It was 'Moving Day' at the U.S. Senior Women's Open and, with the threat of late afternoon thunderstorms looming large, Laura Davies was in the biggest hurry as she surged into a commanding five-shot lead by the end of Saturday's third round.
Propelled by a monster eagle putt from the back of the green at the par-five 12th, the long-hitting Davies fired a superb seven-under 66 on a Chicago Golf Club layout softened by overnight rain to post an 11-under total of 208.
Twice U.S. Women's Open champion Juli Inkster was alone in second place after eagling the last for a 68 while Trish Johnson, who had been tied for the lead with fellow Englishwoman Davies after 36 holes, was a further two strokes back at four-under, after a 73.
Danielle Ammaccapone, a seven-time winner on the LPGA Tour, returned a 71 to climb into fourth at two-under, the only other player in red numbers after 54 holes in a field of 55 that made the cut.
With nasty weather forecast for late Saturday, tee times were moved up by the United States Golf Association (USGA) and the players were sent off both the first and 10th holes. Davies wasted little time in the final group out, sandwiching three birdies around a bogey at the fourth to move to 6-under.
With her iron play in pinpoint form, she picked up another shot at the 11th before coaxing a double-breaking 75-footer into the cup for a spectacular eagle on 12 that put her six strokes clear of her closest challengers.
Though Inkster closed in with a birdie at the 14th, and put an exclamation point on her round with an eagle-three on 18, Davies picked up further shots at the 15th and 18th to establish a five-stroke cushion.
"My irons were great today," said Davies. "I drove it nicely and hit a lot of fairways, but my distance control with my irons was amazing. The very first shot, a 6-iron at the first, I didn't hole the putt but I hit it to about six feet, and it was dead pin high. That was a nice way to get the round going. And I just hit good irons from then. I had one bogey on the fourth when I hit it in the long stuff, which you can't do here, so that was about a standard bogey. From that point, it was basically just a good, fun day."
Davies, the 1987 U.S. Women's Open champion, is known for being one of the most relaxed players on the LPGA Tour but she felt that her commanding lead heading into the final round would guarantee her a sleepless Saturday night.
"I'm not saying I'd rather be tied for the lead, but you sleep a lot better when you're tied for the lead," she grinned. "It's there for me to lose now. If I go and shoot 3-under, 4-under tomorrow, then it would be mine, but that's a lot of hard work in front of me. I've put myself under pressure. I know a big lead like that seems a lot, but it really isn't in golf, is it. We all know that.
"Up until this point, I've been about as relaxed as possible. You obviously think you want to worry about the cut, but it's a lot easier making the cut this week than it was last week (on the LPGA Tour), for instance, when it was 4-under par. The pressure is off a little bit, but now it's back on again because there's a USGA golf championship to try and win tomorrow, and I never thought I'd have a chance to win one again. Everything has changed. The fun is gone now; it's all turned a bit serious now."
INKSTER READY TO 'JUST SEE WHAT HAPPENS' IN USGA TITLE QUEST
Although she trails the pace-setting Davies by a substantial five shots heading into the final round at Chicago Golf Club, Inkster still has an opportunity to become only the sixth player to win three different USGA individual championships - emulating Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Carol Semple Thompson and JoAnne Carner. Victory in the inaugural U.S. Senior Women's Open would follow Inkster's three consecutive U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship titles, plus her U.S. Women’s Open triumphs in 1999 and 2002.
"Winning this would rank No. 1 in this decade for me, right behind the (San Francisco) Giants winning the World Series," smiled Inkster, an ardent Bay Area sports fan. "It would rank very high up there. We'll see what happens. I thought I played well today. I missed a few short putts early on that kind of set me back a little bit, but I hung in there. I kept grinding.
"You know, Laura is going to be tough to beat tomorrow because she hits a few wild ones but she seems to recover. Her iron game is really on point, and she's made a ton of putts today. I mean, she putted beautiful. If she plays like she did today, no one is going to catch her, but that's why we play. So we'll just see what happens."
Inkster is a 31-time winner on the LPGA Tour, but she was left scratching her head when asked if she could recollect her biggest come-from-behind tournament victory.
"I have no idea," she said. "I don't know. You know, it really might have been my first win ever at Safeco (in her rookie year of 1983). I think I was maybe like eight back of (Kathy) Whitworth. But the weather was horrible, and I think I shot maybe like 2-under. The weather was probably the worst I've ever played in. But that's really the only one I can remember. I'm surprised I can remember that."
'REAL SPECIAL' WEEK GETS EVEN BETTER FOR HOLLIS STACY
Competing in the very first U.S. Senior Women's Open has been 'real special' for World Golf Hall of Fame member Hollis Stacy, and it was made even sweeter after she and her younger sister, amateur Martha Leach, both made the cut at Chicago Golf Club.
Stacy, the U.S. Women's Open champion in 1977, 1978 and 1984, rolled in a 10-footer at the par-five 18th on Saturday to conclude her third round with consecutive birdies and then watched as her sister, playing one group behind, parred the last to card a one-under 72.
"This week has been real special, seeing friends that I've known for years, both amateur and professional," Stacy told LPGA.com after signing for a 77 to finish at 11-over 230. "With my sister also qualifying with me, that made it extra special. We've both had a great time here."
Half an inch of rain overnight softened a Chicago Golf Club layout that had been running fast and firm under blazing sunshine earlier in the week, so the shorter hitters were always going to struggle a little during the third round.
"Making the cut here was very special for me but this course played long today, so it was quite a challenge," said Stacy. "I was happy to finish kind of respectable. This championship for over-50 players has been a long time coming but they did the right thing, they brought it to one of the top courses in the world, and to a community that is very golf responsive. The Chicago crowds have been great, and it's been a really, really exciting week."
Asked if she had any apprehension about her own form coming into this week given her limited playing schedule these days, Stacy replied: "Well I knew there would be some ugly shots and I knew that I can't expect to play like I used to play but I'm respectable, middle of the field. I had no intention of trying to win because I can't hit it as far as some of these other players. But it's been a wonderful experience."
Another special moment for Stacy came after Friday's second round when she asked 'Big Mama' JoAnne Carner, one of her playing competitors over the first two days at Chicago Golf Club, for a putting tip.
"It worked out really nicely," Stacy smiled. "I had played with JoAnne for two tournaments and she made every six-footer so I said to her, 'I got to know.' Because I wasn't good on my six-footers. She gave me a great tip, just raising my hands a little bit. And it worked, it worked a lot. She takes both thumbs off the grip but I couldn't do that so I did kind of a hybrid of JoAnne. She's wonderful."