JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – Lizette Salas spent much of her time Saturday looking at Nelly Korda ahead of her in the KPMG Women's PGA Championship.
In the fairway, not on the leaderboard.
Korda blasted a drive on the opening hole at Atlanta Athletic Club and hit 9-iron to 4 feet. Salas hit 7-wood to the middle of the green and holed a 45-foot birdie putt to match her.
It was like that throughout the front nine, where Salas turned a one-shot deficit into a two-shot lead until Korda finally caught up to her on the back nine.
Salas had a third straight 5-under 67. Korda had a 68. They were tied for the lead at 15-under 201, five shots clear of anyone else.
“Lizette was rolling in some nice ones today and I told myself, ‘I’ve got to hit it close to even keep up with her,'" Korda said. “When you get into that mindset of kind of egging each other on, it’s fun, but it’s also nerve-racking.”
Two very different games ultimately led to the same score. The one commonality is both are chasing their first major championship Sunday.
At stake for Korda is a chance to reach No. 1 in the world.
Salas relied on precision and big putts to make up for a big power gap against Korda. She was close to flawless on the front nine with a 30 until her first bogey of the tournament on No. 10 slowed her momentum .
Korda, the 22-year-old coming off a victory last week on the LPGA Tour, played bogey-free but failed to use her length to capitalize on the par 5s on the back nine.
“Knowing that I’m not the longest hitter, I think I’m used to that,” Salas said. “I think I’m just so comfortable in saying, ‘You know what? I’m going to hit first,’ and knowing my game. ... Let's just play boring golf and let's give ourselves good looks at birdie.”
They were five shots ahead of a trio that includes Patty Tavatanakit, the Thai star who won the first LPGA Tour major of the year at the ANA Inspiration. Tavatanakit ran off four straight birdies toward the end of her round for a 65.
Joining her five shots behind were Giulia Molinaro of Italy (66) and Celine Boutier of France, who had a 69 while playing in the final group with the co-leaders.
Boutier had reason to think she was out of the tournament when she fell nine shots behind as the group was approaching the turn. She was playing fine. It's just that Salas was playing out of this world, and Korda was close to the same.
Salas, who began the week by sharing her emotional struggles of coping with the COVID-19 pandemic, began her round by holing that 45-foot putt across the green. After a wedge to 3 feet for a birdie on the par-5 second, she drained a 35-foot birdie putt on No. 3.
That was set up by another fairway metal. Korda was constantly some 35 yards beyond her off the tee, hitting short irons when Salas was hitting hybrids and fairway metals. It's a wonder her caddie, John Killeen, didn't lose any head covers.
No matter. The 31-year-old Californian couldn't miss. She brought a U.S. Open game — fairways and greens, nothing fancy — to the Women's PGA and it worked.
Salas took the lead for the first time with a 5-hybrid into 25 feet and another long birdie putt on the par-3 seventh, and she hit a 4-hybrid into 12 feet into No. 8, a hole that yielded only eight birdies the entire round.
“I didn’t realize I shot 30 until I signed my scorecard,” Salas said. “Obviously, it’s fun when you play like that. I think it’s good momentum going into tomorrow."
But after 45 holes without a bogey to start this major, Salas caught a tough lie on the edge of a fairway bunker left of the 10th feet, the ball above her feet as she tried to find balance on either a slope or in the sand. She played short, hit a weak wedge and two-putted from 25 feet.
Korda caught her with a birdie on the 13th, and they both made pars coming in.
Tavatanakit never lost hope even as she fell 10 shots behind, even after her driver cracking in the first round and two subsequent days trying — and failing — to find a replacement she could trust. The former UCLA star made up ground in the final hour with four straight birdies, including her 6-iron to 10 feet on the tough par-3 15th.
“I was just trying to go left, then I pushed one right and I was like, ‘For God’s sakes just carry that water.’ And I did it, and it ended up real being really close.”
It's different from her victory at the ANA Inspiration, where she started the final round with a five-shot lead.
“Not going to lie, I like chasing more than I love having the lead,” she said. “I have something to look forward to or just look up to all the the time. Regardless of what what happens tomorrow, I feel like I already have a solid week, considering my situation with the driver. I feel like I really have proved to myself that I can play out here under any circumstances.”
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