Minjee Lee sent a message early when she posted a 64 before the leaders had even teed off in Saturday’s third round of the ANA Inspiration: There is a low score lurking at Mission Hills. Pernilla Lindberg got the memo but Sung Hyun Park apparently did not. The first major championship of the year, which at one point looked like it might be a two-person runaway, now goes to Sunday with one of the more fascinating leaderboards in recent major memory.
Lindberg fired a gritty 70 to get through 54 holes in a tournament record 14-under par 202. She will be paired in the final round with Amy Olson who, like Lindberg, has never won an LPGA event, let alone a major. Olson did win 20 times at North Dakota State University and took the 2009 U.S. Girls Junior. She shot a sizzling 68 to get to 205, three strokes behind Lindberg.
Lurking ominously at 206 are Inbee Park, winner of seven majors, Moriya Jutanugarn, Jennifer Song, Charley Hull, Jodi Ewart Shadoff and Sung Hyun Park. Ayako Uehara is at 207 with Rolex No. 1 Shanshan Feng and Jessica Korda at 208.
Of the top 28 players going into Sunday’s final round, only Sung Hyun Park, with a 74, and Jessica Korda, who was three strokes off the lead after 36 holes but shot 73 on Saturday, were over par in the third round.
Lindberg shot one of the more imaginative under-par rounds in a major, missing six fairways and eight greens but using only 26 putts. She made bombs from all over the place, including 20-foot par-savers on Nos. 1 and 6. The one on No. 6 was especially important since it followed her first bogey of the week on the previous hole.
“That was really huge,” she said. “A momentum builder.” Asked about her deft touch on the greens, the ebullient Swede said: “I was actually bummed with leaving quite a few putts short and right on line. I saw the line good today and I love these greens.” She finished out her four birdie, two bogey round with a 4-footer for birdie on the final hole.
Olson also made birdie on No. 18 to cap off an extremely solid round of golf. “I’m sure I will,” she said when asked if she’ll have butterflies on Sunday. “I’ve never been in this situation before but I’m excited about it. No matter what happens, it’s a learning experience. I’m pretty tired after today so I think I’ll sleep pretty good.”
Sung Hyun Park looked like she might run away and hide when she made three birdies in a row beginning on No. 9, but as she walked to No. 12 tee she and Lindberg were told they were on the clock. What followed was not pretty as Park played the next five holes five over par.
“I just tried to focus on my own game,” Park said when asked if the slow-play warning rattled her. “It was rough out there,” she said. “I missed a bunch of fairways, but I also had a lot of good shots and I’m going to focus on what I need to do tomorrow.”
Lindberg has never been in a situation anywhere near like this, but she seems more than up to the task, at least in terms of attitude. “I just stuck to myself the whole day," she said when asked how she handled the birdie burst by Park so well. “I knew Sung Hyun was going to make some birdies.”
After Friday’s round, Lindberg, her fiance’-caddie Danny and her parents took a gondola ride to the 10,800-foot mark in the mountains, where the temperature is 60 degrees below the 97-degree heat of the desert. It was all just part of her plan to stay as relaxed as possible.
“I’m going to keep doing what I’ve been doing for three days,” Lindberg said. “I said to Danny before the round, 'How many people get to play in the last group of a major. Let’s just have fun. Let’s enjoy it.'’’
Olson has a similar plan to handle the pressure. “I really think that anybody can win,” she said. “There are a lot of names bunched up there. I won the junior amateur in New Jersey. I can draw on that tomorrow.”
But if the duo at the top falters, there is another group of formidable foes lurking at seven-under-par 209: In-Kyung Kim, Minjee Lee – she of Saturday’s 64 – Ariya Jutanugarn, Caroline Masson and Albane Valenzuela, the 20-year-old amateur from Switzerland.
So many questions to be answered in this final round. Will Lindberg and Olson hold up? Will Sung Hyun Park bounce back from her disappointing third round? Will one of those other lurkers make a big move? The stage seems set for a memorable Easter Sunday, just as it should be at a major championship.