PINEHURST, N.C. — It would be hard to deny that Michelle Wie has yet to realize the immense potential she displayed as a child golf prodigy.
Yet for all the ups and downs her young pro career has already taken in the past decade, she is in a position through three rounds of the 69th U.S. Women’s Open at Pinehurst No. 2 to capture the most coveted trophy in women’s golf at the age of 24.
Wie stumbled a bit with a 2-over-par 72 in Saturday’s third round, but enters Sunday’s final round tied for the lead with Amy Yang at 2-under 208.
“This is exactly where I wanted to be,” Wie said. “That's why I work hard, I want to be in positions like this. I want to be in the final pairing of the U.S. Open and it's just great. It’s just a lot of fun when hard work pays off. I'm really excited for tomorrow.”
Wie and Yang are four shots clear of their nearest challengers, four golfers at 2-over 212 that each have a compelling story this week.
Northern Ireland native Stephanie Meadow, 22, is a product of the University of Alabama and the Hank Haney Junior Golf Academy in Hilton Head Island and got into the field as an alternate in sectional qualifying. She turned pro Sunday and shot a 69 Saturday.
Minjee Lee of Australia is the top-ranked amateur in the world, two-time Women’s Open Champion Juli Inkster has said at 53 this is her final Open and shot a tournament-low 66 Saturday, and Na Yeon Choi of South Korea is the 2012 U.S. Women’s Open champion but is looking for her first win since 2012.
LPGA Hall of Famer Karrie Webb and 19-year-old Lexi Thompson, the winner of the season’s first major who shot a third-round 74, are among five players four shots back at 3-over 213, and 2010 Open champion Paula Creamer and world No. 1 Stacy Lewis, who also carded a 74 Saturday, are six back at 214.
Wie is seeking her fourth LPGA victory and first major title. She won the LPGA Lotte Championship earlier this year for her first win since 2010, and hasn’t finished outside the top 25 in 12 events this season to rise to No. 11 in the world rankings.
She had six top-five finishes in majors through 2006, when she was 16, and her only top-five in a major since is a tie for third in April’s Kraft Nabisco Championship, when she entered the final round tied with Thompson, shot a 71 and lost by three shots.
Her only top-10 in 10 Women’s Open appearances is a tie for third in 2006.
“I'm really excited that I have another opportunity. It's just fun,” Wie said. “I love the feeling, the nerves. That just means I really want it. It's fun. It's exactly why I started playing golf is to have these opportunities and I'm just really grateful for another one.”
Wie missed a 6-foot par putt on the first hole to drop to 3 under, but she birdied the third with a 12-foot putt, the ninth with a 8-footer and the par-5 10th with two putts from 60 feet to move to 6 under and open up a four-stroke lead.
Wie doubled the 11th with a hooked drive, punch out, third shot into a bunker and two putt from 30 feet. She blocked her tee shot to the right on the 12th and made bogey, and also bogeyed the 14th to fall a shot behind Yang.
But she maintained her composure to finish with four consecutive pars and pull back into a tie for the lead when Yang bogeyed the 18th.
“My swing definitely got away from me for a little bit. The tempo was a little bit off,” Wie said. “I hit one left and next one I hit one right. But I just kind of went out on 13 and talked to my caddie [Duncan French] and I was like, ‘Just start over, just focus on what I focused on on the front nine.’ And the swing felt really great coming in.”
Wie is up against a refreshed Yang in the final group.
The world’s 20th-ranked player played in nine of the first 11 events of the season and recorded a pair of top-10s, including a tie for second in the JTBC Founders Cup in Phoenix in March. But she hasn’t played since finishing 68th in the Kingsmill Championship four weeks ago, and spent some relaxing time at her home in Orlando with her dog, Bori.
“I was just feeling a little tired. I was tired of traveling,” said Yang, who shot a 68 Saturday. “So I wanted to get some rest and freshen up. I practiced really hard for this. I really wanted to come back and play golf.”
The 24-year-old South Korean native is not in unfamiliar territory. In the past four U.S. Women’s Opens she has three top-10s and a pair of top-five finishes, and played in the final twosome in the final round in 2012 with Choi. She outplayed Choi in the final round by two strokes with a 71 despite losing by four shots and finished alone in second.
“I’m still working on it, but I'm much better at controlling my emotion and controlling the nervous feelings,” said Yang, who played the first two rounds with Wie this week. “I'm also good friends with Michelle, so I think it's going to be a good round.”
She’s prepared for Wie to be the prohibitive crowd favorite. “I’ve had that experience quite a lot before, so I'm pretty calm about it,” she said.
Yang won the Australian Ladies Masters as a 16-year-old amateur, and her lone win in seven years on the LPGA Tour is last year’s LPGA KEB Hana Bank Championship in South Korea.
Yang had an eventful 68 Saturday with six birdies and four bogeys, and leads the field with 13 birdies through 54 holes. “I played really solid,” Yang said. “My shots were better than the last two days, and I had really good speed on the greens. It was just very good today. … It's tough around the greens, but I like tough golf conditions.”
Moments after she assumed the outright lead at 3 under when Wie bogeyed the 14th, Yang made consecutive up-and-down pars from bunkers on the 16th and 17th holes before making a bogey on the 18th for her only hiccup in her final 11 holes.
“I felt really good today,” Yang said. “Maybe a little nervous, but I'm also excited about tomorrow.”