RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. – Who needs the cover of Golf Digest?
Lexi Thompson and Michelle Wie didn’t have to dress provocatively Saturday to give women’s golf a jolt of attention.
Wie and Thompson put on a shot-making clinic in the third round of the Kraft Nabisco Championship to give the women’s game a dream final pairing for Sunday’s finish at Mission Hills Country Club.
In a week where Golf Digest’s decision to put Paulina Gretzky on the cover of its May issue frustrated so many of the pros playing here, Wie and Thompson delivered style and substance in bids to win their first major championships. They’re a pair of 6-footers with dynamic games and stories.
Thompson vs. Wie?
This is golf theater at its best for the women. It’s Wie, 24, the former phenom who pulled her battle-scarred mind and body off the mat to fight for a second chance at her dreams. And it’s Thompson, still the phenom at 19, the player so many believe will become the dominant force Wie hasn’t yet become.
Thompson and Wie pulled away from the pack Saturday with stellar shot making.
With a 4-under-par 68, Wie moved into a tie for the lead with Thompson (69). At 10-under 206, they’re two shots ahead of Charley Hull (66) and Se Ri Pak (71).
Thompson and Wie said they’re looking forward to their pairing together.
“We both have very similar games,” Thompson said. “We’ll be bombing it off the tee, I’m sure. I don’t know how much talking there will be, but it’s going to be a great day.”
Actually, Wie isn’t bombing it around Mission Hills. She’s dissecting the Dinah Shore Course with precision play off the tees, gearing down with 3-woods and stinger shots. How good is Wie playing? She was bogey free on Saturday. She hit 16 of 18 greens in regulation. The effort gives her a share of the lead through 54 holes in a major for the first time since the 2006 U.S. Women’s Open at Newport Country Club.
“I'm nervous,” Wie said. “I probably won't sleep that well tonight. You want something so badly. I’ve dreamed about this all my life, so I'm just trying to not think about it so much. I'm just trying to think it's a normal Sunday.”
Thompson is relishing this chance as much as Wie is.
“It’s something I’ve worked for my whole life,” Thompson
Yeah, Thompson is only 19, but she’s been playing in majors since she was 12. That’s how old she was when she played in the U.S. Women’s Open at Pine Needles, becoming the youngest player ever to qualify for the U.S. Women’s Open. She was just 16 when she won the Navistar Classic, becoming the youngest player at the time to win an LPGA event.
As good as Thompson’s ball-striking was Saturday, her round could have been so much better. She missed three putts of four feet or less. She missed a 3-footer for birdie at the fourth and a 4-footer for birdie at the seventh. The miss that hurt the most came at the 18th. She three putted for bogey, missing a 4–footer for par. It ended her run of 36 consecutive holes without a bogey.
“I missed a few short putts for birdie, and it wasn’t the ending I wanted,” Thompson said. “But, overall, I played pretty solid.”
Thompson is shrinking the course with her big drives. She’s playing a bomb and gouge game you usually only see in the men’s game. She hit 15 greens in regulation on Saturday.
Wie’s run this week is part of what David Leadbetter believes is her “second coming,” or her re-birth.
A victory Sunday will make it feel as if Wie has come full circle. Wie’s first major was the Kraft Nabisco. As a 13-year-old, she played her way into the final Sunday pairing before tying for ninth. At 14, she finished fourth here. At 16, she led late in the final round before faltering to a tie for third.
A two-time LPGA winner, Wie’s career didn’t soar the way so many expected. She endured through injuries, slumps and burnout before putting her game back together the last six months or so. She insists she doesn’t regret the swoon. She says it’s part of who she is today.
“I’m definitely a lot more appreciative of where I am, going in with a lead,” Wie said.
A shot behind at Saturday’s start, Wie came out determined. She birdied the first hole to pull into a tie for the lead.
Wie isn’t hitting a lot of drivers around Mission Hills this week, but she’s hitting a lot of fairways and greens. Her ball striking looks as good as it has in a long time. She hit the first 12 greens she looked at, giving herself a lot of good birdie chances.
Wie, Thompson and Pak took turns atop the leaderboard in the third round.
Shortly after making the turn, Wie took sole possession of the lead with a birdie at the 11th. She got that lead when Pak missed a 4-footer behind her to bogey the 10th.
Thompson is one of the longest hitters on tour, and she likes that she can hit her driver hard around Mission Hills, especially with the rough down this year. Thompson was third in driving distance for the week at Kraft going into the third round. She used her power early to take the solo lead with a birdie at the second hole. After crushing her drive there, Thompson reached that par 5 in two.
At the fourth hole, though, Thompson watched Se Ri Pak hole a 6-footer for birdie to tie her atop the leaderboard. Thompson got the benefit of seeing Pak’s line, but she still pushed her 3-foot birdie chance right, allowing Pak to tie her for the lead.
At the seventh, Thompson missed a 4-footer for birdie that would have given her back sole possession of the lead. Pak, again, converted where Thompson couldn’t, making birdie to give Pak a one-shot lead.
At the ninth, Thompson couldn’t take advantage of her power. After hitting her second shot into the front, right greenside bunker, Thompson blasted 25 feet past the hole. She left her birdie chance short and watched Pak hole out for yet another birdie.
Thompson got it going on the back nine, reeling off birdies at the 11th, 12th and 15th holes before closing with that bogey.
The fireworks set up what ought to be an entertaining Sunday finish at Mission Hills.