LPGA finale poised for wild finish
NAPLES, Fla. -- Stacy Lewis entered the final weekend of the LPGA season down 11 shots. It was all over, right? No chance to win?
Hah! That's what everybody else might have thought. Lewis, the top-ranked American player at No. 3 in the world, had other ideas Saturday. And after shooting the low score of the day -- a 63 that was one of her best rounds of the year -- Lewis finds herself right in the mix of a jam-packed leaderboard that is even better than the LPGA could have hoped for to close its 2013 season.
Seriously, get a load of this: Tied at the top at the CME Group Titleholders is the LPGA's Ms. Personality, Natalie Gulbis. Nobody works the pro-ams and the crowds better than Gulbis, who possesses a genuinely nice demeanor to go with her high-voltage smile.
Gulbis shot a 7-under 65 and is tied with fellow American Gerina Piller and Thailand's Pornanong Phatlum at 11-under 205.
"It is nerve-wracking, but it's awesome," Gulbis said of being in contention going into the final round. "It's so much more fun."
Two strokes back at 9-under 207 and tied for fourth is a group that includes Lewis and U.S. teen Lexi Thompson, who won last week's tour stop in Mexico. Right behind them at 8-under 208 is another name that always moves the needle on the LPGA Tour: Michelle Wie.
And don't count out world No. 1 Inbee Park, who is lurking four shots off the lead at 209 and thinks her putting is coming around more toward her high standards. Park had wrapped up Rolex player of the year even before this tournament, and at an awards dinner Friday night made a speech accepting that honor.
"I was definitely nervous, but I was trying to share the moment," said Park, for whom English is a second language but one in which she's become fluent and expressive. "After a few sentences, I was OK."
Lewis was one of the players who stayed late until the end of the awards dinner to listen to Park. Suzann Pettersen, Lewis' top competition for the Vare trophy for lowest scoring average, opted to leave earlier in preparation for the third round. It was something Lewis alluded to Saturday.
"I think all things work out the way they're supposed to; I said I would go and I fulfilled my commitment," Lewis said. "I was glad I was there more than anything to see Inbee get her award. The speech she gave was unbelievable, because I know how hard that is."
Lewis really does know, because she won the award last year. Saturday, Lewis took full advantage of a tamer Tiburon Golf Club course for her eight-birdie, one-eagle, one-bogey round. Lewis now has all but wrapped up the Vare trophy; Pettersen shot 71 Saturday and is 10 shots off the lead at 215. Pettersen would have to beat Lewis by nine strokes at this tournament to take the Vare, which now seems nearly impossible.
Lewis has the most top-10 finishes on tour this season (18), but she really wants to add to her victory total. She has three wins this year, including the Women's British Open.
"Honestly, I didn't think I was out of this golf tournament," Lewis said. "I knew I needed a good score today; I certainly didn't think it was going to be 9 under. I draw from the British Open all the time; I was three shots behind going into the 17th hole [on the last day]. So with that fact right there, it's kind of freed me up to say anything is possible, and you've just got to keep hanging in there."
Gulbis has hung in for a long time; she has not won since her lone LPGA Tour victory in 2007. She says she thinks about that every day, and it bugs her.
You wouldn't know that, though, with how joyfully Gulbis usually traverses a golf course. When not playing, she's all over the place: signing autographs, posing for pictures, chatting up spectators and sponsors. This week she was even busier, doing commercial shoots, appearing at a meet-and-greet with fans here in Naples, hanging out on the "red carpet" doing interviews before the awards dinner Friday.
"But it's been busy for all of us this week," Gulbis said. "This is the tour championship, and we have a lot of exciting things going on with the tour."
Gulbis actually started 2013 with a serious illness -- she contracted malaria -- and will end it with a serious commitment: She's getting married. A $700,000 first-place check would be a nice wedding present to give herself, but she said the money is not on her mind.
"It wouldn't matter what amount first place was," Gulbis said. "To win another individual title would be huge for me."
Piller, who has not yet won on the LPGA Tour, admitted the big check would be important to her. She and her husband, fellow golf pro Martin Piller, recently bought a home in Texas.
"We would definitely pay that sucker off," she said, laughing.
So who's the favorite going into the final day? Take a guess. Gulbis is the only one of the three in the lead who has won an LPGA title; Phatlum's best finish on tour is a tie for second, and Piller's is a tie for fifth.
Lewis has the fire in her eyes, but so does Thompson. And we should also point out that tied with those two at 9 under is China's Shanshan Feng, who has won this year, and Germany's Sandra Gal, who was the leader after two rounds here but appears to be battling back problems.
Could Wie, who made the switch to her odd-looking putting stance at this tournament last year, get her third career LPGA victory? Or will Park -- who provided the biggest headlines on the tour this season with her run at the Grand Slam -- end the year with her seventh win of 2013?
Or might it somehow be none of the above? (Did we mention American veteran Cristie Kerr is also four shots off the lead?)
"To be in the mix and to be making birdies and to be playing well is what you practice for," Gulbis said. "To have that adrenaline and that nervousness, it's what makes all these players tick."