When the final round of the LPGA Safeway International gets down to the nitty-gritty today, expect the risky but often rewarding 18th hole at Superstition Mountain to play a key role.
The final test is where eagles sometimes fly, and where birdies are a must. But if a player gets a little tight on the tee, with water looming left, it can crush her chances with one swing. Even the approach shot is water-guarded.
So far, it’s been good to the leader, South Korea’s Sarah Lee, and to her closest challenger, 19-year-old Aree Song of Thailand. But last year it cost Lorena Ochoa the tournament when she yanked her tee shot into the drink on her way to losing a one-hole playoff to Annika Sorenstam.
One thing seems almost a certainty this time around: Lee, Song and the rest of those near the top of the leader board won’t have to worry about the world’s No. 1 female player. Sorenstam struggled mightily during Saturday’s blustery third round, falling all the way into a tie for 53rd place.
Lee looked like she was going to build a hefty cushion, at one point leading by three shots coming down the stretch. Then Song arrived at the 18th hole, and — you guessed it! — made eagle.
“It’s good to see an eagle every time,’’ said Lee, who pulled off a two-shot swing there during Friday’s second round with an eagle of her own.
“I was losing my rhythm and tempo (when she got to the 18th), and Aree did really great.’’
As a result, Lee holds a one-shot advantage over Song, with Hall of Famer Juli Inkster and Michele Redman four shots back. Lee managed to hold on to the top spot with a 2-under-par 70 that moved her to 14-under 202.
Song, who shot 70, hiphopped near the top with a 3-wood from 230 yards that settled to within 3 feet of the cup.
“I didn’t want to go for it (the green in two shots), but my caddie convinced me to go for it,’’ said Song, who like Lee is looking for her first LPGA win. “That’s how you make eagle.’’
With the wind kicking up in the 15- to 20-mph range, Superstition Mountain finally got its due after two days of taking a beating. As it turned out, Sorenstam might have been its chief victim.
“I’m disappointed, but I tried and there is not much more you can do. I really tried,’’ she said of her 75 that sank her hopes for a three-peat.
“In a way, I feel good about my game. It is just not happening.’’
But catching Lee and Song and the rest of the pack seems highly improbable, barring another 59 like the one Sorenstam recorded at this event when it was held at Moon Valley Country Club in 2001. Even a 59 would require a collapse by the leaders, and Lee and Song don’t look like they’ll wilt.
Inkster, who also posted a 70, has the most wins of those near the top, having amassed 30 during her career. But she also is 45 and hasn’t been to the winner’s circle since 2003.
Redman is a veteran but has only won twice in 15 years on tour. If she fires another 66 like in Round 3, which equaled the best score of the day, who knows?
There are others who could rally, like South Korea’s Jeong Jang, who is five shots back after also shooting a 66. Or perhaps Sweden’s Sophie Gustafson, who also trails by five after a 68.
Six shots back might be a reach, but there are some gamers there, like Cristie Kerr (69), Sweden’s Suzann Pettersen (74) and even another 19-year-old, Paula Creamer (74).
But more likely, this is a shootout between Lee and Song. Both have come close before, and this is another golden opportunity.
“I’m playing like I am, so I have that going for me,’’ said Song when asked if she’s ready to win. “I’m getting confidence playing in the last group.’’
Lee, too, is pumped up for the confrontation.
“Yes, yes. I expect to win,’’ she said.
Asked if she hopes it doesn’t rain, or if she’d like to see rain, Lee shrugged. “It’s not only me. Everyone has the same conditions.’’
Lee and Song go off at 12:14 p.m., but it won’t be until about 5 p.m. that the champion will be crowned. Chances are it will all come down to the 18th hole, and wouldn’t another eagle by the winner be a sweet way to finish?