RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. – Move over, Big Three.
Sei Young Kim is threatening to crumple that storyline and pitch it in a garbage can.
She’s looking determined to lead a rewrite of what the big story will actually be when this LPGA season ends.
This might be the best crop of rookies ever to play the LPGA, and Kim might end up being the best of them.
With a 3-under-par 69 Saturday, Kim held off early charges from Lewis, Morgan Pressel and Brittany Lincicome. At 10 under overall, Kim is three shots ahead of Lewis (68) and four ahead of Pressel (71), Lincicome (70) and Thai rookie Ariya Jutanugarn (66).
Kim was at her best in the end Saturday while Pressel, Lewis and Lincicome all struggled to close out their efforts.
Tied for the lead on the back nine, Kim birdied two of the last three holes.
Growing up in South Korea, Kim said she watched this championship when it was known as the Kraft Nabisco.
“If I win tomorrow, it would be the biggest dream ever,” Kim said through a translator.
At 22, Kim isn’t your typical rookie, and this isn’t your typical rookie class, a group led by a cast of up-and-coming South Korean stars.
Kim was a proven champion before going to the American-based LPGA Q-School in December and earning membership with a tie for sixth. She won five times on the Korean LPGA Tour over the 2013 and ’14 seasons, one of them a Korean major. After joining the American tour this year, she didn’t take long to assert herself. She won the Pure Silk Bahamas Classic in a playoff in her second start. Now here she is again, with a chance to win her first major.
“I'm really having fun,” Kim said. “I'm getting a kick out of it because this is a tournament that I've watched since I was young. To be here playing, I can't believe it.”
Kim said she has never won while holding a lead going into a final round. All five of her Korean titles were comeback victories.
Kim will be paired with Lewis on Sunday. All the South Koreans know who Lewis is, a former world No. 1 and two-time major champion who won her first LPGA title here at the Kraft Nabisco in 2011.
“She’s just such a dominating force out there,” Kim said of Lewis. “I'd probably even chicken out starting a conversation. But you know, just to be able to play with her on the final day, it's an honor.”
Two weeks ago, Lewis took on South Korean rookie Hyo Joo Kim in a brilliant Sunday duel at the JTBC Founders Cup. Lewis played well, but Hyo Joo Kim played better to take the trophy.
“We knew they were coming,” Lewis said of the South Korean rookies. “Inbee and some of the girls were kind of telling us that there were some young Koreans coming that were pretty good. We didn't really know what to expect.
“You can tell they've got a lot of experience from playing in Korea, and they know how to win. They know how to putt, which is most important. They're impressive, especially Hyo Joo Kim. I threw everything I had at her in Phoenix and she kept responding by making putts and hitting shots. They're not scared, not scared at all.”
Four of these South Korean rookies are ranked higher than major champions Paula Creamer and Mo Martin in the Rolex world rankings. Two of them won LPGA events before officially joining the tour as rookies this year.
Hyo Joo Kim is No. 4 in the world. She won the Evian Championship last year while playing the Korean Tour. If Sei Young Kim wins the ANA Inspiration, South Korean “rookies” will have won the last two majors.
Sei Young Kim is No. 22 in the world rankings, Q Baek No. 17 and Ha Na Jang No. 20.
Baek, 19, won an LPGA event last year, the HanaBank Championship. It was the first LPGA event she ever played. She played as Kyu-Jung Baek, just recently changing her name upon claiming 2015 LPGA rookie membership off her HanaBank title.
Sei Young Kim said there’s motivation keeping up with the other South Korean rookies.
“They're all players that I've played with, competed with in Korea,” Sei Young Kim said. “The media sort of portrayed us as fierce rivals. So, I'm used to playing them. Seeing them playing well definitely motivates me. It’s very, very motivating.”
These South Korean rookies have to be motivating the Big Three, too.