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U.S. Women's Open is Lydia Ko's to lose

By Dan O'Neill
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SAN MARTIN, Calif. -- Over the first two days, the 71st U.S. Women's Open searched for an identity. Rounds were cuddly in the morning, prickly in the afternoon. Players ascended the leaderboard in red, descended in black.

But on "moving day" at CordeValle Golf Club, the real championship stood up. With the field cut to 72 players, with the best playing last, the leaderboard backed up and the broadsheet compressed. The closing moments of Saturday's third round became a free-for-all, with as many as four players locked in the lead.

In short, a USGA championship broke out. And as it heads to a final day, there's no question what kind of competition this is: It's Lydia Ko's to lose.

This was an 8-under affair during the first two days. The score initially was established by Mirim Lee's first-round 64, maintained by Sung Hyun Park's second-round 66, which advanced her to 8 under and the 36-hole lead.

But when the final 18 holes begin, the lead will be 7 under and the person holding it will have all the credibility in the world. Sliding in a 9-foot birdie putt on 18, Ko finished a third round of 2-under-par 70 and moved to 7 under for the championship.

One shot back at 6 under is 2009 winner Eun-Hee Ji (70) and Park (74). Two shots back is the frequently-frustrated Amy Yang (73) and veteran Brittany Lang (68). One more back is Angela Stanford (71), and still one more is Danielle Kang (73).

Seven players are tied at 2 under, still solvent but in need of something spectacular when threesomes go off on Sunday. That said, Ko was nine shots behind after the first day, before going 66-70 over the next 36 holes.

"There's still a lot of golf to be played," Ko said. "There's a past U.S. Open champion, just a shot behind. Because there's so many great players out there, especially at a course during these majors, you never know what's going to happen."

RELATED: Photos from the U.S. Women's Open at CordeValle Golf Club

With the Santa Cruz Mountain breezes blowing, with the flagsticks tucked away, perhaps it's true, perhaps anything might happen. But what happens rests largely with Ko. Born in Korea, established in New Zealand, Ko has been the biggest star of her genre over the past three years.

She has won 13 LPGA events and two of the last three majors. She leads the circuit in putting, scoring and smiling. She is the youngest in the history of the women's game to do most what she's done, and what she is on the verge of doing blows the mind.

At 19 years, 2 months, 16 days of age, she would be the youngest to win the Women's Open, topping Inbee Park (2008) by several months. Moreover, she would be the youngest three-time major championship winner in history. That's right, in the history of golf.

The current owner of that distinction, Young Tom Morris, was 19 years, 4 months and 25 days when he won his third major -- the 1870 Open Championship. And at that point, the professional golf was hardly a brand.

"Those are not things I really think about," she said.

Jack Nicklaus, who won 18 professional majors, once said: "I'd rather be two strokes ahead going into the last day than two strokes behind. Having said that, it's probably easier to win coming from behind. There is no fear in chasing. There is fear in being chased."

To that end, Ko came from behind to win both of her majors. Last month, she had the 54-hole lead at the KPMG Women's PGA Championship and was caught from behind by Brooke Henderson's 65. Henderson then won the playoff. But frankly, no one who spends time around Ko would say she fears anything.

If poise and confidence were groceries, her pantry would be full. She doesn't appear to have a nervous bone in her body. "She's so steady," Lang, 30, said. "There's so many good players, but she's something else. She's super steady. There's no way she (could) be as calm as she looks on the outside."

Ko acknowledged as much. But she doesn't cower from nerves, she embraces them.

"I look a lot calmer than what goes on in the inside," said Ko, who rolled just 25 putts on Saturday. "I definitely do get nervous, but I think that's part of it. Nerves are good, actually.

"I feel like if I'm not nervous it's because -- I think nerves are good because it means you're excited. You're ready. It means a lot to you. Obviously nerves you've got to be able to control it. But a little bit of nerves I think is always good. And it can end up being a little bit of adrenaline. I just try and take deep breaths."

The final stage of the U.S. Women's Open could produce some drama. With so many cards still in play, the finish seems uncertain, unpredictable. Then again, the world's No. 1 player has a one-stroke lead, and she's taking deep breaths.

"I'll take any shot advantage I can," Ko added. "Because there is still a lot of golf to be played, you just never know. ... I just say all I can do is try my best. If somebody plays better than me, I can't do much about it."

This article was written by Dan O'Neill from St. Louis Post-Dispatch and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.