JOHNS CREEK, Ga | In golf, classics are rarely authored on Saturday. But Sunday will have to go some to top what Lizette Salas and Nelly Korda penned in the third round of the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship.
But like all great performers, they left the audience wanting more and with the feeling that the best is yet to come. The stage is set for what promises to be a scintillating final round at Atlanta Athletic Club with that duo tied at the top at 15-under-par 201, five strokes clear of the pack.
After a record-tying 63 put her at 11-under-par 133 through 36 holes, Korda took a one-stroke lead over Salas into the third round. And Nelly, who finished Friday with six consecutive birdies, began Saturday with two more birdies for eight in a row.
But Salas matched her birdie for birdie – and then some, scorching the front nine in 30 strokes to 33 by Korda to take a two-stroke lead to the inward nine, which turned into more of a chess match than the birdie barrage on the front side.
Things tightened to a single stroke on No. 10 when Salas made her only bogey 45 holes into the tournament and Korda moved into a tie with a birdie on No. 13. They then matched pars the rest of the way and finished 54 holes tied for the lead in the third major championship of the LPGA Tour season.
“Lizette was rolling in some nice ones today, and I told myself, I've got to hit it close to even keep up with her,” Korda said. “There's still 18 more holes, and there's a lot of water in play here, and there's a lot of really difficult tee shots I would say on this golf course that if you just miss it by a little, you're in the water.”
Both Korda, who picked up her fifth LPGA Tour last week at the Meijer Classic, and Salas, whose Tour triumph was at Kingsmill in 2014, are seeking their first major championship.
“I'm really proud of myself for how I started and how I maintained that confidence throughout the round even though putts weren't dropping,” Salas said. “I was embracing it. I was greeting some fans and just enjoying the moment. It's been a while since I've done that. I got off to a really hot start, and I didn't realize I shot 30 until I signed my scorecard. I think it's good momentum going into tomorrow.”
Meanwhile, as the great Mickey Wright said, “Every star needs a good chorus line.” That happened late in the day when Patty Tavatanakit, Giulia Molinaro and Celine Boutier elbowed their way into the spotlight at 206 and within shouting distance of the lead.
Tavatanakit, winner of the first major of the year at the ANA Inspiration, closed with five birdies in the last seven holes for a 65. And Molinaro shot 66, also making birdies on five of the last seven holes. Boutier, almost an afterthought playing with Salas and Korda when she was 1-over par through seven holes, made birdies on Nos. 8 and 9, eagled No. 12 and birdied No. 18 to also be at 206.
Korda gave no sign of a hangover from her 63 on Friday, making no bogeys in her third round 68. She missed only three fairways and two greens, averaging a robust 289 yards off the tee.
“I think when you get into that mindset of kind of egging each other on, it's fun, but it's also nerve-racking,” Korda said. “Your adrenaline definitely gets up there. You still have 18 more holes, a lot of golf left out here, so anything can happen. Someone from behind can come and shoot a really low score. You just never know with golf, and that's the beauty of it.”
Salas was 40 yards behind Korda off the tee on most holes and hit first from the fairway all day, often with a wood, but found the green with astonishing regularity. On No. 16, for example, Salas had 165 yards left for her second shot and hit a 4-hydrid while Korda hit a pitching wedge from 118 yards -- and Salas ended up closer to the hole.
“Well, knowing that I'm not the longest hitter, I think I'm used to that,” Salas said after her third consecutive 67. “I think I'm just so comfortable in saying, you know what, I'm going to hit first, and knowing my game. My hybrid game is pretty good at the moment, and you could look at it that way, that I am applying pressure or something like that, but I'm just sticking to my game plan and what I'm comfortable with.”
On Sunday, they will be playing in twosomes and that is only fitting. The show Korda and Salas put on Saturday was good enough to demand an encore with them sharing the spotlight and the final round of the KPMG Women’s PGA is the perfect stage upon which these two talents at the top of their games should strut their stuff.