Two players from opposite sides of the world, but both with ties to Duke University—Yu Liu from China and Céline Boutier from France—share the lead at 7-under-par 206 heading into Sunday. Nipping at their heels are two Americans, Lexi Thompson and Jaye Marie Green, along with 18- and 36-hole leader Mamiko Higa of Japan, all tied at 207, one shot ahead of South Korea’s Jeongeun Lee6.
Mexico’s Gabby Lopez and Jessica Korda, a Floridian with a famous father – former Czech tennis great Petr Korda – are tied at 209, 4 under par and three back, adding to a leaderboard that projects a definite United Nations feeling with eight countries represented in the top 10.
But that doesn’t begin to explain the drama spilling across this links-like course at the edge of Charleston Harbor.
Starting at the top of the board, Boutier, a 2016 Duke graduate who has never finished better than 29th in a major and had failed to make the cut in two previous U.S. Open starts, will be seeking just her second LPGA victory. The winner of the ISPS Handa Victorian Open in February, Boutier birdied the par-5 ninth to grab a share of the lead at 7 under and held the top spot alone moments later when Higa bogeyed the 10th.
But Boutier (photo) cost herself a chance to be the outright leader when a chunked chip at 16 led to bogey, the only blemish on a card that included three birdies.
She is hoping to become the third French woman to win a women’s major, joining 1967 U.S. Open champion Catherine Lacoste, still the only amateur to win this title, and Patricia Meunier-Lebouc, who triumphed at the 2003 Kraft Nabisco (now ANA Inspiration).
"I don't know about other people, but when I see Duke players playing well, I kind of want to play well, too," Boutier said.
A teammate with Boutier on Duke’s 2014 NCAA championship team, Liu surged to top of the leaderboard with a sparking 5-under 66 Saturday. The Beijing native, who now resides in Florida, started the day just 2 under par and dropped a shot with a bogey at the par-4 third. But she ran off six birdies, including a “2” at the treacherous 11th, to grab a share of the lead.
“After that bogey, I knew it was playing hard… with the gusty wind and everything,” Liu said. “But I was able to bounce back with a birdie from 30 feet.”
The birdie at 4 was the first of two in a row. But it was back-to-back birdies at 11 and 12 that keyed the round, particularly the one at 11, “a hole,” Liu admitted, “where I’m okay with bogey.”
“I hit my 6 iron,” she added. “I didn’t actually hit it 100 percent where I wanted to be. It was a little chunky, but at least it was on the right line. So I ended up being 12 feet past the hole and just knocked in the putt.”
Liu’s 66 equaled the low round of the day turned in earlier by Nanna Koerstz Madsen, a Dane who spent three months – yes, months – at the University of South Carolina and is part of a three-way tie for ninth at 3 under par. Also at that figure are 2011 U.S. Open champion So Yeon Ryu from South Korea and Minjee Lee from Australia.
But back nearer the top of the leaderboard ...
Green fashioned a 3-under 68 Saturday to join the three-way tie for third, just a shot back of the joint leaders. The runner-up to Lydia Ko in the 2012 U.S. Women’s Amateur, the native Floridian’s best finish in a major coming into this year was a tie for 26th at the 2015 U.S. Women’s Open. But she has found something in the 1925 Raynor layout that’s ignited her game.
“I love this place,” she said after scoring six birdies at the Country Club of Charleston in the third round. “I love how you have to play so patient, and you can really only take one shot at a time.”
Also a shot back, Thompson (photo), who is seeking her second USGA title but first as a professional after winning the 2008 U.S. Girls’ Junior, is using a “claw” putting grip this week for the first time ever. And though her putter balked a bit early, it produced some late theatrics when she ran in a long eagle putt at the par-5 15th and followed that up with a short birdie at 16. The eagle at 15 meant she played the three par-5s at CC of C in 4-under figures Saturday after failing to birdie a single one over the first two rounds.
“I knew I was struggling on the par-5s a little bit, but I didn’t realize I didn’t birdie one until today,” she said. “My caddie (Benji Thompson) reminded me of it when I birdied the first one.”
All the story lines unfolding at the Women’s Open this week aren’t exclusive to the professionals. As with any USGA open championship, there’s the Low Amateur medal at stake. And again, a Duke player is solidly in the mix there, as well.
Gina Kim, who as a freshman helped propel Duke to another national championship just 10 days prior to Saturday’s third round, is tied for 12th, 2 under par and just five shots back, when she tees off Sunday, trying to win the title Lacoste won as an amateur 33 years before Kim was born.
Kim, who was born in Albuquerque but, at age 3, moved to Chapel Hill where both of her parents are professors at UNC, has a six-shot lead over two Americans, Rose Zhang and Jennifer Chang, for low-am honors. After firing the lowest round by an amateur in the Women’s Open, a 5-under 66 on Thursday, she has added 72-73 the last two days.