While virtually everyone else was treading water, Jin Young Ko free-styled her way to the top of the leaderboard Saturday at the ANA Inspiration, mastering Mission Hills in 68 surgical strokes despite nearly drowning midway through the back nine.
That put the reigning Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year at 8-under-par 208, one stroke ahead of In-Kyung Kim, who rebounded masterfully after a disastrous front nine, heading to the final round.
Ko was cruising with a five-stroke lead, thanks in part to a 39 by Kim on the front, when she hit her tee shot on the par-3 14th hole into the water and made a double bogey, following that with a bogey to squander nearly all of her lead. A 12-foot birdie putt on No. 17 righted the ship and gave her good thoughts going into Sunday.
“I’m not a robot, I’m human,” Ko said about the pitching wedge she rinsed on No. 14. “Everyone can do a miss shot. Doesn’t matter. I’m thinking about my future.”
A good thing she has in her future is caddie Dave Brooker, who has looped in the ANA 16 times since 1997, including carrying Grace Park to victory in 2004 and Lorena Ochoa to the title in 2008.
“My caddie knows this course,” Ko said. “We are a good team.” Brooker agrees. “Our M.O. is fairways and greens,” he said. “She is just so smart for her age. She knows what she’s doing out there and knows how to control her emotions.”
The best moves of the third round were made by players off the pace going into Saturday. Mi Hyang Lee knocked in a 5-hybrid from 181 yards on No. 17 for a hole-in-one then birdied the 18th for a 68 to be at 211, tied for third with Danielle Kang.
Alena Sharp, who teed off more than three hours before the final group, fashioned a 67 to get to 213 along with Jeongeun Lee6 and Katherine Kirk.
Part of what the hiccup by Ko did was give hope to seven players at 214, an impressive group of Sung Hyun Park, Stacy Lewis, Jessica Korda, Brooke Henderson, Xiyu Lin, Ally McDonald and Angel Yin.
“This is the toughest I’ve ever played it here and I’ve played eight times now,” said Kang after shooting 70. “I know I’m at five and I know the gap closed and that there are a lot of people in it now. It’s going to be exciting tomorrow.”
Kim began the day with the lead, three strokes ahead of Kirk and four better than McDonald and Ko. But of that quartet, only Ko broke par, although Kim rallied with a 34 coming in to climb back to second place. .
Ko, who is not long off the tee but extremely accurate with both the driver and her irons, had a putter hotter than the desert sun, knocking in birdies from all over the Coachella Valley on the front nine. Jin Young, who leaves the flagstick even on the shortest putts, turned 10-footers into tap-ins and slithered the occasional 20-footer home, needing the flat stick only 27 times.
On the rare occasion Ko made a mistake, her short game was the great eraser. After four birdies in five holes beginning on No. 2, she missed the green by about a foot pin-high on No. 7 and chopped a tasty chip from a terrible lie to a foot. And on the next hole, putting from 35 feet and the wrong level of the green, she cozied the ball down the treacherous slope to about six inches.
She got back in the groove on No. 9, flighting her third shot on the par-5 to a foot for her fifth birdie to turn in 31 and be nine under par for the tournament. When Kim made a double bogey on No. 9 to go out in 39 and Ko birdied No. 10, her lead was five strokes.
But this is a major championship and complicating the difficulties of the course and nature are the pressures of performing on the big stage. That may have gotten to Ko on Nos. 14 and 15 but she sure sounded after the round that he had everything well in perspective.
There is, however, a lot of talent looking over her shoulder going into Sunday’s final round. Kim won the 2017 AIG Women’s British Open and Kang won the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship the same year. They know how to seal the deal.
The forecast is for temperatures in the mid 90s on Sunday, but that will be only part of the heat the players will feel. A tournament that at one point on Saturday seemed as if it would be a runaway is now anything but. And that should make for an exciting final round.