BELLEAIR, Florida – There’s really no other tournament on the LPGA schedule quite like this one. Everyone, it seems, has something to play for that’s bigger than this week. Whether it’s Player of the Year points, a chance to tee it up at CME for a $7 million purse or the fight to keep a tour card, there’s no shortage of storylines at the newly renamed Annika driven by Gainbridge at Pelican.
Lexi Thompson, for example, needs to finish in at least a share of third to have a chance to qualify for CME. She’s currently T-12. Patty Tavatanakit came into this week 61st on the CME points list. The top 60 and ties will play next week in Naples, Florida, at the CME Group Tour Championship. The major champ is currently T-4 and projected to jump to 50th.
Emily Kristine Pedersen came into the week 80th on the CME points list. The top 80 on tour have Category 1 status, which means they’ll get into the limited-field Asian events next spring. Pedersen didn’t come to Belleair just to hang on, however. The surprise Solheim Cup pick who delivered in Spain is enjoying her best week on tour with a three-stroke lead after rounds of 63-65-64.
Sunday at Pelican promises to be a shootout. Here are five things to know from a red-hot day:
Dinner of champions
Lilia Vu didn’t really start thinking about the Rolex LPGA Player of the Year award until she won the AIG Women’s British Open over the summer, her second major title of the year. She’s still not really sure exactly how the points system works and hasn’t looked at the standings, but the former UCLA standout currently trails France’s Celine Boutier by three points.
Players must finish in the top 10 to earn points. While Boutier missed the cut at Pelican, Vu holds a share of second, three strokes behind Pedersen.
Vu, a three-time winner this season, suspects she might have played well because she had steak last night at her beloved Texas Roadhouse.
“I have this theory that if I eat steak the night before a round,” said Vu, “I’ll play really well. Here it is again, proving its point.”
For the record, Vu likes her steak medium rare.
“Anything else is beef jerky,” she said.
Foot on the gas
Pedersen, a five-time winner on the LET, has never won on the LPGA. The 27-year-old has never before been in such a good position to change that fact at The Annika, where she now owns the 54-hole tournament record at 18 under. Nelly Korda and Lexi Thompson held the previous record of 16 under through three rounds two years ago.
Pedersen came into Saturday with a two-shot lead and expanded it to three after a 6-under 64. She would, of course, prefer a bigger lead. Scores have been exceedingly low, with three 62s and a 61 on moving day.
“If anyone in the top has got a 61, it’s going to be a tough day,” said Pedersen. “I know that everyone out there has that in them, so I just have to try and make as many birdies as I can.”
Amy Yang’s bogey-free 9-under 61 is the lowest round on the LPGA since Atthaya Thitikul’s 61 in the second round of the 2022 Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.
Yang’s front-nine 29 was highlighted by a hole-out for eagle on the par-4 fifth hole, when she one-hopped a soft 9-iron into the bottom of the cup. Tempo, she said, is always her key thought.
A four-time winner on the LPGA who has never triumphed on U.S. soil, Yang said she never thought about 59. Tournament host Annika Sorenstam remains the only player in LPGA history to shoot 59.
“No, I wasn’t counting,” said Yang. “I was that into the game then thinking about score. If I was thinking about 59, I don’t think I would play well.”
Putt for dough
There was a time not too long ago when Alison Lee felt uncomfortable with a putter in her hand. She wished and willed over a 10-footer, worrying that she couldn’t start the ball on line. She was nervous over two-footers and 20-footers alike.
Lee’s swing coach, Chris Mayson, had urged her to see a putting coach for a long time, but she was stubborn about it until this summer when they reflected over putting stats and she realized that something needed to be done.
She began working with Chris Cho in Vegas, and the scores say it all.
Lee opened with a 63 at the BMW Ladies Championship in South Korea last month where she ultimately finished runner-up. The next week on the LET in Saudi Arabia, she shot 61-61-65 to win by eight.
Here at Pelican, Lee’s third-round 62 puts her in a share of fourth, four shots behind leader Pedersen.
“I found out like I was actually aiming like way right of my target and maybe that’s why I felt a little uncomfortable before I even took the putter stroke back,” said Lee.
“So little things like that that he helped learn, and I learned more about my putting through that. It’s been amazing. I feel like night and day on the putting green now. So much more confident.
“I look over a 10-foot putt and I truly believe I can make this.”
Azahara Munoz came into this week 100th on the CME points list. The top 100 on the list keep full status for 2024. Munoz has a little bit more time than everyone else to secure her status after giving birth to son Lucas in late February of last year. Her maternity exemption runs through the first three events of next year.
Needless to say, there’s a lot on the line this week, and while Munoz often travels with Lucas, this week she’s on her own.
“I was joking with Lilia (Vu) today, I said, ‘You know, I took a bath and went to see the sunset,’ ” said Munoz. “When he’s around, I don’t have time to do anything. I barely have time to do physio.
“So, I mean, it’s very time consuming, but when he’s not here I miss him so much. I always say, like, I don’t know what’s worse. It’s kind of like lose-lose. I miss him so much. This week I kind of needed to be on my own and focus on myself.”
Munoz currently sits in a share of fourth and is projected to move up to 80th on the points list.