Michelle Wie began Saturday's third round at the 2014 U.S. Women's Open with a three-shot lead. All of it evaporated at Pinehurst No. 2 in North Carolina, as Wie posted a two-over 72, sliding back to two-under par overall and tied with Amy Yang.
Beginning the day four shots off Wie's pace, Yang battled back and had a turbulent roller-coaster start to her round, registering zero pars in the first seven holes amid a medley of birdies and bogeys. Thankfully for Yang, there was more of the former to be had.
Yang settled down with two birdies on the back nine, not dropping a shot until a disappointing three-put at the par-four 18th hole to close out a two-under 68. Pinehurst's slick greens often separate the contenders from the pretenders.
Until she got a bit too aggressive on No. 18, Yang held together a great round by holing some key putts, as she implied after her work was finished:
Below is a look at the updated leaderboard entering the last 18 holes:
|T3||Na Yeon Choi||+2|
|T7||So Yeon Ryu||+3|
Check out some of the top highlights from Day 3, courtesy of espnW:
Open Highlights http://t.co/62rPapIL26— espnwnews (@espnWnews) June 22, 2014
The heightened pressure of a major championship weekend and unforgiving course conditions made Pinehurst an even more trying test for the players.
Ask Lexi Thompson, Wie's playing partner, seeking her second straight major title. Consecutive double bogeys on Nos. 8 and 9, combined with three straight bogeys on the back, saw her tumble down the leaderboard from one-under to three-over after a 74.
Golf Channel's Randall Mell noted how close Thompson was in the beginning before a string of errors took her further from contention:
Blink, gulp, just like that, Lexi Thompson goes from 1 behind Michelle Wie to six back. Lexi just went double-double w/ Wie making birdie.— Randall Mell (@RandallMellGC) June 21, 2014
Thompson did birdie the last hole to get a bit closer, but she is still five shots behind, and the closest challengers to the co-leaders have a tough task ahead.
At the turn, it appeared Wie would take control of the tournament and perhaps run away with her maiden major, per Stephanie Wei of WeiUnderPar.com:
Wow. Michelle Wie drains her putt for birdie on 9 to get to -5, while Lexi makes her 2nd straight double-bogey. Wie now leads A. Yang by 3.— Stephanie Wei (@StephanieWei) June 21, 2014
But a pull-hooked tee shot on the par-four 11th went well wide of the fairway, and that led to a double bogey. While Wie's fellow competitor in Thompson wilted, a string of pars afforded Yang the chance to make up ground.
Current world No. 1 Stacy Lewis backtracked for the second straight day after posting a 67 to grab the Round 1 lead. Lewis battled back from a rocky start to get back to one-over through 10, but she settled for a disappointing 74 to sit in a tie for 12th.
A number of the game's greats are within striking distance. Although Wie and Yang are the only ones below par, Hall of Famer Juli Inkster is showing plenty of game approaching her 54th birthday. Inkster fired the best round of the event thus far with a four-under 66 to vault back into the mix for a third U.S. Open triumph.
Success at this late stage of her career isn't all too unfamiliar for Inkster, per Golf Channel's Justin Ray:
Juli Inkster, who became 2nd-oldest to win US Womens Open in '02 (age 42), shot 66 today. Lucy Li was not yet born.— Justin Ray (@JustinRayGC) June 21, 2014
The Associated Press' Doug Ferguson praised Inkster's exceptional exhibition as the field kept coming back to her:
Juli Inkster is T10 at the moment Hope it lasts. My opinion, the most underrated, underappreciated female athlete in US history.— Doug Ferguson (@dougferguson405) June 21, 2014
Inkster missed just one green in regulation after hitting just nine greens in Round 2. That would qualify as an improvement to say the least. She knows better than to get ahead of herself with 18 holes to play, though, per the LPGA's official Twitter account:
"You can think and you can dream all you want. Bottom line is you have to come out & make the shots." - @JuliInkster on being in contention— LPGA (@LPGA) June 21, 2014
Who will win the U.S. Women's Open?
Another two-time U.S. Women's Open champion in Karrie Webb is still hanging tough following a level-par 70 that has her three over for the championship.
Sunday's final pairing of Wie and Yang is bound to be exciting and should go a long way in shaping the future of each golfer's career. Wie has had many close calls in the majors, including a runner-up this year to Thompson at the Kraft Nabisco Championship. However, Yang has been knocking on the door as well, with at least one top-five major finish in each of the previous four seasons.
One of them is bound for a breakthrough, but with the pitfalls that await at Pinehurst, both are susceptible to succumb to the pressure. That could open the door for a proven veteran such as Inkster or Webb to post a number to think about earlier in the day as the last groups draw nearer to the clubhouse.
A nice mix of the current generation, the LPGA's future and several decorated legends should see the 2014 U.S. Women's Open conclude in dramatic fashion on Sunday.