KOHLER, Wis. – There doesn’t seem to be a question about whether a South Korean golfer will contend for the U.S. Women’s Open title. After all, four players from that little country won the biggest tournament in women’s golf in the last seven years. Now the question is, which one will win it next?
Na Yeon Choi appears the best bet after her third-round 65 on Saturday at Blackwolf Run. Making seven birdies in her first 12 holes, Choi came from four strokes off the pace to open a six-stroke lead over Amy Yang, another South Korean, entering today’s final round.
Choi’s 7-under-par score tied the record for low third-round in the 67-year history of the U.S. Women’s Open. It was also the lowest at Blackwolf Run, one stroke better than American Michelle Wie shot on Friday. Choi hit 15 fairways on a windy day and needed only 26 strokes on the very undulating putting surfaces designed by architect Pete Dye.
Wedge shot approaches set up four of her eight birdies, the longest of which came from 20 feet at No. 7. That run of good play left Choi at 8-under 208 for 54 holes.
“I had a really good feeling about my swing,’’ said Choi. “The last two months I’ve been playing so-so, but this got me back on track. I wasn’t nervous. I played one shot at a time. It was windy when we started and it looked like a difficult day, but I made birdies on the first two holes and that gave me confidence.’’
Blackwolf Run is where this astonishing Korean success story began, when Se Ri Pak won the first U.S. Women’s Open held here in a dramatic 20-hole playoff in 1998. Pak — now an LPGA Hall of Famer –was the first champion among the Korean players, and she was Yang’s playing partner on Saturday.
Since Pak’s win Korean players have averaged seven LPGA titles a year and the U.S. Women’s Open has been their greatest stage. Yang started 10 groups in front of Choi and carded a 69.
Today Choi hopes to follow Birdie Kim (2005), Inbee Park (2008), Eun-Hee Ji (2009) and So Yeon Ryu (2011) as recent Korean winners of the Open. Ryu won last year by beating another Korean, Hee Kyung Seo, in a playoff. They have built on the success that Pak started.
“I was only 9 years old when I was watching on TV when Se Ri inspired all the Korean players,’’ said Choi. “I remember that feeling. All of our golfers call her a legend. I want to continue that feeling, from what Se Ri did 14 years ago.’’
Choi, Pak, Yang and Ryu were among 26 players from South Korea – a country about the size of Indiana – in the starting field here. Choi , 24, has won five times on the LPGA Tour since coming on the circuit in 2008 and earned over $6 million.
In each season she ranked in the top 10 in birdies, scoring average, rounds under par, rounds in the 60s and top-10 finishes. In 2010 she had low scoring average and also won the LPGA money title. This year she’s fifth in the Rolex Rankings.
A win by Yang, 22, wouldn’t be a fluke, either. Ranked 13th, she hasn’t won since joining the LPGA in 2008 but tied for 10th in last year’s U.S. Women’s Open.
Norway’s Suzann Pettersen, the 36-hole leader, soared to a 78 in the third round. So did Wie, her playing partner. American Christie Kerr, one shot behind Pettersen at the start of the day, carded a 77.