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Len Ziehm On Golf

Defending champ Henderson is lurking going into KPMG finale

There’s no reason Canadian teen-age phenom Brooke Henderson can’t repeat as the champion of the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship today. She’s again among those within striking distance of the lead with 18 holes to go.

Last year Henderson, then 18, was two strokes off the lead after 54 holes, caught New Zealand’s Lydia Ko by shooting a final round 65 and then beat Ko by sinking a three-foot birdie putt on the first hole of a sudden death playoff.

This time Henderson’s deficit is bigger. Chella Choi, of South Korea, shot 67 in Saturday’s third round to hit the 54-hole stop at 10-under-par 203 on Olympia Field’s North Course. Moments later 36-hole co-leader Danielle Kang posted a 68 to match Choi’s score. They’re the players to beat.

Henderson, at 206, is in fourth place and has another Korean, Jiyai Shin, ahead of her as well. Shin made a rapid climb up the leaderboard by shooting a 7-under-par 64 – the best score of the day. She was in the clubhouse before the leaders even hit the back nine.

Saturday was Happy Canada Day, and that added to Henderson’s support on the course.

“Canadians are very proud to be Canadian, and this is a very special day back home,’’ said Henderson. But Sunday will have to be even more special for her to repeat as the champion of the LPGA’s second major of 2017.

“With a major championship, it really comes down to the back nine on Sunday,’’ said Henderson. “If I can play solid and get myself into a good position coming down those final holes it will be a really interesting finish, and I’m just hoping I’m a part of it.’’

Choi is in the hunt because of a caddie change. Her father is back on the bag this week, and Choi has taken the approach the “Father knows best.’’

“My Dad was going to retire to spend more time with my mother,’’ said Choi. “When he started as my caddie it was to save money, and I always had dreamed of having my Dad on the bag when I was an amateur.’’

His retirement as a caddie lasted seven weeks.. Then Chella was struggling with her game and called for help.

“I lost my confidence and asked him to come back,’’ she said. “I’m feeling very good now. He gives me confidence.’’

Choi played only 18 holes on the North Course in pre-tournament preparations. She has taken her father’s advice on every shot of every hole. That’s familiarized her with the course and clearly improved her status on the leaderboard.

Kang, who grew up in California, attended Pepperdine University and now resides in Las Vegas, is downplaying her position at the top of the leaderboard.

“I’ve been working every day to get better, and I have to trust my game,’’ she said. “It would be incredible to be called a major champion, but I’m just trying to perform the best I can perform. I love the vibes of a major championship, but I’ve got to stick to my routine.’’

She said a change in attitude has help her improve, that change being “that winning isn’t everything.’’ Kang, though, has had calls of encouragement from three famous big-time winners – Wayne Gretzky, Caitlyn Jenner and Hollis Stac;y.

Kang, 24, won back-to-back U.S. Amateurs in 2010 and 2011 but has yet to win on the LPGA Tour and her best finish in a major was a tie for 14th in the 2012 U.S. Women’s Open. Choi, 26, has one LPGA win, at the 2015 Marathon Classic. Her best finish in a major was a tie for fifth in the KPMG event in 2013, back when the tournament was called the LPGA Championship.

Further down the list but not quite out of it yet are Michelle Wie, Lexi Thompson and newly-minted No. 1 So Yeon Ryu. They’re all five shots off the lead at 208 and in a tie for seventh.

Wie birdied three of the first four holes. “Then I hit a wall. I got real tired all of a sudden,’’ she said.

“You never know what’s going to happen on this golf course’’ said Wie. “Tomorrow it’s a whole new day, and I’ll try my best and see where that takes me.’’