NAPLES, Fla. – Talk about a race. The leaderboard going into Sunday’s final round of the CME Group Tour Championship looks like the start of the Daytona 500 – jammed with contenders. And the Race to the CME Globe $1 million bonus is still very much up for grabs after it looked like Sung Hyun Park would run away with it.
While that new kid on the block – Park, the Rolex Rookie of the Year – got all the attention Thursday and Friday, it was several familiar “old” faces that popped onto the leaderboard in Saturday’s third round along with a fresh new one from that golf hotbed, South Dakota.
After a wacky and highly entertaining day, Michelle Wie, Suzann Pettersen, Ariya Jutanugarn and Kim Kaufman were tied for the lead at 10-under par, 206. Another seven were one-stroke back: Stacy Lewis, Karine Icher, Lexi Thompson, Austin Ernst, Jessica Korda, Pernilla Lindberg and Park.
If that’s not enough to keep you busy following the action in Sunday’s final round, there are 18 players within two strokes of the lead and a whopping 31 within four.
And talk about firepower in the hunt. Wie, who has not won since the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open, hampered by a series of illness and injury, fired a 66 in Saturday’s third round to gain her share of the lead.
Pettersen, a two-time major winner, whose 15th and last tour win came in 2015, carded a 69 to join those atop the leaderboard. Also elbowing her way into the tie at 206 with a 67 was Jutanugarn, 21, who won five times last year but only once in 2017.
Lewis, who won this year for the first time since 2014 and donated her entire paycheck to Houston hurricane relief, toured Tiburón Golf Club in 67 strokes to be at 207, among those one-stroke back.
But stealing the show Saturday was Kaufman, a 6-foot, 26-year-old from Clark, S.D., who played college golf at Texas Tech and is looking for her first LPGA win. And if she does it here it will be noting short of remarkable. Kaufman played the first three events in Asia before she realized she had mononucleosis.
“I've been resting at home for two weeks,” she said and, since it was 20 degrees in South Dakota, that meant no practice but a lot of binge watching “Friends” and “Fixer Upper.” She arrived in Naples on Monday and practiced Tuesday, slowly knocking the rust off her game. Her 64 on Saturday made that effort a mission accomplished.
Wie was playing some of the most consistent golf of her career earlier this year before needing an emergency appendectomy. After six weeks off, she came into the CME having played five events in a row on the Asia swing and is trying to manage her energy.
“I've been sitting as much as I can,” says Wie, who dyed her hair blonde when bored at home during her recovery. “Last week I was like laying down on the golf course,” she said. “Basically, I'm just a hermit crab this week. I'm just sleeping as much as I can and not leaving my room; just really trying to keep my energy levels up.”
Park took a three-stroke lead into the weekend but struggled to a 75. Her errant driver was to blame on Saturday as she missed seven fairways and squandered an opportunity to separate from the field, as well as gain precious strokes on Thompson for the scoring title.
“I think the tee shots were not quite solid, so there was something missing out there,” Park said about her struggles with the driver. But once again the rookie displayed impressive maturity and understanding of the complexities of the game.
“Over the course of four days there is always a day when you are not in top shape and that was today,” she said. “Keeping your focus all four days is difficult. The key is how you cover up your loss of focus. There are a lot of top players on the leaderboard. The key tomorrow will be keeping my focus.”
For Park, the math is simple. Win on Sunday and she’s not only Rookie of the Year but also Player of the Year, money leader, takes home the $1 million CME bonus and likely returns to No. 1 in the Rolex Rankings. Her chances for the Vare Trophy are remote, however. She’d have to beat Thompson by 10 strokes in the final round. And if Park and Thompson end 72 holes tied, Lexi wins the $1 million bonus as well as the Vare Trophy.
Wow, this is fun! Ladies, start your engines. It’s time for the last lap of this race.