NAPLES, Fla. – A windy afternoon along the Gulf Coast of Florida played right into the hands of Sandra Gal on Friday in the CME Group Titleholders.
Gal controlled the flight of her ball and picked up three birdies on the back nine at Tiburon Golf Club, giving her a 3-under 69 and a three-shot lead going into the weekend of an LPGA Tour finale that pays $700,000 to the winner.
The 28-year-old German has spent much of the year working on a shorter swing and hitting a variety of shapes and trajectories, and that was put to good use in the blustery conditions. And the fact she opened with a 64 didn't hurt.
"My advantage was yesterday," Gal said. "Shooting 8-under was big. Today it was hard for everybody to catch up. That's what gave me that three-shot lead."
Gal was at 11-under 133.
Sun Young Yoo, the former Kraft Nabisco champion, had a 68 and was alone in second. The degree of difficult was best measured by what Yoo considered her best shot of the round – a 6-iron on the 18th hole that didn't even hit the green.
"I'm very pleased with how I played," Yoo said. "I recovered very well."
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Lydia Ko, the 16-year-old from New Zealand making her pro debut, played her final 10 holes without a birdie and finished at 71, leaving her nine shots behind.
"I thought I played much better today than yesterday, but the score was the same," Ko said. "I left a couple of my putts short just in front of the hole. Then when I got my speed right, the direction was wrong, so that was kind of frustrating."
Gal hasn't won since her inaugural title at the Kia Classic two years ago, and her biggest disappointment this year was not getting picked for the Solheim Cup team. She felt her game was turning around, but not in time to warrant a captain's pick.
Instead, she might have to settle for the biggest payoff in women's golf. To win this week would amount to one-third of her career earnings.
"It's easier for people to say, `I don't care about the money, I only want to play well.' But they don't mean it, right?" she said with a smile. "But I'm not out here to play for money. I'm out here to play with heart and to inspire others. It's a huge purse. But at the end of the day, when you win a tournament, you're happy about fighting and overcoming fear."
Cristie Kerr had to fight plenty hard to get another 69 and lead the group at 6-under 138, five shots behind. Kerr thought she took take a 6-iron through a gap in the trees on the par-5 opening hole, and instead knocked it into the water. She had to drop in pine straw, and sent her fifth shot over the green. Her chip hit the pin, allowing her to tap in for a double bogey. What followed was a "horrendous" shot at the third (bogey) and a "horrible" shot on the fifth into a bunker.
But she saved par, and that changed her thinking.
"I wasn't going to let this tournament go down the toilet," she said.
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Kerr then ran off three straight birdies, knocked in a 15-foot birdie putt on the 12th, and then holed an 80-foot putt for eagle on the 17th that put her back in the mix.
"On 17, I mean I was just due. I don't know how to describe it any other way than that," she said.
Morgan Pressel had a 67, the low score of the second round. Four players failed to break 80.
Inbee Park was within a shot of the lead early in the round, reaching 7 under, until she fell back to a 72 and was seven shots behind. Park headed off to rehearse her speech one last time before accepting LPGA player of the year at the awards dinner Friday night. Most players are nervous to stand before a big room for such a big moment.
"I've had a lot more pressure," Park said with a smile, a reference to going after a fourth straight major earlier this year at St. Andrews.
Stacey Lewis (73) and Suzann Pettersen (72) were in the group at even-par 144, significant only as it relates to the Vare Trophy for the lowest scoring average. Pettersen would have to finish nine shots higher than the American to win the award.
Gal stayed in the lead most of the day, and one last birdie stretched her lead. She would expect to make birdie on the 17th, the shortest of the par 5s. Just not this way. She hooked her tee shot into the trees and wasn't sure she could find it.
"Happy to find my ball," she said. "Had a swing – very happy. Had an 8-iron and thought, `Let's go for the pin,' and almost holed it out. Made the putt (from 15 feet). All very simple. Never in doubt."