JOHNS CREEK, Ga. — Lizette Salas relied on precision and big putts to make up for a big power gap against Nelly Korda, and they wound up tied for the lead Saturday going into the final round of the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship.
Salas was practically flawless in delivering a 30 on the front nine to go from a 1-shot deficit to a 2-shot lead. She then made her first bogey of the week after 45 holes and didn’t make another birdie in a third straight 5-under 67.
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 of Atlanta Athletic Club. She had a 68.
They were at 15-under 201, 5 shots clear of a trio that includes Patty Tavatanakit, the Thai star who won the first LPGA 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 5 shots behind were Giulia Molinaro of Italy (66) and France’s Celine Boutier, 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 9 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 not too far behind.
Salas, who began the week by sharing her emotional struggles of coping with the COVID-19 pandemic, began her round by holing a 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 to 25 feet and another long birdie putt on the par-3 seventh, and she hit a 4-hybrid to 12 feet into No. 8, a hole that yielded only eight birdies the entire round.
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, 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.
Both will be seeking their first major on Sunday and will be in the final twosome. Salas has only one LPGA Tour victory seven years ago.
Korda is a rising star, the younger sister of Jessica Korda and the daughter of former Australian Open tennis champion Petr Korda. She already has five wins and is No. 3 in the world, the highest-ranked American. She has the gallery on her side, with throaty cheers for Korda on just about every green.
Salas kept plugging away, determined to stay happy even as the grind of a major deep into the weekend began to take its toll.
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.”
Not so close are the co-leaders, though Tavatanakit did not lose hope. It’s different from her victory at the ANA Inspiration, where she started the final round with a 5-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.”