Minjee Lee sets 54-hole scoring record, leads U.S. Women’s Open by three


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SOUTHERN PINES, N.C. — Minjee Lee was grinning broadly for much her third round at the U.S. Women’s Open, waving to the galleries while navigating Pine Needles golf club as if the Australian barely had a care on a glorious Saturday afternoon.

Even on errant shots, so rare they could be counted on one hand, Lee simply shrugged her shoulders and summoned exquisite touch either to save par or extract birdie from uncomfortable positions on the way to the record for lowest 54-hole score at the U.S. Women’s Open.

Lee, 26, carded a 4-under-par 67 to reach 13-under 200 for the tournament and close in on the second major title of her career after winning the Evian Championship in France last year, when she stormed back from a seven-stroke deficit in the final round to defeat Jeong-Eun Lee on the first playoff hole.

U.S. Women’s Open leader board

“Yeah, I’m pretty calm,” said Lee, who was easy to spot on the course wearing a bright red top and reflective sunglasses. “My personality is pretty calm anyway. I don’t think I get too high or too low. That’s a strength of mine.”

Lee’s closest pursuer is Mina Harigae (1-under 70), who played in the final pairing with Lee and began the third round in a tie for first at 9 under. But Harigae, who trails by three, bogeyed Nos. 11 and 12 while Lee reeled off four consecutive birdies beginning at the ninth to swing the tide atop the leader board.

England’s Bronte Law was alone in third place, six shots behind Lee thanks to a third-round 68, and amateur sensation Ingrid Lindblad was part of a crowded field at 6 under. Included in that group of six was world No. 1 Jin Young Ko, who holed out from the fairway at No. 18 to complete her round at even-par 71.

Lee didn’t produce one of those unlikely shots in the third round, but her command around the course still allowed her to break by one stroke the previous 54-hole record Hall of Famer Julie Inkster established in 1999 at Old Waverly Golf Club in West Point, Miss.

Lee, ranked No. 4 in the world, hit 13 of 14 fairways for a second consecutive round and was perfect on 11 putts within five feet. She also hit 14 of 18 greens in regulation (77.8 percent) to rank tied for fourth for the round and tied for fifth in that statistic over 54 holes, hitting 43 of 54 (79.6 percent).

“I’m just going to stick to what I know,” Lee said of her strategy heading into the final round. “I’ve been to plenty of U.S. Opens and been in pressure situations like this before. Just take away my experience from the other events and the other Opens and try to get it done tomorrow.”

Lee, whose best showing at U.S. Women’s Open is a tie for 11th in 2017, rallied after a two-shot swing at the 188-yard par-3 fifth hole that is playing as the second-most difficult hole of the tournament.

Harigae pulled a 4-hybrid from her bag and coaxed her tee ball to five feet of the flagstick. Lee’s tee shot wound up on the right fringe some 45 feet from the cup. Her second shot stopped inside of eight feet, but Lee missed the par putt to fall to 8 under before Harigae’s bid hung on the left edge and dropped to get her to 10 under.

Harigae dropped a shot after bogeying the seventh for the second day in a row but followed with a near hole-out at the eighth, where her approach settled an inch from the hole for a tap-in birdie. Two holes earlier, Lee hit her approach at the 399-yard par 4 to within seven feet and drained the putt to get back to 9 under.

Harigae owned a one-stroke lead at the turn by rolling in a five-foot birdie putt at the ninth to reach 11 under, but Lee matched that by sinking an 11-footer to ignite her birdie barrage.

“You know, I was a little nervous in the beginning, but I was able to hit some good shots,” Harigae said. “My middle was pretty good. Then got a little — hit a little squirrelly shots, but then I made a good birdie on 16. I think overall I’m just happy with the way I was able to hang in there.”

Two groups ahead were Ko and Lindblad, the world’s second-ranked amateur who continued her improbable run through the U.S. Women’s Open with putting and iron play in the early stages Saturday as crisp and confident as professionals with résumés far more extensive.

At the 391-yard par-4 fourth, for instance, the two-time SEC player of the year at LSU landed her approach to seven feet and sank the putt to reach 9 under and a three-way share of the lead.

But she gave a shot back at the fifth and made three more bogeys on her inward nine to dampen her hopes of becoming just the second amateur to win the U.S. Women’s Open.

“It was a really good start, and then I kind of hit a really bad shot on five, made bogey,” said Lindblad, whose 65 in the opening round set the amateur record for lowest 18-hole score in a USGA championship. “But still said keep the doubles off the scorecard and make bogeys instead of doubles. Overall it was okay today.”


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