proper shot shape is paramount given that the rough hasn’t been mowed in days and is getting sticky. The weather forecast calls for warm sunshine and winds tapering off.
Yang said she would not change a thing in trying to reel in Choi. “I’m just going to keep being patient, try to do my best,” she said, seeming almost disinterested in going after her compatriot.
Thompson, at 17 trying to become the youngest major champion, also indicated a disinclination to push the issue.
“I'm not going to just try to go after her,” said Thompson. “I'm going to play my own game and the golf course. That's all I can do is focus on my game and nobody else's. I'm not going to have any different mindset, just go in with the same attitude, confidence and trust my shots out here and play the way I have been.”
“I'm going to stay aggressive, play smart,” said Vicky Hurst, alone at even-par 216, suggesting she’d walk a fine line between two strategies. “I'm not going to get tempted, though. I'm not going to go for ridiculous pins or anything like that. I think just playing smart and aggressive is the way to go.”
Some players promise aggressiveness, others an adherence to a more conservative game plan. It will be fascinating to watch how well their intentions correspond to their desired outcome.
Only Choi has the luxury of playing percentages, hitting to the middle of those big greens at Blackwolf Run, engaging in golf’s version of the four corners stall. But she still has to hit golf shots, too.
“I'm pretty sure I'll be nervous, but I think I won't miss that feeling,” said Choi, seeking her first win of the season and sixth overall on the LPGA Tour. “I think it's time to get back on track. I have confidence and this is a good opportunity to be winning [a] U.S. Open. So I just hope to get good warm-up and go out there with my caddie and have fun.”
Yes, well, it’s always more fun winning.
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA websites.