PINEHURST, N.C. (AP) – In the midst of throwing away a four-shot lead, Michelle Wie never lost sight of the big picture at Pinehurst No. 2.
The U.S. Women’s Open rarely goes according to plan, and Saturday was no exception. Wie knows that from experience long ago, and she settled down with four important pars to wind up with a 54-hole share of the lead for the third time in her career.
Wie was a teenager the other two times. Now at 24, she was one round away from capturing her first major.
“I’m just grateful for another opportunity,” Wie said after salvaging a 2-over 72 to tie Amy Yang. “Tomorrow I’m going to play as hard as I can and hope for the best.”
Yang, who earned a spot in the final group for the second time in three years, didn’t make a par until the eighth hole in a wild round so typical of this day. Only a sloppy bogey on the final hole cost her the outright lead, though she was more than happy with a 68.
They were at 2-under 208, the only players still under par.
A pivotal moment for Wie came on the 12th hole. She reached 6 under for the tournament with back-to-back birdies at the turn. She made her first double bogey of the tournament with a tee shot she hooked into the pine trees on the 11th. Her next drive sailed well to the right and settled on a sandy path. Instead of punching under the trees and over the bunker to the green – anything long is a tough up-and-down – she pitched out to the fairway and made bogey.
“U.S. Opens are tough,” she said. “I feel like maybe on a different golf course, I would have taken that chance. You just don’t want to be too greedy out here. Even though you make bogey, sometimes you just don’t want to make a double out here. I felt like I made the right decision there.”
The USGA set the course up relative to what the men faced last Saturday in the U.S. Open when wire-to-wire winner Martin Kaymer had his only over-par round with a 72. It was short (6,270 yards) but tough because of the pin positions.
That didn’t stop Juli Inkster. The 53-year-old Hall of Famer, who has said her 35th appearance in the Women’s Open will be her last, had a tournament-best 66 to get into contention. She will be in the penultimate group, four shots out of the lead, still dreaming of a third Open title that would make her by 10 years the oldest Women’s Open winner.
“You can think and you can dream all you want,” Inkster said. “But the bottom line is you’ve got to come out and make the shots. And if I’m tied for the lead coming up 18, then maybe I’ll think about it. I’ve got a long way to go. I’m just going to enjoy the moment and hit a few balls and see what happens.”
Also remaining in the hunt was Lexi Thompson, who won the first LPGA major this year in a final-round duel with Wie, and pulled within one shot of Wie with a pair of birdies early in the round.
It fell apart on two holes.
Thompson missed the green to the left on No. 8 – the worst spot at Pinehurst – and her first chip fell down the slope, leading to double bogey.
On the next hole, she went long over the green and chose to take relief she really didn’t need from a white line marking the TV tower. Thompson went to the drop zone, and her ball rolled back into a divot. Worst yet, she still used her putter, and it hopped high out of the divot and had no chance to reach the green. She made another double bogey, then made three straight bogeys on the back nine. She birdied the final hole for a 74 that left over 3 over.
Na Yeon Choi had a 71 and was in the group with Inkster at 2-over 212 along with Stephanie Meadow (69) and 18-year-old amateur Minjee Lee of Australia (72). Another shot back were So Yeon Ryu, who played her final 10 holes in 3 under for a 70, and Karrie Webb, who went the final 12 holes without a bogey for a 70.
“Michelle Wie has put a few of us back into the tournament,” Webb said. “Two hours ago, I didn’t think I had a shot. I’m pretty happy about that.”
Wie hit 8-iron to 8 feet for birdie on the par-3 ninth, and then hit a beautiful lag from about 80 feet for at two-putt birdie on the par-5 10th to reach 6 under. One swing changed everything.
The back tee on No. 11 was used for the first time all week, playing at 444 yards. Lucy Li, the 11-year-old who missed the cut as the Women’s Open’s youngest qualifier in history, walked the final 12 holes with the last group. “Man, that hole is like 10 times harder from there,” she said. “Well, maybe not for them.”
Definitely for them based on their shots.
Wie hit a snap-hook that rambled through the trees and left her no shot but to go sideways and slightly back. She hit her third in a greenside bunker, blasted out about 25 feet long and nearly off the green and made double bogey.
“You can’t be in the tree here,” Wie said. “But I felt like I grinded out there.”
That’s what it usually takes in the U.S. Women’s Open. Wie shot 82 in final round at Cherry Hills when she was 15. She missed a playoff at Newport by two shots a year later. She is back again, a 24-year-old former teen prodigy, 18 holes away and still a long way to go.