ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Nelly Korda is just ahead of a stacked field going into final round of the Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions — the LPGA’s 2022 kickoff event. Four women who have won majors are among the top five players.
Korda, the world’s No. 1 and five-time winner in 2021 (including an Olympic gold medal), limited her mistakes on Saturday in challenging, chilly conditions for a 3-under 69 with four birdies and a bogey, and is 13-under 203 overall. Korda, 23, won the 2021 Gainbridge LPGA on the same course, Lake Nona Golf and Country Club.
Danielle Kang, the runner-up at this tournament a year ago, and Mexico’s Gaby Lopez, the 2020 TOC champion, each went bogey-free in matching Korda’s 69, and will begin the final round one shot back. Canada’s Brooke Henderson and Japan’s Yuka Saso matched the day’s low score of 68 and will begin Sunday two and three strokes behind Korda, respectively.
Kang, Henderson and Saso all have won major championships.
Korda is seeking her eighth career LPGA title. The more she gets in the hunt, the more poised she appears to be. On Saturday, she played alongside a former No. 1 player, Annika Sorenstam, who won 72 times on the LPGA and leads the celebrity field.
“I don’t think anyone is ever really comfortable sleeping on a lead in a sense, but I’m just going to see how I can grow from this opportunity, try to take my best golf into tomorrow, and see how it goes,” Korda said.
Kang held the lead briefly on the back nine and has made only one bogey in three rounds. A Californian who never played very well in the cold, she would rise early at home in Las Vegas in the offseason and make herself practice when it was cold and windy. She experimented with clothing layers that wouldn’t inhibit her swing.
“There is still a lot of progress to be made,” said Kang, 29, who had a rare winless season a year ago. (This TOC field is comprises 29 winners of events in the last three LPGA seasons). “I made a couple swings out there where I just froze up. My body doesn’t react that well in the cold.”
Kang had back-to-back birdies starting at the par-3 13th. At 14, with the tee at the short par-4 pushed up to 251 yards, she drove the green and narrowly missed her eagle putt from 20 feet.
“I gave myself a lot of par opportunities today,” she said. “I didn’t really give myself a lot of birdie opportunities, but capitalized on a couple I did have, which I was proud of myself. I think my biggest thing I’m proud of is that I’m just staying in the moment, staying in what I need to do. I can’t rally control what other people do.”
Lopez, 28, has been impressive all week. She had made only two birdies by the time she reached the tee at the 398-yard closing hole on Saturday, staying patient, and even with a good drive, still had 162 yards left directly into the wind. She hit one of her best shots of the day, a solid 5-iron to 12 feet, and buried the putt, finishing with birdie for a second consecutive day.
Lopez said she has played with “bravery” this week.
“Being able to step up with Gaby without her demons, and with her doubts, and the moments of uncertainty,” Lopez said. ”Being able to step up and say, ‘Hey, I’m here for a reason. I worked my whole life for this.’ … Whatever happens tomorrow, it’s going to be fine. I’m pretty sure we’re going to play some solid golf this year.”
Sorenstam, who won last summer’s U.S. Women’s Senior Open and is a member at Lake Nona, leads the celebrity division, which uses a Modified Stableford scoring system.
The race is a tight one. She has 104 points, two points better than former MLB pitcher Derek Lowe, four ahead of former tennis player Mardy Fish and five ahead of military veteran Chad Pfeifer. The winner among the celebrities will earn $100,000. The LPGA champion will earn $225,000.
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