ORLANDO, FL (AP) — Brooke Henderson went from completely controlling her game for two days to having to score a decent score on Saturday. The score was 3-under 69 and a 3-under lead in the Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions.
Henderson was ready to fight and moved to 14-under 202 in the LPGA Tour season opener in Lake Nona. The Canadian will lead by three shots over Nelly Korda (68) and Japan’s Nasa Hatoka (66) in the final round.
Sweden’s Maya Stark (68) and England’s Charlie Hall (69) are five years behind.
After a pedestrian stretch of golf early on her second ninth that included a bogey on the 14th — her second bogey of the week — Henderson was able to slide a 30-foot putt for birdie off the left side of the 16th green.
It was a huge bonus, as she brought back a small dose of momentum after her game came to an abrupt halt after two and a half rounds of hot play.
Henderson missed a short birdie putt on the 14th hole – a par 4 where the tee had been pushed to only 229 yards – and failed to up and down for birdie on the par 15th, hitting her approach left from a water-protected green but at least it was Lucky for her to stay awake. She didn’t take advantage of the break, and settled for equality. Then came the unexpected slider on the 16, which provided a nice, much needed lift.
“Shooting number 16 was a huge help,” said Henderson, who is chasing her 13th PGA win. She won twice last season, including her second major title, the Evian Championships in France, but ended the year with a weak back. “It wasn’t entirely smooth today, but big shots like that in the big moments definitely help.”
Henderson started the day with a four-shot advantage and had extended the lead to five by the time she made her turn. Then came the bogey at 12, and with Hataoka and Korda closing quickly on the final holes, the championship was back on again.
Henderson was up to the challenge, and accepted it, in fact. Having finished 2022 slowed by an injury that required rest and rehabilitation, and carrying 14 new clubs in the bag to start 2023, she’s right where she wants to be on the first Sunday of the season.
“It’s so much fun to be in the competition and in the final groups at the end of the week and to be in the mix,” said Henderson. “This is the best feeling there is.”
A six-time winner on the tour, Hatoka was the hottest player on the course, hitting birdies in seven of her final ten holes, finishing with a par-9 30 and signing a 66 that put her in position to try and chase Henderson. Sunday.
“Yes, I have been contacted,” Hatooka said. She said that when she made a nine-year-old birdie climb to the same level back in the day, everything about her game changed. “So glad I was able to change that.”
Similarly, Korda, who was sidelined for four months in early 2022 after a blood clot was removed from her left arm, has taken some time off. Her bat wasn’t very cooperative in the nine openers, nor has it been all week. Suddenly four birdies ran in a five-hole stretch starting the 11th to confirm that Henderson’s final round had to be strong to prevail.
Corda’s key for Sunday? First, she has to get off to a better start. She struggled in all three rounds to birdie the lead 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’s supposed to be like, but they expect it to be very windy, so just hit some consistent shots and take the ball in the cup.”
Retired tennis player Mardy Fish continued his domination of the 56-player celebrity division, extending his lead in Stableford’s modified points format to 14 points.
The most exciting Sunday race in this section has to be the second. The 2021 champ, Fish (117 points), opened up a huge lead over veteran Chad Pfeiffer (103), former NHL player Jeremy Roenick (103) and Lake Nona resident and LPGA great Anika Sorenstam (102).