NAPLES, Fla. – Natalie Gulbis got off to a rocky start and put herself in position for a great finish. That describes her year as much as her third round Saturday in the LPGA Titleholders.
Gulbis hooked a 5-iron into the water and made bogey on the par-5 opening hole, and then bounced back for a 7-under 65. That gave Gulbis a share of the lead with Gerina Piller and Pornanong Phatlum of Thailand. They each had a 67.
The leaders were at 11-under 205, though it was far from a three-player race for the richest prize in women's golf.
Stacy Lewis virtually wrapped up the Vare Trophy with a tournament-record 63, and now has a chance to do so much more. Lewis was two shots behind, along with Shanshan Feng of China (67), Lexi Thompson (67) and 36-hole leader Sandra Gal, whose 74 let so many players back into contention.
Michelle Wie, on the one-year anniversary of her peculiar putting stroke, had a 66 and was among three shots behind.
A dozen players were separated by four shots going into the final round of the season at Tiburon Golf Club, where the winner gets $700,000 from the $2 million purse. That most likely won't be 16-year-old Lydia Ko, who had a 72 and was nine shots behind in her pro debut.
Gulbis hasn't won a tournament since 2007, and it looked unlikely for this year to end that drought.
She became ill at her first tournament of the year in Thailand and later was diagnosed with malaria. Gulbis was told to rest for two months, take ''medicine I can't even pronounce,'' and she spent the first part of the year trying to return too early and suffering setbacks.
It wasn't until June that she could get through a round of golf and have enough energy left to practice. She didn't qualify for any of the events on the Asia swing, instead spending that time at home in Las Vegas retooling her swing with coach Butch Harmon.
But she hit her stride on a warm day along the gulf shores of Florida. Even though the 5-iron was a shock – she was trying to lay it up on the right side of the fairway, and the water is way on the left – she quickly piled up birdies and finished with eight of them.
''To be in the mix, and to be making birdies, is what you play for,'' Gulbis said.
Five players had at least a share of the lead at one point, and Sunday figures to be a sprint to the finish. Gal made this dynamic leaderboard possible with a double bogey on the second hole, and the 28-year-old German never quite recovered. After making 14 birdies the opening two rounds, she made only one on Saturday.
Lewis felt a sense of relief even as the leaderboard was tightening.
Suzann Pettersen has to finish nine shots ahead of Lewis to win the Vare Trophy for the lowest scoring average. They started the day tied at par, and Lewis walked off the 18th green knowing she was virtually a lock to become the first American since Beth Daniel in 1994 to win the prestigious award.
Lewis had a 63. Pettersen struggled to a 71, and now needs a 17-shot swing on Sunday to overtake Lewis.
''Suzann was playing right behind me and I told myself I was not going to look back there all day long,'' Lewis said. ''I wasn't going to look at a leaderboard and I was just going to take care of myself. And that's why I did.''
Now there's that matter of winning a tournament that gives Lewis another chance to end a long drought. She can take the money title with a win Sunday, which would make Lewis the first American since Betsy King in 1995 to win the Vare Trophy and the money title in the same year.
The record day for Lewis started with a 5-iron from 177 yards that she holed for eagle on the third hole, though it still wasn't her best 5-iron of the year. She hit a pretty good one at St. Andrews on the 17th hole of the final round that carried her to victory in the Women's British Open.
It was at the Old Course when Lewis realized the golf can take some quick and unexpected turns. She was two shots behind playing the 17th at St. Andrews and wound up winning. So even 11 shots behind going into Saturday, Lewis realized there was plenty of golf left.
The final round is shaping up the same way, and it even includes Wie, who hasn't won since the Canadian Women's Open three years ago. It was at the CME Titleholders a year ago where she bent her torso parallel to the ground and turned that into her putting stroke.
''Proud creator of the tabletop – trademark, patent pending,'' she joked. ''But it feels good. It feels good that I found something I created myself.''
And it's working.