RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. — Of the 16 Ladies Professional Golf Assn. tournaments Pat Bradley has won, 14 have been from behind.
With that statistic in mind, and the knowledge that she lost a three-stroke lead in the final round only two weeks ago at Tucson and a two-stroke lead here two years ago with only three holes to play, Bradley is wary of her position with 18 holes remaining in the Nabisco Dinah Shore tournament.
Bradley bolted out of a tie with Juli Inkster on the final four holes Saturday at the Mission Hills Country Club to take a three-stroke lead after 54 holes when Inkster bogeyed three of the final four and Bradley birdied the 18th. This gave Bradley a 69 for a 209 total, seven under par, and Inkster a 72 for a 212.
"We haven't won it yet," Bradley said, "but we're working very hard at it."
Two weeks ago, she had a final-round 76 at Tucson and finished five shots back of Penny Pulz. Two years ago, she bogeyed the 16th hole, watched Inkster birdie the 18th to tie, then lost a playoff on the first hole.
"To be honest about it," Bradley added, "I haven't had a heck of a lot of luck from the front."
Val Skinner, the only golfer from North Platte, Neb., on the tour, is third at 213 after shooting a 70.
Only six other golfers were under par in the year's first major women's championship. At 215 were Beth Daniel, Patti Rizzo, Mary Beth Zimmerman, Betsy King, former winner Sandra Palmer and Becky Pearson, whose five-under-par 67 was the tournament's low round.
Bradley, winless since last August although she is the LPGA's scoring leader this season, has been a model of consistency on the difficult 6,275-yard Mission Hills course. She has made only two bogeys in 54 holes and has not had one in her last 27 holes.
"I'm ecstatic about playing as well as I have played," she said. "If I can keep my consistency one more day, someone will have to shoot 65 to catch me."
Until the 15th hole, Inkster and Bradley had played textbook golf in their head-to-head pairing. Suddenly, with no warning, Inkster's peerless putter failed her.
On No. 15, after hitting her second shot over the green, she chipped down and missed a three-foot putt. Barely. The ball seemed about to fall when it caught the lip and spun away.
"It looked so good that Juli was bending over to pick the ball out of the hole," Bradley said. "It was that close."
No. 16, a 390-yard par-4 that has been Inkster's nemesis this week, struck again. She drove into the rough for the second hole in a row, put her second shot on the back fringe and knocked her third shot six feet from the hole. She missed the putt.
"I've bogeyed that hole all three days," Inkster said. "I'm gonna birdie that sucker tomorrow if I have to hit a wedge off the tee and a 3-wood for my second shot."
Inkster was still only one shot from the lead going to the 487-yard, par-5 18th hole, but her bogey and Bradley's birdie made for a three-stroke difference.
Inkster's third shot landed on the island green but bounded to the rear of the huge, undulating putting surface. Her first putt, from about 50 feet, rolled 20 feet below the hole. She knocked it back up toward the cup, and the three putts gave her a 72.
Bradley needed only one putt, from about 15 feet, for her birdie, but she admitted she was lucky.
"I would not want to replay No. 18, at least not the way I played it," she said. "My drive landed only four or five feet from the water, and then it was extremely difficult to select the right club to go over the water on my third shot. The way the wind was swirling, it was strictly a guessing game.
"I had 120 yards to the front, and I hit a 5-iron and hoped it would make it. Normally, with no wind, I'd have hit a 9-iron. I couldn't see where it stopped, so I didn't know how close it was until I was crossing over the bridge. I was totally surprised."
Bradley made two birdies on the front nine with putts of 15 and 25 feet. Both came after she hit 6-iron shots to the green, first on No. 4, a 356-yard par-4, and then on No. 6, a 378-yarder.
"It's nice to have a three-shot lead, but I'll continue to play the same," Bradley said. "The course is still the enemy, not Juli. This (winning the Dinah Shore) is very important to me because it is one of the two majors I have not won." Bradley also has not won the LPGA Championship.
Bradley, who has played in all of Dinah's tournaments since 1975, won the U.S. Women's Open in 1981 and has won two of the Canadian tournaments that the LPGA declared as majors before giving the same recognition to the Dinah Shore.
If anyone other than Inkster can catch Bradley, it probably would be Skinner, who won the 1986 LPGA opening event in Florida for her second career win.
"It'll take someone to get hot to catch Bradley," she said. "I just hope it's me, but I'm not gonna get psyched about it. I told my caddy the moment I get serious to kick me."
Skinner, 25, has such an upbeat personality that she says she has to "psych myself down, instead of up," to keep everything in proper perspective.
"I felt good about my position until the 17th hole, when I made a bogey," she said. "That was disappointing, because I didn't want to let those other guys get too far ahead."
Asked if she felt she had a chance to win, Skinner laughed and said: "I don't know. I'd want a 12-shot lead before I started thinking I was going to win."
Today's final round will be shown on Channel 4 at 1 p.m.