A pair of old friends returned to Blackwolf Run on Saturday.
Two guys named tough and challenging were back, the same indefatigable characters who baffled, perplexed and toyed with the world’s best female golfers 14 years ago, creating one of the highest winning scores in the last quarter-century (6-over-par 290).
They had been mostly absent since the first ball was struck at the 2012 U.S. Women’s Open on Thursday. Maybe those triple-digit heat indexes and the stifling humidity scared them into hibernation.
But they weren’t on hiatus very long. Player after player feared a tougher weekend setup. What had been a green-light special the first two days became a yellow alert on the Pete Dye design.
In layman’s terms: out went the heat… in came the wind… up went the scores.
Well, except for Korean Na Yeon Choi, who somehow didn’t get the memo about the course’s difficulty. Appropriately attired in a red shirt, the 24-year-old, five-time LPGA Tour winner bettered the course record of 66 set by Michelle Wie 24 hours earlier with a 7-under 65 to take a commanding six-stroke lead over fellow Korean Amy Yang.
The 65 by Choi, who sits at 8-under 208 through 54 holes, tied for the fifth-lowest round in Women’s Open history, behind the 63 shot by Helen Alfredsson in 1994 at Indianwood Golf & C.C. (site of next week’s U.S. Senior Open), and three 64s, all posted in 1999 at Old Waverly Golf Club (Kelli Kuehne, Lorie Kane and Becky Iverson).
Yang, who shot 69, is at 2-under 214, while 17-year-old Lexi Thompson (72), of Coral Springs, Fla., Sandra Gal (74) of Germany and Mika Miyazato (73) of Japan are seven strokes back at 1-under 215. Vicky Hurst (75) is in solo sixth at even-par 216.
Suzann Pettersen, the 36-hole leader, struggled to a 78 and is among eight players at 1-over 217, while Wie couldn’t match her putting prowess from Friday and also shot 78. She’s now 10 behind at 2-over 218.
Three major champions, Karrie Webb, world No. 2 Stacy Lewis and Sun Young Yoo all shot in the 80s, and world No. 1 Yani Tseng, a five-time major champion, barely broke 80 with a 78.
In fact, Choi was the only golfer among the last 13 groups to better par on a day when the scoring average was 76.9.
The USGA even teed it forward, giving the players the shortest layout of the week at 6,733 yards. Anticipating gusts from the north as high as 25 mph, championship officials presented the remaining 65 competitors a course measuring nearly 100 yards less than Thursday’s opening round, but with hole locations that were extremely challenging.
"It's playing tough," said 2010 champion Paula Creamer, one of four players to post a sub-par round with a 71. "But you can make your birdies. There's some holes where you can put a close wedge. It's just different wind [than] we have had, and the pin placements, the USGA did a very good job tucking them."
Added Yang: "It's a lot different. Almost there was no wind last two days, but it was 15 to 20 miles, and it made the course a little bit drier and hard to play."
Fourteen years ago, a strong northerly wind sent scores soaring. None of the 62 players who made the cut shot par or better. The third-round stroke average was 77.9 and the 73s shot by Mhairi McKay and Helen Alfredsson were the best of the day in 1998.
While virtually everyone else on Saturday played like it was 1998 revisited, Choi navigated Blackwolf Run as if she was immune. She hit 15 of 18 greens and totaled just 26 putts in recording eight birdies against a lone three-putt bogey at the par-3 13th hole.
"I have a good feeling about my putting speed and putting strokes," said Choi. "So I hope to get good results tomorrow."
Choi opened the round with two consecutive birdies and then had five more birdies in a six-hole stretch starting at No. 7, with a par mixed in at No. 9. Her final birdie came at the par-3 17th.
"Actually, I had a really good round today," said Choi, who shared second in the Women’s Open two years ago at Oakmont C.C. and tied for ninth at Saucon Valley C.C. in 2009. She missed the cut last year at The Broadmoor. "I think I hit a lot of good shots today. My 14 clubs worked very well … and I had good patience through all 18 holes. I wasn't nervous. I focused on my game and I played it one shot at a time."
Choi actually had shot 65 on two other occasions this year on the LPGA Tour – both in final rounds, at the Mobile Bay LPGA Classic and Manulife Financial LPGA Championship, where she finished T-20 and T-40, respectively. She also has been a two-time runner-up – at the RR Donnelley Founders and HSBC Champions, losing a playoff to Jenny Shin. She also tied for eighth in the year’s first major (Kraft Nabisco Championship).
Now she’s in position to win her first major championship, at a place where it all started for Korean golfers 14 years ago when Se Ri Pak triumphed over amateur Jenny Chuasiriporn. Choi could also become the sixth Korean and fourth in the last five years to claim the Women’s Open title.
"I’m pretty sure I will be nervous [on Sunday], but I think I won’t miss that feeling," said Choi. "I have confidence and this is a good opportunity to win the U.S. Open. So I just hope to get good warmup tomorrow morning and just go out there with my caddie and have fun."
The rest of the field might not exactly be smiling about their comeback prospects. But there is hope. When Pak won in 1998, she closed with a 5-over 76. It might take some significant help from Choi for the chasers to pull off a rally.
"She’s leading by a good amount, but I am still going to go after her," said Thompson, who is seeking, at 17, to become the youngest major champion. "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 try [my] best, but it's seven strokes," said Miyazato, who finished fifth last year. "But U. S. Open … seven strokes maybe happen, maybe catch up."
It’s certainly a daunting task for the pursuers. The best final-round comeback by a champion is five strokes. That has happened five times, the last coming in 1995 at The Broadmoor by Annika Sorenstam.
Then again, it’s the Women’s Open on what many have called one of the toughest layouts in the last 30 years.
"Second place is only two under, said Gal. So you never know what's going to happen tomorrow."
The way things have developed, Gal and the rest of the pursuers will need to be at their Sunday best to catch Choi.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.