ORLANDO, Fla. (TBEN) — Brooke Henderson went from having complete control of her game over two days to a good score on Saturday. The result was a 3-under 69 and a three-shot lead in the Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions.
Henderson was ready to battle, moving to 14-under 202 in the LPGA Tour season opener at Lake Nona. The Canadian takes a three shot lead over Nelly Korda (68) and Japan’s Nasa Hataoka (66) going into the final round.
Maja Stark from Sweden (68) and Charley Hull from England (69) follow with five points.
After a pedestrian stretch of golf early in her second nine, including a bogey on the par-4 12th—only her second bogey of the week—Henderson managed to slide in a 30-foot curler for a birdie from the left of the 16th green.
It was a huge bonus, returning a small dose of momentum after her game surprisingly stalled after 2 1/2 rounds of blazing hot play.
Henderson missed a short birdie putt on the 14th hole—a par 4 where the tee had advanced just 229 yards—and failed to get up and down for a birdie on the accessible par-5 15th, where her approach shot left of the water-guarded green, but at least was lucky enough to stay up. She didn’t take advantage of the break and settled for par. Then the unexpected slider came on 16, providing a nice and necessary lift.
“That putt on 16 was a huge help,” says Henderson, who is chasing her 13th LPGA win. Last season she won twice, including her second major, the championship of Evian in France, but ended the year with a bad back. “It wasn’t that smooth today, but big putts like that at big moments definitely help.”
Henderson started the day with a four shot lead and extended the lead to five by the time she made the turn. Then the bogey came up to 12, and with Hataoka and Korda moving quickly over the final holes, the tournament was back on.
Henderson rose to the challenge and actually embraced it. After finishing 2022 delayed by an injury requiring rest and rehabilitation, and with 14 new clubs in the bag to start 2023, she’s right where she wants to be for the first Sunday of the season.
“It’s just so nice to be in contention and in the final groups on the weekend and in the middle of the mix,” said Henderson. “That’s the best feeling there is.”
A six-time winner on the tour, Hataoka was the best player on the course, making birdies on seven of her last 10 holes, posting a back-nine 30 and signing for a 66, putting her in position to chase down Henderson. on Sunday.
“Yes, I’m dialed in,” Hataoka said. She said when she made a birdie on the par-5 ninth to climb back to level par for the day, everything about her game changed. “So glad I was able to change that.”
Korda, who was sidelined for four months at the beginning of 2022 after a blood clot was removed from her left arm, also needed some time to get going. Her putter wasn’t very cooperative on the front nine, and hasn’t been all week. Suddenly, she ran four birdies in a five-hole stretch from the 11th to make sure Henderson’s final round will have to be solid to prevail.
Korda’s key for Sunday? First, she needs to get off to a better start. In all three rounds, she struggled to make birdies on the front nine.
“I think you just have to find the bottom of the hole,” Korda said. ‘That’s the key here. I don’t know what the weather is supposed to be like but they predict it will be quite windy so just get some consistent shots and get the ball in the cup.”
Retired tennis player Mardy Fish continued to dominate the 56-player celebrity division, extending his lead in the Modified Stableford points format to 14 points.
The most interesting Sunday race in that division should be that of second. Fish (117 points), the 2021 champion, opened up a massive lead over military veteran Chad Pfeifer (103), former NHL standout Jeremy Roenick (103) and Lake Nona native and LPGA great Annika Sorenstam (102).
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