When she successfully defended her U.S. Women’s Open title in 2001 at Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club, Karrie Webb ran away from a stellar field to produce an eight-stroke victory.
Now a fellow Australian with close ties to the World Golf Hall of Famer is threatening to do the same thing on the same Donald Ross layout in the 77th U.S. Women’s Open Presented by ProMedica.
Minjee Lee, who broke through for major victory No. 1 last July at the Amundi Evian Championship and added a seventh LPGA Tour title last month in New Jersey, used a run of four consecutive birdies on the way to a 4-under-par 67 on Saturday to take a three-shot lead over fellow 36-hole leader Mina Harigae. Lee’s 54-hole total of 200 (13 under par) eclipsed Juli Inkster’s record of 201, set in 1999 at Old Waverly Golf Club in West Point, Miss.
“I'm just going to stick to what I know,” said Lee. “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 and get it done tomorrow.”
Lee, the No. 4 player in the Rolex Rankings, appeared poised to run away from Harigae midway through the round. Birdies on Nos. 9 (9 feet), 10 (11 feet), 11 (8 feet) and 12 (13 feet) – coupled with consecutive Harigae bogeys on 11 and 12 – enabled Lee to build a four-stroke cushion that was trimmed to three by day’s end.
That could be significant since the last five players to carry a lead of four or more strokes into the final round all hoisted the Harton S. Semple Trophy on Sunday. That includes Webb at Pine Needles in 2001 when she was the only competitor to finish 72 holes under par (7-under 277) and turned a five-stroke, third-round lead into a rout.
When she claimed the Evian title, Lee posted weekend rounds of 65-64, then prevailed in a playoff. In fact, in all seven of her LPGA Tour victories, Lee has not shot lower than 70 on the final day.
If form holds, that means Harigae and other pursuers will need a round in the 60s on Sunday to beat Lee. Bronte Law’s third consecutive sub-70 round left the Englishwoman six strokes back at 7-under 206. Two-time major champion and former world No. 1 Lydia Ko is among six players seven behind. Ko got into contention with a third-round 66.
Ingrid Lindblad, of Sweden, who is bidding to become the second amateur champion, 55 years after Catherine Lacoste, also is six back after an even-par 71. World No. 2 Nelly Korda, making her first start in four months after undergoing surgery for a blood clot, bogeyed her final three holes to fall nine back.
When Lee was rising in the amateur ranks, she earned the coveted Karrie Webb Scholarship, which enabled her and fellow recipient Su Oh to travel to the United States and spend time with Webb at her rental home while she competed in the 2013 U.S. Women’s Open at Sebonack Golf Club in Southampton, N.Y. This was a year after Lee claimed the U.S. Girls’ Junior title at Lake Merced Golf Club in Daly City, Calif., and a year before she qualified for her first U.S. Women’s Open at Pinehurst No. 2, just a few miles from Pine Needles.
This week, Lee didn’t seek Webb out for any advice on Pine Needles, although she has received encouragement via texts. Rounds of 67-66 got her a spot in Saturday’s final pairing, and after an early hiccup on the par-3 fifth hole, Lee birdied No. 6, then started her four-hole birdie run on No. 9.
“I didn't really think about how Mina was playing,” said Lee. “I was just trying to make as many birdies as I could just to try and post a good score.”
Despite being six years older, Harigae was in uncharted waters entering the third round. Before this week’s championship, the 2007 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links champion had never broken 70 in 11 previous Women’s Open starts. Last summer, she shared the 36-hole lead in the AIG Women’s British Open at Carnoustie, only to shoot a 76 on Saturday to derail her title aspirations.
Harigae acknowledged being in a different place this week. Caddie/fiancé Travis Keiter provided a putting tip on Wednesday and work with instructor Jeff Fisher and mental coach Dawn Woodard had the 32-year-old Northern Californian feeling confident. Her first nine holes of Round 3 couldn’t have started better. Harigae nearly holed a 110-yard shot on the par-4 eighth for an easy birdie, and she followed with a 5-foot birdie on No. 9.
However, Lee kept pushing forward and Harigae bogeyed 11 and 12 before stuffing her tee shot on the 174-yard, par-3 16th to 2 feet for a tap-in birdie to keep herself within hailing distance.
“I can control my emotions a lot better,” said Harigae, “especially when there's high tension, when things don't go my way. I'm just really happy with the way I'm handling it.”
Sunday’s final round will begin at 8:20 a.m. EDT with the final twosome of Lee and Harigae teeing off at 2:34 p.m. USA Network (1-3 p.m.) and NBC (3-7 p.m.) have the live broadcast.
“I haven't really thought about it. If I play good, it's going to come with it, right? Hopefully I can play well.” – Minjee Lee when asked about possibly setting the 72-hole scoring record of 272
“It definitely feels different. Everything moves a lot slower in my head now.” – Mina Harigae when asked about her evolution as a player
“I think overall this is probably some of the biggest crowds that I've seen at the U.S. Women's Open. This is a huge golfing community. It's actually nice to go to places where people love it, people are excited about women's golf being here, people are excited about golf in general.” – Lydia Ko (66—207) on the atmosphere at Pine Needles
“It was very impressive. She was playing with a high level of confidence, and looking at her, I kind of looked at myself when I was an amateur. I also was playing with a lot of confidence, and after turning pro I had to think about a lot of things.” – world No. 1 Jin Young Ko (71–207) when asked about the performance of amateur and fellow competitor Ingrid Lindblad
“It's a pity we don't have a major championship here [in North Carolina] every year or even a regular LPGA event. North Carolina has been a second home to me since I went to Duke, and the first time I ever came to America was to Pinehurst.” – Leona Maguire (69–208), an All-America player for the Blue Devils, on the support she has received at Pine Needles
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.