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It's Grace Under Pressure

Park shares Nabisco lead with Song, but she'll have to overcome a host of challengers and lofty expectations to win her first major title.

March 28, 2004|Peter Yoon | Times Staff Writer

For Grace Park, the moment of truth has arrived.

A five-under-par 67 Saturday in the third round of the Kraft Nabisco Championship took care of that.

Park, 25, has a three-day total of eight-under 208 at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage and is tied with 17-year-old tour rookie Aree Song for the lead in the first LPGA major championship of the year.

Jung Yeon Lee is a stroke back after a third-round 71 and 14-year-old Michelle Wie shot 69 and is tied for fourth at six under with six-time major winner Karrie Webb.

Annika Sorenstam, who has made no secret of her desire to win all four majors this year, shot 69 and is tied for 19th place, eight strokes behind Park and Song.

Park seems to have been on the verge of a breakthrough ever since she arrived on the LPGA Tour in 2000 with a sparkling amateur record and lofty expectations. Sporadic success during her first four years has left many wondering if she would ever become a dominant force, but Park took a big step toward eliminating those doubts Saturday and could erase them entirely today.

"I'm ready," Park said. "I've been ready. I'll be ready."

Park has won once in each of her first four years on tour, but her record before joining the LPGA suggested she would have more success.

She was the 1998 college player of the year as a freshman at Arizona State and won the U.S. Amateur championship that year. She was a two-time American Junior Golf Assn. player of the year, a six-time AJGA All-American and still holds a share of the record for most career AJGA victories with 18.

After turning pro in 1999, she joined the Futures Tour, won five of the 10 events she played and earned an automatic exemption for the LPGA Tour.

Last year she had a career-best 19 top-10 finishes, including 10 in the top three. She topped the $1-million earnings mark for the first time and finished third on the season money list. Her top 10s last year included a playoff loss to Sorenstam in the LPGA Championship and a tie for third place in the British Open, so she appears primed for a breakthrough victory.

"I said at the beginning of the year that this was my year to step up and win more and get better," said Park, who has finished fourth and second in two tournaments this year. "So I'm definitely ready. I crave winning more than ever."

To make that leap forward, Park must fend off challenges from a few other rising LPGA stars. At 13, Song played in the final group on the final day of the 2000 Nabisco Championship and finished tied for 10th.

Saturday, she made birdies on Nos. 14 and 17, both par-threes, to earn a share of the lead. Her birdie putt from the fringe on No. 17 was about 60 feet.

"I think I set myself up for a pretty nice day," Song said. "I've always dreamt about this and that's why I worked so hard to get where I am."

Wie continued to turn heads with her impressive play. She averaged 301 yards off the tee, hit 12 of 14 fairways and 15 greens in regulation. Her three-round total is a record for an amateur in the Nabisco, surpassing the four-under that Caroline Keggi posted en route to a fourth-place finish in 1988.

Wie played in the final group of the final round last year but shot 76 and tied for ninth. She was nervous then, she said, but doesn't think she will be today.

"I've grown up a lot," she said. "I think that this year I can handle myself."

Tied with Wie and eluding the spotlight despite her six major championships and 29 career victories is Webb, who shot a second consecutive 71.

Lee, the second-round leader, opened a three-shot lead during the third round but made a double bogey at No. 14 and a bogey at No. 17 to fall a shot back.

A balky putter did in Sorenstam. She started on the back nine and was three-under after 11 holes, but she missed a six-foot birdie putt on her 12th, a 12-foot birdie putt on her 13th, a six-foot par putt on her 14th and a six-foot birdie putt on her 15th.

"I left a few out there I should have made," Sorenstam said.

She said her goal Saturday was a 66. Had she shot that, she would be tied for 12th and only five shots back. Still, she is not giving up hope.

"Don't count me out," she said. "I need a miracle, but I'm ready to go."

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Leaderboard

Leaders after the third round of the $1.6-million LPGA Nabisco Championship (par 72) at Rancho Mirage.:

*--* Grace Park 72-69-67--208 -8 Aree Song 66-73-69--208 -8 Jung Yeon Lee 69-69-71--209 -7 a-Michelle Wie 69-72-69--210 -6 Karrie Webb 68-71-71--210 -6 Stacy Prammanasudh 71-71-69--211 -5 Rosie Jones 67-73-71--211 -5 Wendy Doolan 70-69-72--211 -5 Catriona Matthew 67-75-70--212 -4 Mi-Hyun Kim 71-70-71--212 -4 Dottie Pepper 68-70-74--212 -4 Young Kim 74-72-67--213 -3 Cristie Kerr 71-71-71--213 -3 Carin Koch 70-72-71--213 -3

*--*

a-amateur

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