PHOENIX – Their shadows fall hard on each other.
Rolex world No. 1 Lydia Ko, No. 2 Inbee Park and No. 3 Stacy Lewis can’t seem to shake one another these days when they’re playing for a trophy.
It’s uncanny how often they’re starting to play their way into each other’s paths.
It’s that way again this week at the JTBC Founders Cup.
Park took this week off, but you almost expect to see her show up unannounced to see if she can play the weekend, too. Really, who wants to be left out of all the fun this burgeoning three-way rivalry is starting to offer?
Just two weeks ago, Park beat Ko and Lewis head to head in a dramatic final Sunday grouping at the HSBC Women’s Champions in Singapore. Last November, days after Park took the No. 1 ranking from Lewis, they battled head to head in the final round of the Fubon Taiwan Championship with Park holding off a dynamic late charge by Lewis.
There’s so much at stake when these players see each other on Sundays, and the Founders Cup is unfolding with that possibility yet again.
There hasn’t been a trio of players this capable of pulling away together at the top of the women’s game since Annika Sorenstam, Karrie Webb and Se Ri Pak took turns winning majors at the turn of the century.
“Fifteen years ago, I don’t remember it ever feeling as automatic as it seems for Stacy, Inbee and Lydia, where they just put themselves on the leaderboard,” Webb said. “They’re playing with that sort of confidence, where I don’t think they feel they have to press, that the scores are just going to be there, and that’s a great feeling to have.”
Ko, the 17-year-old wunderkind, was the story Thursday, racing into a share of the lead with a 6-under-par 66 in the weather-suspended first round.
Lewis, 30, who could only get six holes in Thursday, answered in a large way Friday with a blitz of early birdies. She made seven of them in a nine-hole stretch closing out a 64.
By day’s end, when the horn blew suspending the second round, Ko and Lewis were figuratively standing in each other’s shadows again. They’re both in contention, in position to turn Sunday into another final-round duel, but they’re mindful that this leaderboard is stacked with possibilities.
This is by no means a two-woman tournament. Not yet, anyway.
Hyo Joo Kim followed up a 65 with a 69 and was the leader in the clubhouse at 10 under overall when darkness suspended play. She was one shot ahead of Lewis, who followed her 64 with a 71, and two shots ahead of Karine Icher (70) Mi Hyang Lee (66) and Ilhee Lee (67).
Ha Na Jang was at 11 under through 29 holes.
Ko made the turn to the back nine within three of the clubhouse leader when play was suspended.
Webb (70), who twice has come from six shots back in the final round to win the Founders Cup, is three behind the clubhouse leaders.
Count Webb among those intrigued by the rise of Ko, Park and Lewis.
“It looks right now like Lydia could take that step where she’s going to dominate, but I really feel like Inbee and Stacy are hungry enough to maybe not let her get too far ahead,” Webb said. “And there’s a bunch of other good players.”
Nobody but Ko, Lewis or Park has held the Rolex No. 1 ranking the last 105 weeks.
They are ranked 1-2-3 in scoring average this year (Ko, Park and Lewis, respectively).
They were 1-2-3 on the final money list last year (Lewis, Park and Ko, respectively).
“This rivalry, that it’s becoming, I think it's really great for us,” Lewis said. “It's fun. I know Lydia is going to be up there every week. I know Inbee, even though she's not here, she would be on the leaderboard if she were. It makes us better, and that's what you're seeing. You’re seeing better golf out of all of us.”
Lewis said she believes a three-way rivalry is better for women’s golf than a single dominant player would be.
“More than anything, I think it's just great to talk about,” Lewis said. “It gives the media something to talk about. It brings attention to the tour. It gives fans something to follow. That's the biggest thing.”
When Lewis woke up early Friday morning, she didn’t need to surf the web to know Ko was holding a share of the lead.
“I wasn’t surprised Lydia shot what she did,” Lewis said. “It just kind of motivated me to get me up there with her, too.”
If Park were here, she might be saying the same thing.