Inbee Park opened a five-stroke lead on Saturday in a bid to finally win the Kia Classic.
Second, in the event in 2010, 2016 and 2019, the Hall of Famer shot a 3-under 69 to reach 12-under 204 at Aviara Golf Club – the scenic course that was set up some 300 yards shorter for the third round.
“It was actually a big surprise,” Park said. “I didn’t know the LPGA was going to move four tees up in one day. I never seen this kind of setup before. So they tried something new. I mean, it took a long time on the golf course today waiting to go for the greens. But it was fun at the same time.”
Park is making her first LPGA Tour start of the season. The 32-year-old South Korean star, ranked fourth in the world, has 20 tour victories — seven of them majors.
“It’s tough putting on these greens, but I have been handling myself really well on the greens,” Park said. “Obviously, they made the course very reachable today and I couldn’t take advantage of those holes, but I played the rest of the holes well. So I’m happy with that.”
Playing partner Mel Reid lipped out a birdie try from off the green on 18 in a 71 that left her tied for second with Mi Jung Hur (67) and Minjee Lee (68).
“She’s got a five-shot lead, so I’m going to have to do something special to get it done tomorrow,” Reid said. “I think tomorrow the game plan is to play aggressive and there is nothing to lose, and I’m going to try and get as close as I can to Inbee. But she’s an unbelievable golfer and she’s going to be hard to beat. She doesn’t make any mistakes.”
Top-ranked Jin Young Ko, Lexi Thompson and Madelene Sagstrom were 6 under in the final event before the major ANA Inspiration next week in Rancho Mirage. Ko, the ANA winner in April 2019, shot 68.
“I had a lot of chance for birdie, but I missed a couple putts,” Ko said. “But I’m still played well today. Really fun out there. I’m looking forward to tomorrow.”
Sagstrom had the round of the day, overcoming an opening double bogey for a 64. The Swede followed the double bogey with birdies on seven of the next eight holes. She had four birdies and a bogey on the back nine.
“The course was set up quite nicely today,” Sagstrom said. “I could reach two par 4s and I hit really good tee shots on both of those, took advantage of that. I just hit some really, really good iron shots that were quite easy, and then I made a few putts.”
Thompson had a bogy-free 66.
“Overall, just a great day,” Thompson said. “We had amazing scoring conditions, perfect weather for us. Just tried to take advantage of that. They moved some of the tees up so I knew I had to make a lot of birdies to make any type of move today.”
Thompson and Amy Olson — 5 under after a 67 — were in the best position to extend the United States’ season-opening winning streak. Americans have won the first three events for the first time since 2007, with sisters Jessica and Nelly Korda taking the first two and Austin Ernst the last.
Women’s British Open winner Sophia Popov, a stroke behind Park entering the round, had five bogeys in a 76 in the final group. She was 4 under.
Marina Alex closed bogey-eagle-bogey-eagle, holing out from the fairway on the par-4 18th for a 71. She was 3 under.