RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif.» After flirting with a bunch of birdies early yesterday, Hawaii’s Michelle Wie knocked down four in six holes at Mission Hills Country Club. Then she whiffed a 2-footer to shoot 3-under-par 69 in the third round of the 40th annual Kraft Nabisco Championship.
The 21-year old Stanford senior, who returns to school tomorrow, is in fourth place going into the final round of the LPGA’s first major. At 6-under 210, she trails defending champion Yani Tseng (66) by six shots and Stacy Lewis (71) by four.
Wie will play the final round with 2007 Kraft champion Morgan Pressel, who is in third place at 208 after a 69 yesterday.
The young Americans — Pressel is 22 — are both among the top 15 in the Rolex World Rankings and have become good friends after a rocky start. They will draw a crowd today, filled with retirees, little girls and guys in T-shirts that read Honolulu Police Department, Hanalei, Maui, Hapa and Outrigger Canoe Club, just as Wie did yesterday.
And they will put on a show, one way or another.
"Michelle is a show," said her agent, Nickole Raymond. "I’m not a professional golfer by any means and I don’t claim to understand golf on a level most people around here do, but she’ll hit a ball 30 yards right, into the rough, behind three trees and she’ll get out with some sort of wedge and make an amazing, absurd shot within 2 feet of the pin. That’s why you go watch her — because when she gets put up against the wall, a lot of times she’ll come out with an amazing thing and you’re just like ‘How in the world?’ "
Wie played the first 10 holes in even par yesterday, despite hitting only three fairways. She had just one birdie, but left seven putts on the edge, including a 6-footer for par at No. 6.
From there, she birdied four of the next six. She launched her second shot at the par-5 11th over three massive trees and chipped to 4 feet. She found a fairway and a green in regulation on the next hole — something she accomplished just three times all day — and drained a 15-foot birdie putt.
She sank a 4-footer for par on the 13th, avoiding her first three-putt of the week, and dropped to her knees as her 14-foot birdie attempt slid by on the 14th. A 25-footer found the bottom on the next hole, then Wie hit her most magical shot of the day, nearly holing out from 140 yards at the 16th to get to 7 under for the tournament.
She gave that shot back on the 17th, missing a downhill 2-footer for par after blasting out of the bunker. That was the first shot everybody wanted to know about.
"I didn’t mis-hit it," Wie insisted. "It just broke a lot for a 2-footer, a lot more than I thought. The strange thing is, I missed the same putt last year."
Tseng, the top-ranked female golfer in the world, overtook Lewis, who led the first two days, with the day’s best round. Wie had Friday’s low score — 67 — to burst into contention after an opening-round 74 that was simply survival golf.
Angela Stanford bogeyed the last hole and shot 67 yesterday to pull within a shot of Wie. There were only seven scores in the 60s, as cloud cover came and the breeze picked up to cool off a course that had baked in 100-degree-plus temperatures the first two days.
Stanford beat Wie to win the SBS Open at Turtle Bay title two years ago. Wie had to wait nine more months to win her first LPGA tournament.
She captured her second last year. Today she is looking to win her first major, and get her third top-10 finish in four starts this year.
Wie knows she can’t control what happens around her — "You can’t, like, will them to do something." She also knows it will probably take a 65 or 66 to get it done.
Wie played the Kraft four times before joining the tour in 2009, finishing in the top 15 each time. The last two years she has been 67th and 27th.
"It’s been a while since I’ve been in contention here at Kraft and it’s a lot of fun," Wie said. "I forgot how fun it was, and I’m really excited to play tomorrow."