NAPLES, Fla. – The LPGA couldn’t have drawn it up any better.
With a $1.5 million winner’s check up for grabs Sunday at the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship, the sport’s two best players already have pens in their hands. Nelly Korda and Jin Young Ko, not only the top two players in the world rankings (Korda at No. 1, Ko close behind at No.2) but also the last two still alive for the Rolex Player of the Year award, are part of a four-way tie for the lead after 54 holes at Tiburon Golf Club.
Nasa Hataoka, a two-time winner this season, and Celine Boutier are the other co-leaders, while Gaby Lopez, who ended her day with a double-eagle-bogey stretch, and Mina Harigae are just a shot back. In total, 12 players are within three shots, including Lexi Thompson, who is eyeing redemption after a disappointing collapse last week at the Pelican Women’s Championship, where she lost in a playoff to Korda.
“I mean, it's a who's who of the LPGA here this week,” said Leona Maguire, who shares seventh, two shots back. “I think everybody has come to play.”
Especially Korda and Ko, whose positions through three rounds come as no shock. While it hasn’t been the type of season-long battle like Kathy Whitworth and Carol Mann had back in 1968, when each player won 10 times with Whitworth claiming the money title and Mann capturing the Vare Trophy for lowest scoring average, there’s no question that Korda, 23, and Ko, 26, have separated themselves from the pack this year.
Korda won four times, including her first major, the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, and then brought home Olympic gold in Tokyo. Ko also had four tournament victories and a tour-leading 12 top-10 finishes. They hold the two lowest scoring averages – Korda at 68.85 and Ko at 69.03 – though neither are eligible for the Vare.
One award they can still win, though, is the big one: Player of the Year. Korda sits at 191 points, Ko at 181; no one else is close. Ko can overtake Korda with a victory, or a runner-up and a Korda finish of 10th or worse. They would share the honors should Ko place second and Korda ninth.
“It's tough to say,” said Ko when asked Saturday evening if Player of the Year was on her mind. “I have to win because she’s playing really well right now.”
Ko admittedly entered the week with “a lot of pressure” as defending champion. Making matters worse: She has been unable to warm up before rounds – except for a few short-game shots and putts – because of an injured left wrist. But with her wrist heavily wrapped, a nightly icing regimen and some pain medicine, Ko has shaken off the discomfort and delivered a gutsy performance.
She hasn’t missed a green in regulation in two days, and on Saturday, she parred the opening hole before rattling off seven straight birdies, four of them between 18 and 22 feet.
“I was thinking if I hit the putt, ‘Oh, ball goes in. Oh, it's funny,’ and then next hole I got a birdie, and I’m like, ‘Ah, again?’” Ko said. “Birdie again, again, and then seven times. It was really fun.”
Playing a group behind Ko was Korda: “I did see some bombs drop,” Korda said, “but, I mean, that's normal for Jin Young.”
While Ko cooled off on the back nine with all pars to shoot 6-under 66, Korda was only a shot higher, shooting 67. It easily could’ve been worse, though.
Korda was 3 under on her round with a chip-in birdie at No. 5 when she hooked her tee shot into the left pine straw at the par-3 12th hole. As she stood over her ball and sized up her chip, Korda looked down to see her ball move. She called over a rules official, who, after looking at video footage, determined that because Korda’s ball had moved back into its original position, she would not be subject to a one-shot penalty.
“Maybe a little distracted,” Korda said. “I was kind of like making sure my club was hovering behind the ball after so I didn't do it again. But, yeah, I mean, when you kind of go through something like that – one-stroke penalty is a big difference out here; that moves you a good bit down the leaderboard – I was definitely a little stressed.”
Korda quickly settled back in, playing Tiburon’s two back-side par-5s in 3 under, the 14th hole, where Korda hit 3-wood to 10 feet and two-putted for birdie, and the 17th hole, where she stuffed her second shot, just a 9-iron, to 4 feet to set up an eagle that tied her for the lead.
“I felt like I was struggling a little all day not kind of converting any putts and kind of not hitting it too great,” Korda said, “but that eagle definitely helped.”
Korda, Ko and Hataoka will comprise the final threesome, which goes off at 10:35 a.m. ET in order to fit in NBC’s 1-4 p.m. time slot. While Korda wasn’t keen on discussing Sunday’s juicy plot – “Yeah, it’s for other people,” she said. “I'm just out there going to do my job, taking a shot at a time, and see where it takes me.” – it’s a golden opportunity for the LPGA, on network television, to showcase the best that its product can offer:
Its biggest stars competing for its biggest prize.