BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — Ariya Jutanugarn used two quick birdies at the U.S. Women’s Open to put the pressure on leader Sarah Jane Smith.
With the momentum secured, the 22-year-old from Thailand was far from finished.
Jutanugarn shot a 5-under 67 in the third round Saturday, turning a three-shot deficit into a four-shot lead and creating an excellent opportunity to win her second major championship. Even Smith, who shot a 74 to fall back to second place, was impressed by Jutanugarn’s relentless surge.
“She’s a spectacular player, obviously,” Smith said. “Her length is just one part of her game. She hits it a long way, but her short game is impeccable. She rolls the ball beautifully.
“She’s just the whole package.”
Jutanugarn certainly looked like it on Saturday, combining long drives with a solid short game and putting. She made six birdies and just one bogey, rarely encountering serious trouble. When asked if her game had any current weaknesses, she immediately said yes, but then struggled to find one.
“Wait,” she said grinning. “I’m thinking.”
Jutanugarn started the third round behind Smith, but quickly gained ground on the Australian, making two birdies on her first three holes. She took the lead after Smith stumbled with back-to-back bogeys and then surged ahead with three straight birdies on the back nine.
She was at 12-under 204 for the tournament.
Smith started the tournament with back-to-back 67s, but didn’t make a birdie in the third round.
“I think the nerves showed up in my putting,” Smith said. “I didn’t feel too bad, but I think when you are not getting the ball to the hole it probably proves that you are not letting it go.”
South Korea’s Hyo-Joo Kim was in third after shooting 68 and was six shots back.
It was a long, sweaty day at Shoal Creek, especially for those who had to complete their second round on Saturday morning before playing the third. Jutanugarn said she had a 4 a.m. wakeup call and played a total of 28 holes as the temperature hovered around 90 degrees with stifling humidity.
Jutanugarn didn’t seem to mind, finishing with a 70 in the morning. She was able to rest a few hours before getting back on the course and birdied two of the first three holes to immediately put pressure on Smith, who has never won on the LPGA Tour.
Even though she was in a good mood after the third round, Jutanugarn admitted she was exhausted.
“I think I’m going to sleep pretty well,” Jutanugarn said.
Smith had the advantage of finishing her second round on Friday before thunderstorms swept through central Alabama, but couldn’t capitalize. She made seven straight pars before back-to-back bogeys on Nos. 8 and 9 dropped her one shot behind Jutanugarn.
Jutanugarn is trying for her ninth LPGA Tour win and her second major. She won the Women’s British Open in 2016 and is coming off a victory at the Kingsmill Championship in May.
Michelle Wie started the third round in a tie for fourth, seven shots off the lead, but shot a 76 to fall out of contention. She won the U.S. Women’s Open in 2014.
Two-time winner Inbee Park has an outside chance at getting back in contention. She shot a 71 on Saturday and was in a tie for fifth place, eight shots back.
“I have to give myself more opportunities at birdie because I feel quite good about the putter,” Park said. “I just haven’t been putting for many birdies.”
The Shoal Creek course has taken a lot of rain over the past few weeks — including nearly an inch on Friday that forced the second-round delay — but still remained in relatively good shape. A day of sunshine certainly helped conditions, but more rain is possible on Sunday.