Michelle Wie was rolling along nicely Saturday in the U.S. Women’s Open, smiling, leading, hitting good shots, enjoying herself.
But just when Wie was on the verge of distancing herself from the field at Pinehurst No. 2, her game began to slip. Her smile disappeared. So did her lead.
“My swing got away from me for a little bit,” Wie said. “I made it difficult for myself.”
By day’s end, Wie shared the third-round lead with Amy Yang of South Korea, finishing with a 2-over-par 72 while Yang had a 2-under 68. At 2-under 208, they’re four shots in front but with an interesting foursome eager to chase them on Sunday.
Juli Inkster and Na Yeon Choi both have won the Women’s Open, and Inkster’s 4-under 66 Saturday is the low score of the tournament. Stephanie Meadow of Northern Ireland is making her professional debut after starring collegiately at Alabama, and Minjee Lee of Australia could become only the second amateur to win a Women’s Open.
Wie, despite her back-nine wobbles, could have reclaimed the lead at the par-4 18th, but her birdie putt was too strong. Yang also could have held the lead alone but bogeyed the 18th.
“I’ve been grinding really hard the last three days,” Wie said. “That’s the way you have to do it on this golf course. Even when things aren’t going well, you’ve just got to just start all over again and just make some pars, try and make some birdies, just keep grinding. It’s a battle out there.
“I’m excited. I’m just so grateful for the opportunity that I have. I feel like I’m in a really great spot.”
It's the third time Wie, 24, has had a piece of the lead after 54 holes in the Women's Open. She finished tied for 23rd in 2005, when she was 15, and tied for third the next year.
She is still seeking her first major title, the one that could define the career of the Hawaiian, from whom so much has been expected for so long. Wie was second in the year’s first major, the Kraft Nabisco, has won on the LPGA Tour in 2014 and came to Pinehurst 11th in the Rolex World Rankings and positive about her game.
But don’t overlook Yang, who also is 24, 20th in the world rankings and was the runner-up in the 2012 Women’s Open. Until her slip at the 18th, Yang was steady, controlling her iron shots well on a course that demands it and picking her spots to attack some tricky pin placements.
“I played really solid,” Yang said. “My shots were better the last two days, and I had really good speed on the greens.”
While Lexi Thompson, Stacy Lewis and others faded Saturday, it was the oldest player in the field who made the best move. Inkster, 53, had five birdies and a bogey in her best Women’s Open round since winning in 2002.
“She’s a fighter, a true fighter on the golf course,” Wie said. “She plays her heart out. Hopefully that’s something I’ll take into (Sunday) and I’ll do.”
With 11-year-old Lucy Li walking and watching, Wie and Thompson played in the final pairing Saturday. But a poor approach at the par-4 eighth led to a double-bogey for Thompson, and she doubled the par-3 ninth after missing the green and then electing to take a drop, only to have the ball roll into a divot.
Wie birdied the ninth, then added another at the par-5 10th, where she reached the green with driver, 8-iron. She was at 6-under and four shots ahead of Yang.
Then, the hiccups.
Wie pulled her drive deep into the pine trees at the par-4 11th and took a double bogey. She bogeyed the 12th after a pushed drive, then bogeyed the 14th.
As former Women’s Open champion Karrie Webb said after an even-par 70, “Michelle Wie put a few of us back into the tournament.”
While Thompson continued to struggle, Yang moved up the leader board. With birdies at the 10th and 12th holes, she would move into the lead alone before the bogey at the 18th.
Wie later said her “system overheated” on another sultry day at No. 2, and she felt tired. Poor drives, she said, also had her hot.
“It’s definitely a grind, it’s not an easy golf course,” she said.
It wasn’t for Thompson, who needed a birdie at the 18th for a disappointing 74 and turned down media requests. She closed at 3-over 213 with Webb, 2011 champion So Yeon Ryu of South Korea, Pornanong Phatlum of Thailand and Sakura Yokomine of Japan.
Sunday’s final round will end two weeks of championship golf – the U.S. Golf Association’s “Grand Experiment” of having the U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open in back-to-back weeks on No. 2.
Martin Kaymer of Germany was an easy winner in the U.S. Open a week ago. The U.S. Women’s Open should be more of a tense duel.
Yang once said the hardest thing she’s ever done is learn to speak English. That could change Sunday.
And Wie? What a day it would be if Pinehurst No. 2 is the spot, and the U.S. Women’s Open the moment, for her long-awaited breakthrough in a major.