There is a connection at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship that is unmistakable. It’s Sei Young Kim and the front nine at Aronimink Golf Club.
After scorching the front for a record-tying 29 in Friday’s second round, Kim posted four birdies Saturday on that stretch of Newtown Square landscape to get her day going, and carried on to a 3-under-par 67, which was good for a 2-stroke lead heading into the final round of the LPGA major.
Kim, 27, in search of her first career major title, concluded 54 holes at 7-under 203. She has made 10 birdies on the front nine the last two days, more than half of her 16 for the week.
“I feel like after the tee shots on the front nine, I’m left with a shorter distance to the green, which I was able to capitalize,” she said. “Birdies build my confidence.”
She will need to keep that confidence for Sunday’s final 18. The folks in golf like to refer to Saturday’s round as “moving day,” and a number of players did just that. Four improved by at least 10 places from Friday’s final standings.
Brooke Henderson, who won the 2016 KPMG Women’s PGA at the age of 18, fired a 5-under 65 to move into a tie with Anna Nordqvist at 205. Nordqvist, the 2009 champion when this event was known as the McDonald’s LPGA Championship, shot a 68.
Inbee Park, a three-time winner of the championship, made six birdies in a round of 66 and a 206 total, good for fourth place. Bianca Pagdanganan, an LPGA Tour rookie who is ranked 712th in the world, put together her second straight bogey-free 65 to take over fifth at 207.
Mina Harigae had a 66 to head a four-way tie for sixth at 208 with Gaby Lopez, Carlota Ciganda, and Jennifer Kupcho. Lopez fired a 68, and Ciganda and Kupcho each posted 71.
Kim followed her strong front nine with two birdies and two bogeys on the back. After Nordqvist bogeyed the 18th in the group directly in front of her, Kim had a chance to end the day with a 3-stroke lead but also bogeyed No. 18, which she called “disappointing."
Even with no majors, Kim is no stranger to dealing with pressure. She made a 25-foot putt on the final hole of the season-ending CMS Group Tour Championship last year to collect a cool $1.5 million, the largest prize in women’s golf.
“If I knew the answer to how to make clutch putts I would have won so many more times,” she said. “I just tried to stay calm during the rounds. When I’m home not playing, I do a lot of image training of my game. So I just try to keep composed, and I guess that’s turned out to good results.”
Henderson birdied five of her first 12 holes to move steadily up the leader board. She had her share of chances for birdie on the last six holes and couldn’t capitalize. But she was thrilled with her par save on 18. She said she will continue to try to play smart golf.
“Some holes, I don’t think you can ever really attack,” she said. “Other ones, given the opportunity, then I might try to do that. It just depends on how everybody is playing, what the weather is like, and how the course is set up. I think our strategy so far has worked really well.”
Nordqvist, 33, whose first and last of her eight career victories have been majors, took the momentary lead after a birdie at No. 11 put her at 7-under. But she lost two shots down the stretch with bogeys at 12 and 18. She said she’s in a good position.
“I’m very pleased with myself and the way I’ve been playing the last couple of days,” she said. “That’s all I can ask for. It’s a tough golf course, so I feel you can’t look behind or look ahead because you have a challenge right in front of you. I feel like on this course anything can happen.”
A different Sunday
To crown the champion before the NBC TV window ends at 2 p.m., the grouping of Kim, Henderson and Nordqvist will not be the final one of the day, as is customary for the leaders. They will tee off at 8:49 a.m., and the nine players with the highest 54-hole scores will tee off in three groups of three afterward.
“It’s definitely an advantage to tee off later, especially here, because it’s a bit warmer,” Kim said. “But the only thing I have to keep in mind is that earlier tee times will be a little chillier temperature-wise, so I’ll make sure I have my hand warmers and be ready to play.”