RANCHO MIRAGE — When you are first to tee off on the 10th hole, in the third round of a tournament, you know it's a long way to the top.
Chris Johnson, a tall, slender pro from Tucson, was eight shots back going into Saturday's round of the Nabisco Dinah Shore golf tournament at Mission Hills Country Club.
A hot seven-iron and an even hotter putter put Johnson back into the running for the title. Her 66 was the best round of the day and her 54-hole total of 217 put her just two shots out of the lead.
On her second nine, the front nine at Mission Hills, she had a string of five birdies, the last four of which were set up by her 7-iron.
Johnson shot a 31 on the second nine and needed only 11 putts, two on No. 1 and two on No. 9, but only one on each of the other seven. For the round, she had nine one-putts and nine two-putts.
While Johnson was playing the back nine in one-under 35, it was relatively calm. The wind came up later and brought the leaders back to her.
"I've had my share of the wind this year," said Johnson, who thought she was out of the tournament when she shot a 79 on a windy Friday. "I don't like to complain about starting times or anything, but I've had my fill of wind. I played in strong wind at Tucson, both tournaments in Hawaii, and (Friday) just psyched me out.
"It bothered me more putting than anything else. When I finished yesterday, I was really down. Don (her husband, Don Hageman) said all the right things, so I was in a pretty good frame of mind. I never thought, however, that I would get back into contention."
But beginning with No. 2, her 11th hole, the putter was blazing. She made a five-footer after blasting out of the sand for a birdie four, On the next four, her seven-iron put her within 30, 18, 7 and 6 feet, and she sank them all.
Her streak ended with a poor drive into the wind on No. 7, where she made a seven-footer for par.
Johnson, who is coming off her best year, winning two tournaments, including the abbreviated GNA/Glendale Federal at Oakmont, is having another big year. Going into this tournament, she was third on the money list with more than $67,000 in winnings.
During her first six years on the tour, she had only one victory and $70,000 was her best in earnings.
Johnson, similar to veteran men's professional Al Geiberger, has found that eating during the round has helped her game.
"I play as well as I eat," she said. "My husband is in charge of providing me with the food."
To the peanut butter sandwiches that Geiberger made famous, Johnson adds jelly. She also snacks on a mixture of raisins and nuts.
"I eat something about every other hole," she said. "I find it is good for me. I feel strong all through the round."
Johnson also gives credit to learning to pace her play for her success.
"I used to do dumb things out there," she said. "For one thing, I used to hit too soon. Now, I take two seconds to stand behind the ball and picture the shot. Then, I step up and hit it.
"I've also had a tendency to take too much time over a putt. Now, I don't take a practice putt after I stand over the ball. These things have helped my game."
At almost 5 feet 11 inches, Johnson is one of the taller players on the LPGA Tour. Not surprisingly, she is one of the long hitters.
Although she had no idea at the time, a gamble on the 500-yard Par 5 ninth, if it had worked, would have put her into a tie for the lead.
The hole is a dogleg left, with trees lining the left side. With a little wind behind her, Johnson hit a ball through the trees and into the low rough on the right. That put her just 200 yards from the pin. But, instead of getting on and going for an eagle, she pushed a two-iron shot and missed the green.
She chipped within eight feet, but, after having made eight consecutive putts, most of them from at least that far away, Johnson finally missed.
"I pulled the drive a little," she said, "but luckily, it went over the trees. Then, with a chance to reach, I hit a poor shot.
"Oh, well, I feel a lot better about tomorrow, now. The only thing, it will be a letdown if I two-putt No. 1."