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Saturday was phenomenal for women's golf; Sunday will be for one woman

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RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. – In the second game of Saturday’s doubleheader ...

After Wake Forest’s Jennifer Kupcho made history playing her way around Rae’s Creek in Amen Corner on the way to winning the inaugural Augusta National Amateur, Jin Young Ko did her best to try to play her way into Poppie’s Pond.

Ko took the third-round lead at the ANA Inspiration, setting up a chance to make the iconic victory leap into the pool alongside the Dinah Shore Course on Sunday at Mission Hills.

On a day the likes of which the women’s game has never seen, Ko gave herself a chance to deliver a Sunday she’ll never forget.

With a 4-under-par 68, Ko moved to 8 under overall, one shot ahead of In-Kyung Kim (73) and three ahead of Danielle Kang (70) and Mi Hyang Lee (68), who made a hole-in-one at the 17th hole on Saturday.

It wasn’t exactly the easiest 68 Ko ever shot.

It was a tale of two nines. She looked dominant on the front, as if she were going to run away with the title. She looked vulnerable on the back, as if she couldn’t wait to get off the roller coaster she found herself riding.

Four behind Kim at Saturday’s start, Ko didn’t take long to climb to the top of the leaderboard.

With birdies on six of the first 10 holes, she moved five shots ahead of Kim.

The back nine, however, showed just how wild the final round might become, with the course so much more difficult than any setup in recent memory.

Ko knocked her tee shot at the 14th into the water and made double bogey.

Full-field scores from the ANA Inspiration

ANA Inspiration: Articles, photos and videos

At the 15th, she pulled her tee shot into rough as thick as cabbage. She hacked out in front of the green and couldn’t get up and down, making bogey.

That five-shot lead on Kim was whittled down to a single stroke after Kim stuffed a wedge to 6 feet at the last and made birdie.

What was Ko thinking on the back nine?

“It’s OK,” she said. “I’m not a robot. I’m human.

“There was really pressure on me, but I say, ‘I can do this. I’m not afraid.’”

Ko, 23, rode a lot of confidence into the year’s first major. She won the Bank of Hope Founders Cup in Phoenix two weeks ago. In five starts this year, she has finished T-3 or better four times. She’s already a three-time LPGA winner. She won the KEB Hana Bank Championship as a Korean LPGA pro in 2017, earning her American LPGA membership with that title. Then she won her rookie debut at the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open last year, propelling her to the tour’s Rookie of the Year award.

With the Dinah Shore Course fairways narrowed, the rough thickened and the greens firm, Sunday could see some high adventure.

“The rough is incredibly long,” Kang said. “You can’t lose your focus.”

Pressure promises to make those fairways look even more narrow in the final round.

“Everyone knows what they’re playing for, that this is a major championship,” Kang said.

Ko will be playing alongside Kim in the final pairing.

“We’re friends,” Ko said.

Kim, 30, has some unfinished business here. She lost this championship in heart-aching fashion seven years ago, missing a 14-inch putt at the 72nd hole that would have won it outright. She eventually fell to Sun Young Yoo in a playoff. Kim rebounded to script a feel-good story two seasons ago, overcoming any memories that haunted her by winning her first major at the Women’s British Open.

Kim said she struggled to find her best form Saturday, with Ko overtaking her.

“I quite lost it,” Kim said. “I don’t know what it was. I guess it’s just expectations, that I didn’t know I could live up to maybe. But I did my best.”

Kim’s day was more up and down than Ko’s.

From four ahead of Ko, to five behind her, Kim fought to give herself another chance to make the leap into Poppie’s Pond that eluded her back in 2012.

“Tomorrow is another day, and I think I've learned a lot today,” Kim said. “Hopefully, that will teach me going into tomorrow.”