SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – For a three-hole stretch late Saturday afternoon at Sebonack Golf Club, Inbee Park finally looked vulnerable. Then her putting once again set her apart from the rest of the 68th U.S. Women's Open field.
When the 24-year-old Korean bogeyed holes 11 through 13 — matching her combined bogey total through the first 46 holes — her third-round lead had been whittled to two strokes.
At the 422-yard, par-4 14th, Park faced a testing 30-foot birdie attempt over a ridge. In keeping with her reputation as one of the game's preeminent putters, Park made the putt.
"That was a big putt for me," Park said. "Those three bogeys were very tough to handle in the kind of situation that I was in. I thought the putt was going to be a little bit slow going into the wind, but it ended up being very quick, quicker than I thought. I think I was just lucky there."
Park added two more birdies coming in to shoot the day's lone under-par round, a 1-under-par 71. She is at 10-under-par 206 for the championship and on Sunday will seek to become only the second player in LPGA Tour history to win the first three majors in a season and the fourth player to win three majors in a calendar year.
Park, the 2008 U.S. Women's Open champion, owns a four-stroke lead over fellow Korean I.K. Kim, who lost two strokes to Park with a 73 and is at 6-under-par 210. Jodi Ewalt Shadoff of England, who played three holes to complete her suspended second round on Saturday morning, is third at 3-under-par 213 after a 74. At 1-under-par 215, So Yeon Ryu of Korea (a third-round 73) and Angela Stanford (74) are the only remaining players under par.
"I like to play in front of the leaders and I like to be leading also at the same time," Park said. "Leading means that you played better than everybody else for three days and you're in the best position going into the final day, so I think you have an advantage over others. You probably have a little more pressure, but I think you should be able to handle that."
While none of the players are conceding the title to Park, they are realistic about their prospects.
"I think Inbee is playing a different golf course, which you guys are unaware of yet, but she's on a roll," said Brittany Lincicome, who shot a 2-over-par 74 and is tied for eighth, 12 strokes back of Park. "There is nothing you can even do. She's playing so good right now."
Park, however, will use a psychological ploy to keep from becoming complacent.
"I'm just going to think that I.K. and I am tied starting in tomorrow's play, because anything can happen out here," said Park, who has won five times this season, including last week's Walmart NW Arkansas Classic. "Four shots, it could be nothing around this golf course. I just have to keep pushing myself to make pars. I think par is going to be good enough tomorrow, but I'm just going to try to do my best."
Kim only wishes she were tied with Park.
While Park was making eight straight pars to open the third round, Kim slid quickly with two bogeys and a double bogey in the first five holes. After a birdie at the 413-yard, par-4 sixth and a bogey at the 115-yard, par-3 seventh, Kim settled down. She played her final 11 holes in 3-under-par.
"I wasn't really thinking about how Inbee was scoring," Kim said. "If you see my front nine, you know what I mean. They were playing great, especially on the front nine they didn't make any mistakes and I did. I had some tough lies, tough breaks, but I was able to just stay focused.
"It's the U.S. Open. It's going to test you in every way."
USGA officials lengthened Sebonack to 6,629 yards on Saturday, and combined with heavier than anticipated winds and greens that ran approximately 11 feet, 9 inches on the Stimpmeter, the course was the toughest it has played all week. After Park's 71, only four players managed to shoot even-par 72. The field scoring average with 68 players was 76.56, slightly lower than Friday's second-round 156-player average.
Paula Creamer, the 2010 U.S. Women's Open champion, took one look at the third-round hole locations, 10 of which were six paces or fewer from the edge of the green, and knew Saturday's round would be difficult.
"For me, when I went through the pin sheet before we played, I still could have figured under par would be a phenomenal round," said Creamer, who was one of the four players to shoot 72 and is tied with Jessica Korda at 1-over-par 217 for the championship. "Maybe even is a great round. I would have taken that too [before she started]."
Though Park is saying she will gladly take an even-par round on Sunday, she hasn’t settled for it yet.
Stuart Hall is a North Carolina-based freelance writer whose work frequently appears on USGA championship websites.