By Jeff Babineau
BELMONT, Mich. – As Yogi Berra might have said, it’s déjà vu all over again at the Meijer LPGA Classic for Simply Give. Three days of play are in the books at Blythefield Country Club, and once again, the leaderboard is more crowded than a Manhattan elevator on a Monday morning.
Translation: We are in for another exciting Sunday at a tournament that has a penchant for delivering them. Korea’s Amy Yang, who on Saturday shot a third consecutive 5-under 67, will start Sunday at the Meijer at the top, sitting at 15-under 201, but she cannot afford to do much looking around. Somebody, somewhere across this scorable gem, is bound to be gaining on her.
Last week’s ShopRite winner, South Africa’s Ashleigh Buhai, China’s Xiyu “Janet” Lin, seeking her first LPGA victory, and Japan’s Akaya Furue, who took a lead to the back nine on Saturday, all head into Sunday’s final round only one shot back. Buhai and Lin shot 6-under 66s on a Saturday that featured plenty of sun, gentle breezes, and a bevy of birdies and eagles. Furue made three late bogeys and shot 69. To stand still was to lose ground.
Hard-charging Ariya Jutanugarn of Thailand (66) – who has played with “no expectations” since a 73 on Thursday – Korea’s Hyo Joo Kim (69), and Ireland’s Leona Maguire (69), a runner-up in each of the last two years at Meijer, will start Sunday two off the lead. A three-pack at 12 under, only three shots behind Yang, includes defending champion Jennifer Kupcho as well as a pair of players looking to win on the LPGA for the first time, Texan Lindsey Weaver-Wright (69) and rookie Manon De Roey of Belgium. De Roey bogeyed her first two holes and bounced back to shoot 69.
Storylines, storylines, storylines. Yang, 33, has had a nice career on the LPGA. She has 81 career top 10s, and on Sunday, she will surpass $11 million in career earnings. She also has won four times as a member of the LPGA; all four of the victories have been in Asia. How important is it to her to win in the U.S.?
“I want to,” said Yang, smiling. “I’ll keep trying my best.”
Yang’s ballstriking – she credits more balanced tempo – has been her strongest suit this week at Blythefield, where on Satuday, she started nicely, made two bogeys near the middle of the round, then found some momentum late. She hit pitching wedge to 15 feet to set up her sixth birdie of the round at the challenging par-4 17th. At 18, a 478-yard par 5, she showed off her power, crushing a drive that left her only an 8-iron in. She hit her approach to 30 feet, setting up an easy two-putt birdie to get to 15 under.
It was the 23-year-old Furue who seemed to be in control most of the afternoon. The winner of last year’s Trust Golf Women’s Scottish Open started Saturday with the lead (11 under) and reached 15 under with a birdie at the par-5 eighth, her fourth of the young day. But her second nine was something of an adventure.
So steady (one lone bogey) through her first 48 holes, Furue would make two birdies over her final six holes, but also made three bogeys in the stretch to give back the lead she had worked so hard to build.
“It’s one of those golf courses that yes, you can go very low, but it doesn’t take much to rack up a few bogeys,” said Maguire, who had two on her card to offset the five birdies she made, including a run of three straight beginning at the sixth, where he chipped in from just off the front of the putting surface.
Maguire made it into a three-way playoff a year ago (won by Kupcho) by shooting 65 on Sunday. (She, Kupcho and Korda played off at 18-under 270.) She’ll be looking to do something similar to make up ground on those ahead of her on Sunday, knowing that she is swinging it well enough to score better.
“Good rhythm, good patience tomorrow, and see what happens,” Maguire said. “It’s all about finding the balance between being aggressive, knowing that you have to make birdies, versus not forcing the issue too much. It’s just a case of giving yourself chances and just taking them where you get them. And knowing there is chances all over the golf course.”
Nobody comes into Sunday any hotter, or riding more confidence, than Buhai. It took her until she was 33 (and making her 221st start) to break through to win on the LPGA, winning a major, no less (2022 AIG Women’s Open at Muirfield). Of late, she has made getting into contention a habit. Last week’s ShopRite was her fourth victory around the globe in the last 12 months. Buhai is stronger physically (she has a trainer) and mentally, and putts it as well as she ever has. Buhai has become the complete package, and tough to beat.
Buhai rebounded from her lone bogey of the round at 17, where she got out of position with a poor swing into the green and ended up with an awkward greenside bunker shot, by making eagle-3 at the closing par-5 18th. She hit a hybrid there for her second shot, her ball finishing about 20 feet from the flagstick.
How does Buhai feel in contention on Sunday as opposed to how she might have felt previously to becoming an LPGA winner? It’s pretty much night and day.
“Obviously, you know, winning gives you confidence and it’s a byproduct and just kind of once you’re in that situation, the more you put yourself in the situation, the more comfortable you become,” Buhai said. “Again, by not focusing on the outcome and just trying to, like I say, focus on that moment and doing my job well at the ball, that kind of frees you up a lot, I think.”
Sunday, she will try to be the first player to win back-to-back LPGA starts since Jin Young Ko in 2021.
Kupcho, who is off to a slow start in 2023 but finished second at the Cognizant Founders Cup two weeks ago, has yet to feel completely comfortable with her game this week, but continues to battle and has done a nice job of hanging around. On Saturday, despite making three bogeys – one at the par-5 10th hole – she did enough to shoot 69, making birdie at her final hole to at least stay within three shots.
Kupcho’s round included an eagle-3 at the par-5 eighth, a hole she eagled a year ago in her final-round push. She holed about a 30-footer. Kupcho knows as well as anyone that a low round is out there waiting for somebody on Sunday (the low this week has been Jutanugarn’s 64 on Friday). A year ago, in some of the week’s most challenging conditions, with the wind blowing, Kupcho opened the tournament by shooting 63.
“It’s going to be kind of hard for me to come back,” said Kupcho, a three-time winner in 2022. “Have to go like 9 under, probably. So no mistakes and see what happens tomorrow, I guess.”
Ah, Sunday at Blythefield, 18 holes to play, the possibilities are endless.