July 02, 2017: Danielle Kang’s resume is top-heavy with amateur achievements, but Sunday at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship she’ll have a chance to add the satisfying words, “until now.” Chella Choi at least has one LPGA win the bank, but both will experience the pressure of the final group of a major championship for the first time. Aditi Ashok mixed six bogeys with four birdies in her third round 73. Aditi is lying T27 at 2-under 211.
Talk about sailing uncharted waters. But if the form of the last three days is indication, the co-leaders of the Women’s PGA at 10-under-par 203 are more than up to the task. They both proved Saturday that the weekend at a major does not scare them, Choi shooting a 67 and Kang a 68 on the stingy Olympia Fields North Course.
The duo is two strokes clear of Jiyai Shin and three in front of defending champion Brooke Henderson. Amy Yang and Sei Young Kim are four back at 207. An astounding 10 players are at 208, including major winners Lexi Thompson, Michelle Wie and So Yeon Ryu as 16 players lurk within five of the lead going to Sunday when history has proven time and again that anything can happen.
Kang, 24, is a sixth-year pro out of Pepperdine with a dazzling amateur career. She qualified for the 2007 U.S. Women’s Open as a 14-year-old, won the U.S. Women’s Amateur in 2010 and 2011 – the first time in 15 years back-to-back titles were claimed – and captured the prestigious North and South Championship in 2011.
But she’s winless on the LPGA and her best finish in an LPGA major is T-14 in the 2012 U.S. Women’s Open. She took a major step toward a major rewrite of her history by opening the tournament with three consecutive rounds in the 60s
“I love the vibe of a major,” Kang said after her round. “It makes you feel so blessed to be out here. But as a tournament, when I step up and hit a shot, it’s the same thing as if I’m on the driving range. I do what I have to do and stick to my routine and play my game.”
That’s an excellent plan, but as the boxer Mike Tyson liked to say, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” There are always punches landed on Sunday at a major. The winners are those who best roll with the blows.
What Choi, 26, does best is keep her ball out of trouble. She only hits it, on average, 248 yards off the tee, not among the top 100 on tour, but finds the fairway 80 percent of the time and hits the green at a 74 percent clip. That kind of accuracy will serve her well under final-round pressure. She’s proven she can go low, shooting 29 on the back nine at Lancaster CC in the 2015 U.S. Women’s Open, setting a tournament record.
“I feel very good right now,” Choi said. “My shot and my putting, very good the last couple of weeks so I have confidence. You know, it’s a major tournament. It’s very biggest for me, but I’m ready for the final round. I practiced a lot and training a lot, and mental training, too.”
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the day was Shin, who left the LPGA in 2014 after 11 wins, including two majors, to return to Korea. She reminded everyone she was once No. 1 in the Rolex Ranking with a sizzling 64. Still only 29, she teed off three hours before the leaders six strokes off the lead, and about four hours later was in the clubhouse alone atop the leader board with a back nine 30, making six birdies over her final 10 holes.
Since returning in 2014 to the Japan LPGA, which is a short flight from her home in South Korea, she’s won 10 times. She won the Ricoh Women’s British Open in 2008 and 2012. “Maybe I like wind,” she says. “So I think tomorrow is going to be a little bit hotter and also windy. So I try to enjoy the wind, like a friend.”
She was LPGA Rolex Rookie of the Year in 2009 and led the tour money list. Shin last won on the LPGA in 2013. She has not finished in the top-10 in a major since being T-5 in the 2013 Women’s PGA, her 11th top-10 in an LPGA major. In fact, this is only the fourth LPGA major appearance she we went home in 2014.
“Yes, why not?” Shin said when asked if she felt she could still win a major.
Shin certainly takes experience into the final round, as does Henderson, who got it done last year at Sahalee. Yang, who has 15 top-10s in majors without a victory, might be positioned nicely, out of the spotlight of the final group. And the same can be said for Kim, who does have six LPGA wins at the tender age of 24.
But the final round is clearly in the hands of Kang and Choi. If either goes into the 60s again, it will be difficult for anyone to catch them, unless there is another Shin-like 64 hiding out there. And that’s been one of the wonderful things about this golf course: Though difficult, it rewards great play. Now, we’ll see who’s great on Sunday.
Ron Sirak for the LPGA