PHOENIX – You can’t win the JTBC Founders Cup without a major championship on your resume.
Maybe you can, but it’s never been done in the six-year history of this special event.
That makes Stacy Lewis, Lydia Ko and Paula Creamer the favored cast of chasers in Sunday’s bid to catch 54-hole leader Eun-Hee Ji in what promises to be a shootout at Wildfire Golf Club.
Ji’s two titles include the U.S. Women’s Open in 2009.
Lewis, Ko and Creamer are the only other major championship winners among the top 16 on the leaderboard.
Ji’s 7-under-par 65 moved her one shot ahead of Lewis (64) and Sei Young Kim (70), two ahead of Jacqui Concolino (68) and three ahead of Ko (64), Creamer (67) and Carlota Ciganda (64).
A two-time winner, Ji has never successfully closed out a 54-hole lead in an LPGA event. In fact, she’s only held a 54-hole lead once in her nine years on tour. She won the U.S. Women’s Open and the Wegmans Championship coming from behind.
With players in attack mode at the Founders Cup, with birdies being made in bunches this week, Ji may have to fight off a number of final-round charges. In fact, she might not even have the lead by the time she tees off on Sunday afternoon.
“These scores are just ridiculous,” Lewis said. “So you can’t look at a leaderboard. You just go out there and make as many birdies as you.”
They can’t seem to play the Founders Cup without Lewis having something to say about how it all ends.
Lewis has been a commanding presence in every final act of this event over the last three years. She won in 2013, coming from four-shots behind in the final round. She finished second to Karrie Webb in 2014 and second to Hyo Joo Kim in 2015.
Kim, Webb and Lewis were all major winners when they won here. So was the only other player to win here, Yani Tseng in 2012.
Lewis, 31, is looking for her 12th LPGA title, her first since winning the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship in June of 2014. She would love to put an end to all the questions that have come with the nine second-place finishes she has recorded since her last victory.
“The golf course just fits my eye,” Lewis said of her ability to regularly contend here. “You have to hit good shots to get rewarded for it. And then I read the greens really well here. But, you know, I don’t really know what it is. I'm just really happy to see some good scores going up.”
The Founders Cup has become a special event for Lewis, so special she helped fund filming of the documentary movie, “The Founders,” which was shown in a players’ meeting this week. After her round, Lewis helped a young LPGA pro confused by who was whom, matching names to the faces of the founders and pioneers who were seated on a small stage behind the 18th green.
“This week, it’s really special to me,” Lewis said. “I’ve gotten to know the founders the last few years, especially Marilynn Smith. Just being around them, you see the love and the energy they have for this game still, and for our tour.”
Ko, the 18-year-old Rolex world No. 1, won the New Zealand Women’s Open earlier this year and now is looking to win her first LPGA title of the new season. She has knocked on the door here before, finishing tied for second two years ago and sixth last year.
Ko gave herself a chance shooting 64 Saturday to match Lewis, Ciganda and Alena Sharp for the day’s low round.
“With the rough a lot longer this year, I thought the scores wouldn’t be as low, but apparently not,” Ko said. “I told myself if I wanted to catch up I needed to go low today.”
Creamer, 29, is looking for her 11th LPGA title, her first since winning the HSBC Women’s Champions two years ago. Despite a sluggish start, Creamer kept grinding away and got herself back in the hunt with a back-nine blitz. She showed her new found length eagling the 15th, knocking a 3-wood to 25 feet and rolling in the putt.
“I just didn’t get too upset on the front nine,” Creamer said. “I knew there was a lot of golf left. I just kept plugging along.”
Creamer says working with new coach Gary Gilchrist helped her push past Saturday’s frustrating start. She kept competing instead of fretting over missed shots or missed putts. Afterward, she said her caddie, Colin Cann, noticed how she grinded through some disappointments.
“Colin said he wasn’t sure that would have happened a couple months ago, if I maybe I would have gotten down on myself,” Creamer said. “That’s kind of what Gary is helping with, that you can swing however you swing, everyone has their own swing, their own mentality. It’s a matter of `This is what you’ve got, now go get it done.’
“I think I was being too critical for quite a while with my swing. I forgot to play the game. I know I’m not going to hit every shot perfect, but I think the difference is I’m saying `OK, I’m going to chip in, or I’m going to get up and down and move on.’ I don’t really dwell on things.”