Australia’s hopes of a first Olympic golf medal remain alive with Minjee Lee and Su Oh well poised for a run at the top three in tomorrow's final round.
The 20-year-old pair are each five shots adrift of the bronze medal position and tied eighth after Oh stormed through the field with a five under 66, to join Lee, who carded a third round 73.
Korea’s Inbee Park added a one under 70 to her opening pair of 66s to move to 11 under and leads by two strokes from the surging World No.1 Lydia Ko and consistent American Gerina Piller at nine under. China’s Shanshan Feng is a further stroke back at eight under.
Oh made her move early and before the strongest of the 35mph-plus wind gusts whipped across the the Olympic Golf Course in Barra de Tijuca.
The Victorian carded six front nine to be out in 30 strokes, which saw her catapult more than 25 places up the women’s tournament leaderboard. As the winds started to increased, she consolidated with steady play on the back nine. After a three-putt bogey on the par-4 11th, Oh made six consecutive pars in the trying conditions before a fine approach to three-feet at the par-5 18th was converted for her seventh birdie of the round.
“We’ll have to see whether that round is good enough for me to be challenging for a medal,” Oh said.
“The back nine is playing so much tougher than the front nine. When I finished five under for the day after the first nine I was obviously hoping for a few more birdies. But then I felt that birdies were not really an option – I thought ‘just get it up and onto the green safely and two-putt home’.
“It was hard coming in especially on 12, 13 and 14. Not only is it hard to get onto the green but putting is also hard. I backed away so many times because of the gusts – you just have to be patient.
With poor weather forecast for Saturday, Oh is relishing the chance to close the gap on the leaders.
“I guess I’m hoping for weather that is not so great,” she said. “You know that if you play well then there won’t be so many players playing well themselves. If you do your job then you’re a chance, but if the weather is good then the leaders will be hard to catch.
“I am definitely looking forward to tomorrow. I’ve got myself a little closer to where I want to finish. Hopefully we’ll get a good steak dinner and I’ll be ready.”
Lee will be lamenting an awful stretch of three holes early in her third round. Having started the day just four shots adrift of the lead, Lee opened proceedings with a birdie but handed that shot back with a bogey at the next.
At the short par-4 3rd hole, the West Australian hit her tee shot into the water left of the fairway and took a penalty drop before hitting her second ball into the hazard as well. When she was done, Lee finished with a triple bogey seven. At the next, she dropped her fifth shot in three holes when she failed to save par after missing the green long and left.
She showed great mental strength to bounce back from the setback by making birdies at 5th and 6th holes to move back into the top-10 on the leaderboard and she finished with 12 consecutive pars to maintain that position.
Lee wasn’t the only player giving shots back in the gusty conditions in Rio.
Halfway leader Inbee Park certainly wasn’t immune to being buffeted by Mother Nature as she dropped five shots in her final 12 holes of the round, but she made enough birdies to consolidate her position atop the leaderboard.
The 27-year-old looked like she would run away from the field when she collected a trio of birdies through the first five holes. But bogies at the 7th and 9th holes, put the brakes on any momentum she had in the round. Further bogies at the 12th and 14th holes saw Park fall back into a share of the lead with Piller, but she rebounded with birdies at the 16th and 17th to pull three-strokes clear of the field, before dropping another shot at the last.
“It was very challenging (in the) conditions,” Park said. “I feel like I really struggled out there. My putting was really, really good today, six birdies out in those conditions is phenomenal. I’m very happy with where I'm positioned right now.”
In spite of the uncertainty over her fitness due to a long-term thumb injury, Park has belief in her ability to strike gold. She added: “Somewhere in my heart, after I made the decision to play this week, I really believed in myself that I can do it. If I didn't have a trust in myself, I wouldn't be playing this week.”
It would be hard to bet against Park winning golf’s first Olympic gold medal for women in 116 years. She’s a seven-time major champion, Career Grand Slam winner and the youngest player to qualify for the LPGA Tour Hall of Fame at the age of 27. She knows how to win.
But so does Ko – the 19-year-old top-ranked player in the women’s game, who has embraced these Olympics with great enthusiasm.
Ko’s third round charge was no real surprise. As the weather conditions got tougher she seemed to get better as she carded the low round of the day – a bogey-free six under 65, which included her first career hole-in-one.
The Kiwi holed out at the 140-yard par-3 8th hole, about an hour after China’s Xi Yu Lin also aced the hole, to really stamp her presence in this event.
One player who won’t contest the final round is first round leader Ariya Jutanugarn. The Thai player withdrew following the 13th hole of the third round due to a knee injury. She had kinesiology tape around her left knee and was 12 over par for the day when she withdrew.
With the prospect of the winds increasing in intensity and thunderstorms forecast for the afternoon, the final round will be played with a split tee start, with the leaders hitting off at 9.44pm (AEST).
Park, Ko and Piller will be out in the final group. Oh will play alongside Briton Charley Hull and South African Paula Reto in the third last group, while Lee will be in the group in front with Suzann Pettersen of Norway and Sweden’s Anna Nordqvist.