Na Yeon Choi breaks away with a 65
KOHLER, Wis. -- Her initials in English are NYC. And even if she doesn't really have any connection to the "Big Apple" -- other than that being her nickname on the LPGA tour -- you could say Na Yeon Choi's third round at the U.S. Women's Open was like the Yankees at their slugging best.
This, folks, was quite a masterpiece. Especially in comparison to how everyone else played, Choi shot one of the best rounds in the history of the tournament. Her 7-under 65 tied for the lowest score ever in the third round of the Women's Open.
Yet another of the many South Koreans who have excelled on the LPGA tour and profusely thank Se Ri Pak for the inspiration, Choi grabbed hold of the Women's Open with both hands, while everybody else saw it wriggle from their grasp.
Technically, the tournament is not over until Sunday, and at a place like Blackwolf Run, anything is possible. But Choi will have to put it in reverse, big-time, for that to happen, which would be a huge change from Saturday, when all she did was floor it.
At 8-under 208, Choi has a six-shot lead on fellow Korean Amy Yang. They were among just five players who shot under par Saturday, with Yang's 69 leaving her at 2-under 214.
Only five players are still overall in the red -- which in golf, of course, is a good thing -- going into the final round. American teenager Lexi Thompson, Germany's Sandra Gal, and Japan's Mika Miyazato are tied for third at 1-under 215.
For everyone else, Saturday was a day to fade to black. One player -- American Vicky Hurst -- is at even par. The rest of the field is now over par. And everybody was overwhelmed by Choi.
"I had fun out there," Choi said. "Actually, I couldn't believe how I got eight birdies today. But I did."
The one blemish was a bogey on No. 13, but it hardly mattered. Her round was 12 shots better than Saturday's average score of 77.
"That was one of the best rounds I've ever seen, and I've seen some good ones out here [on the LPGA tour]," said Nicole Castrale, Choi's playing partner Saturday. "I didn't think [a 65] was out there, but I was proven wrong. It was clearly there. But she played pretty much perfect all day."
While Choi was putting on a grand show all over the course, most everyone else was not very entertaining.
Hitting into the water? Check. Missing key putts? Check. Failing to make Choi sweat even a little once she took control of the lead? Check.
Actually, nobody was sweating all that much, especially not compared with the first two days here when it was so much hotter. The temperatures were in the 70s Saturday, and the wind was blowing more consistently.
When the Women's Open was at this course 14 years ago, the wind also picked up in the third round and took the scores with it. That Saturday in 1998, though, everyone struggled to a degree, and there were no outliers.
As opposed to this Saturday, when several of the competitors must have looked up at the leaderboard, seen Choi's score, and thought, "Is she actually playing this course?"
For her part, Choi said she didn't look at the leaderboard, or at least not very much. Her caddie admonished her when she took a quick peek at it on No. 9, and after that she kept her eyes averted. So she didn't think about the fact that she was leaving most of the field in her dust.
As for how she will prepare for what should be a coronation round Sunday, Choi said she will try to treat the final day just like the rest of this week.
"I just want to focus on my aim and rhythm about my swing, especially my putting," said Choi, who had 26 putts, and for the second day in a row hit 15 of 18 greens in regulation. "This is a very difficult course; a lot harder than regular weeks."
It didn't look hard for her Saturday. But it did for the likes of Suzann Pettersen, who entered the third round with a one-shot lead, and Michelle Wie and Cristie Kerr, who were tied for second coming into Saturday.
Pettersen and Wie, playing in the marquee final pairing, both shot 6-over 78s. Kerr shot a 77. Pettersen and Kerr now are in a group of six players tied for seventh place at 1-over 217, while Wie is tied for 13th at 218.
Wie had a second-round 66 when her putter was working very well. But Saturday, that was just a pleasant memory, as she had 33 putts compared with 23 Friday.
"It was tough out there, for sure," Wie said. "A little disappointed with my play today. Na Yeon had a really awesome score today, and we'll see what happens tomorrow."
It's quite a bounce-back from what happened to Choi at the last major, the LPGA Championship in June. There, she had a brain freeze of sorts after the final round, forgetting to sign her scorecard and causing herself to be disqualified.
"Humans can have mistakes," Choi said. "I wasn't mad maybe after 10 or 15 minutes. I talked to mom and dad, [they said], 'It happened; it's finished.' I tried to accept that it happened and do my best next tournament."
Choi tied for 40th and then tied for 23rd in the two subsequent events before the Women's Open. And while the degree to which she went low on Saturday was surprising -- especially in the context of her peers -- it's not a shock that Choi is on the verge of winning a major. Even though she's only 24, she's been primed for this for a while.
Choi has five LPGA victories and has won seven titles on the Korean tour. In 2010, she tied for second at the Women's Open and ended that year leading the LPGA's money list ($1,871,165.50). She's currently ranked No. 5 in the world and has been as high as No. 2.
Like most of the Korean players, she refers to Pak -- who won the Women's Open here in 1998 -- as the "legend." Choi says Pak and other Korean players who soon followed her success, such as Grace Park and Mi Hyun Kim, altered her mindset when she was still a child.
Choi thought she could play in Korea, but they showed her that it was possible to make it in the United States, too.
"I changed my goal," Choi said. "They encouraged all the Korean players, and we have a bigger dream because of them."