NAPLES, Fla - Nelly Korda likes to look at leaderboards when she plays; Lexi Thompson doesn’t. In the final round of the CME Group Tour Championship, all they will have to do to know what’s going on is look at each other. The two 6-foot Americans can certainly see eye-to-eye and on Sunday they will be paired with Carlota Ciganda of Spain in the final group, with Thompson enjoying a three-stroke advantage over Korda and Ciganda six back when they tee off at Tiburón Golf Club.
Thompson continued her magnificent play with a 68 on Saturday that put her at 16-under par 200 after three rounds. Korda made a big move up with a 67 to be in at 203 through 54 holes while Ciganda had a 69 to be at 206. So Yeon Ryu and Marina Alex are at 207 with Lydia Ko and Brittany Lincicome at 208. Sei Young Kim, Gaby Lopez, Megan Khang and Charley Hull are at 209.
“This is my favorite week of the year,” said Thompson. “I’ve been working on my game so hard and it’s fun to see it pay off,” she said, clutching her dog, Leo, as she answered questions between puppy kisses. “I try not to look at leaderboards,” she said about her strategy on the course. “I just try to shoot the best I can.”
Her best on Saturday was a bogey-free final 14 holes, punctuated by five birdies after a bogey on No. 4. She continued her rock-solid putting and is averaging only 30 strokes per round through 54 holes with the club that has troubled her throughout her career. A win Sunday would extend her streak of years with at least one victory to six.
For Korda, it was Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride as she bounced back brilliantly every time she made a mistake. After a bogey on No. 3, she made a downhill slider of a putt for birdie on No. 4, chipped in for birdie on No. 5 and followed that with another birdie on the sixth hole. Twice when she made bogey on the back nine she immediately erased the mistake with a birdie on the next hole.
“I played pretty solid, especially on the front nine,” Korda said. “I had a chip-in for birdie that got me going. I had a couple of lucky breaks and every time I made a bogey I bounced back right away.” Was she aware that she was getting back into the mix with her birdie barrage? “I’m a leaderboard watcher because of my sister,” she said, “so I knew what Lexi was doing.”
Korda, 20, picked up her first LPGA win three weeks ago at the Swinging Skirts LPGA Taiwan and she says that win has given her new confidence and that advice from her sister, Jessica, has helped her focus. “She says to just stay relaxed, just stay calm and just play your game,” Nelly said. Jessica is 11 strokes back at 211.
In the Race for the CME Globe $1 million bonus, Ariya Jutanugarn held onto the top spot with a 69 that has her at 210 going into Sunday. Brooke Henderson is in second place with So Yeon Ryu jumping to third with a 69. Nasa Hataoka and Minjee Lee are tied for fourth.
Jutanugarn, who needed to be within 15 strokes of Jin Young Ko to win the Vare Trophy for lowest scoring average, has pretty much wrapped up that honor. Right now she has a 28-stroke cushion. And if she claims the Race to the CME Globe bonus, Jutanugarn will have swept all the major LPGA awards for 2018.
“I was very proud of my play today, specially on the front nine,” Jutanugarn said about going out in 33. Her only hiccup was on No. 11, where she made double bogey. “I hit one bad shot,” she said. “The tee shot.” She also said she blocked the $1 million bonus and the Vare Trophy out of her mind. “I did a really good job of not thinking about that,” she said.
On Sunday, Thompson and Korda won’t be able to block out what’s going on; they will be right in the middle of it. In a year in which a tour-leading eight Americans have won LPGA tournaments, it looks like the final outcome of the final event of the year will be in the hands of two Yanks. And two tall ones at that. I guess you can say the season is ending on a high note.