PHOENIX – Rolex world No. 1 Lydia Ko is already on the board with an LPGA victory this year.
So is No. 2 Inbee Park.
Will No. 3 Stacy Lewis keep pace and join them Sunday at the JTBC Founders Cup?
Lewis put herself in position to claim her first victory this year, but she has some difficult work left to do with Hyo Joo Kim taking charge Saturday of what’s shaping up as a potentially wild final-round shootout.
Kim, 19, is no ordinary LPGA rookie. A Korean LPGA Tour star, she’s already a major championship winner, taking the Evian Championship late last summer in her first start in a major. The victory earned her membership in the U.S. based LPGA. She was the KLPGA’s Rookie of the Year and Player of the Year two seasons ago. She’s No. 8 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings.
“She’s definitely got game,” said Karrie Webb, a two-time Founders Cup winner who lost to Kim in a dramatic finish at Evian last year. “Winning Evian wasn’t a fluke.”
Barely beating sunset Saturday with a 6-under-par 66, Kim climbed to the top of the leaderboard at 16-under 200. She’s two shots ahead of Lewis (67) and three ahead of rookie Alison Lee, who tied the Wildfire Golf Club course record with a 63 Saturday. Kim is also three in front of second-year LPGA pro Kim Kaufman (70).
“I’ve won before,” Kim said. “So, I have experience, but not much like this in the United States.”
Kim has won 11 times around the world, eight times on the KLPGA.
Ko (69) isn’t out of this. She’s among three players who are tied for fifth, four shots back.
If Lewis can close this out Sunday, it promises to intensify hype over a new Big Three in women’s golf with Ko, Park and Lewis beginning to pull away from the rest of the game in the battles over the sport’s biggest prizes. They aren’t just 1-2-3 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings. They’re 1-2-3 in scoring average this year. They finished 1-2-3 at the HSBC Women’s Champions in the LPGA’s last event, and they finished 1-2-3 on the tour’s money list last season.
Does Lewis feel pressure to match Ko and Park with her first victory of the season?
“I’ve looked at the stats, scoring average and that kind of stuff, and I'm right where I need to be,” Lewis said. “The only thing that's not there is the win, and I'm totally OK with that. You can't compare yourself to one person or two people. We're too different. The three of us, we play this game way different. So, I try not to compare myself too much to them.”
Lewis said she’s focused on building her game for the year’s big events. She turned 30 last month. That makes her the elder stateswoman on this leaderboard. She’s the oldest player among the top seven. Kaufman is the next oldest player. She’s 23. Lee is 20, Kim 19.
“I do feel old,” Lewis cracked.
Lewis has some great memories to fuel her at Wildfire Golf Club.
Two years ago, she won the Founders Cup. In doing so, she seized the world No. 1 ranking for the first time, taking it from Yani Tseng. Lewis tied for second here last year.
There’s hard work for every contender Sunday. Nothing is certain around this place.
Just ask Webb. She was six shots back in the final round but came on to win the inaugural Founders Cup five years ago. She was six shots back again in the final round last year and came back to win.
Sunday will begin with 17 players within six of the lead, but this time Webb (73) isn’t among them. She’s 10 back.
“It’s going to be a shootout,” Lewis said.