A compelling battle for future terrain in the women’s game is unfolding in brutish conditions this weekend at the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open.
Rolex world No. 1 Lydia Ko and formidable LPGA rookie Ariya Jutanugarn share the lead going into Sunday’s finale at Royal Melbourne, a course that is testing both skill and temperament.
Ko, 17, is looking to claim her ninth worldwide victory, her sixth LPGA title. She’s doing so while shaking off the effects of flu-like symptoms early in the week.
Jutanugarn, 19, is looking to get back on the fast track to stardom after being derailed with a shoulder injury two seasons ago.
They’re doing so in temperatures that reached 99 degrees Saturday and on famed Royal Melbourne greens that have player temperaments running just as hot.
“They’re really hard,” Ko said in her post-round meeting with media. “I’m scratching my head over a 3-footer or a 30-footer. It does feel like a major. It feels tough in every aspect.”
Though Ko has made a reputation for being as unflappable as any player on tour, she says she’s learning a little bit of anger is good for her game.
“I get angry,” Ko said. “I think a little bit of anger is good because it lets the steam out.”
Ko and Jutanugarn both shot 1-under-par 72 on Saturday. At 7-under 212, they are a shot ahead of Amy Yang (70) and three ahead of Australia’s own Katherine Kirk (70) and Julieta Granada (70).
Ko, who is looking to extend her reign at No. 1 to a fourth week, tied for second in the LPGA season opener at the Coates Golf Championship. She ascended to the top of the world rankings after that event, becoming the youngest No. 1 in the history of professional golf. She tied for seventh in her second start at the Pure Silk Bahamas.
Jutanugarn lost in a playoff to Sei Young Kim at the Pure Silk Bahamas. She appears ready to pick up where she left off before a shoulder injury derailed her in the summer of 2013, when she stumbled and fell coming off a tee box at the LPGA Championship and tore the labrum in her right shoulder. At 17 back then, she was rocketing up the world rankings, a phenom who seem poised to rival Ko and Lexi Thompson as the top young players in the game.