The thing about the weekend at the U.S. Women’s Open is that it is the weekend at the U.S. Women’s Open.
There is no way to practice for that pressure; it’s only learned by experiencing it. A lot of players learned a lot about major championship golf on a challenging Saturday at Champions Golf Club.
When the sun rose Saturday at Champions, 19 players were under par. When it set after the third round, only four were in red numbers. On top is Hinako Shibuno, the 2019 AIG Women’s Open champion. But even Smiling Cinderella felt the intensity of the weekend at a major championship.
She bookended her rounds with bogeys on the first and final hole on her way to a three-over-par 74, putting her at four-under-par 209, one stroke ahead of Amy Olson and three better than Moriya Jutanugarn and Ji Yeong Kim2, whose 67 was the low score of the day by three strokes.
“I made mistake at the very beginning and because I'm not doing well today my premise wasn't good today,” Shibuno said about how a starting bogey got her into a poor frame of mind. “So all the holes seems to be very difficult for me.”
Asked what made the day so difficult, Shibuno answered with the same refreshing honesty that charmed everyone when she won the AIG Women’s Open.
“I myself was very nervous,” she said. “Because I was on top of everybody, that's why.”
Shibuno, a joyful 22-year-old from Japan known as Smiling Cinderella in her homeland, is trying to become only the fifth player to win the U.S. Women’s Open in her first try. That would come as no surprise: When she won the AIG Women’s Open at Woburn in England it was her first tournament outside Japan.
She’s being chased by Olson, who joined the LPGA in 2014 after winning an NCAA-record 20 times at North Dakota State University but is still chasing her first Tour win. She’s looked very much like a champion this week.
“I'm really pleased with how I played today,” she said after an even-par 71. “It was such a grind. Pars were a great score on every single hole today. It obviously would be a huge accomplishment [to win], something that you dream about as a kid. But obviously that's a long way away and my whole goal is to really stay in the moment and not get ahead of myself.”
If Jutanugarn were to win, she’d join her sister Ariya as a USGA champion, becoming only the third sisters to both win USGA events. Ariya won the 2018 U.S Women’s Open.
“I'm pretty happy with how I played today,” Moriya said after her 72. “I just think like all the majors you have to be patient and just take it when you can and something like that.”
She was in the same threesome with her sister on Saturday, and that can be a good thing or a bad thing.
“Last night, we got a text from my friends and say, ‘Please don't fight on the golf course,’” Moriya said. “We don't fight, but we just like kind of like complaining to each other a little bit today. I mean, everyone had a tough day, but I still enjoy it, I enjoy playing with my sister.”
The round by Kim2 snuck up on everyone. Because she was so far back, she started on No. 10 and finished on No. 9 – making up seven strokes on Shibuno.
“Definitely, I need to be on guard and do more consulting with my caddie and planning for tomorrow's round,” she said about no longer flying under the radar.
“I really didn't expect to be performing so well and I'm just glad to be here,” she said about being in her first U.S. Women’s Open.
If there is a stumble at the top of the leaderboard, 19-year-old Yealimi Noh and Lydia Ko are lurking at even-par 213 with Rolex No. 1 Jin Young Ko, this year’s KPMG Women’s PGA winner Sei Young Kim, Ariya Jutanugarn and 2007 U.S Women’s Open winner Cristie Kerr at 214.
Another stroke back is defending champion Jeongeun Lee6.
The Champions Cypress Creek Course was a brut on Saturday, playing to a stroke average of 74.697 – 3.697 strokes over par. Expect more of the same on Sunday, when nasty weather is a possibility.
After all, it is the final round of the U.S. Women’s Open. LPGA majors are exactly that – major tests.