The shortest golfer in the U.S. Women’s Open stands in the way of the sport’s biggest name and her quest for the only major championship she has never won.
Alison Nicholas, a 5-foot British dynamo with a powerhouse driver and unflappable poise, holds a three-shot lead over Nancy Lopez heading into today’s final round of the premier event of women’s golf.
“I never felt it a disadvantage to be small,” Nicholas said. “I’m very strong.”
So strong that she blasted her tee shots an average of 262 yards Saturday en route to a 4-under-par 67 for a 72-hole score of 10-under-par 203.
Lopez, never a winner in 20 previous U.S. Opens, rode a rollercoaster round of an eagle, four birdies and four bogeys to a 2-under 69 and a third-round total of 206.
Another Englishwoman, LPGA tour rookie Lisa Hackney, shot a 4-under 67 and was alone in third at 5-under 208, five shots behind Nicholas. Kimberly Williams also shot a 67 for 209.
Australian Karrie Webb had the best round yet on the par-71, 6,365-yard Witch Hollow course, a 6-under 65, for a three-day total of 210, seven shots behind the leader.
Robin Walton (76) of Clarkston and Rathdrum, Idaho’s Tracy Hanson (78) fell well off the pace at 222 and 225, respectively.
Nicholas, who shot 66 Friday to take a one-stroke lead over Lopez and two others, had five birdies and one bogey on Saturday.
“Alison’s a great little golfer,” Lopez said. “She’s awfully strong for as small as she is.”
Nicholas said she was nervous, but it never showed. The diminutive 35-year-old’s placid expression barely changed throughout the round as the sun came out on Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club. It was a display of restrained English joy, she said.
“I just had fun out there,” Nicholas said. “And I think that was it, because you’ve got to enjoy the experience. And I love playing golf, and I love people watching.”
She was in the last twosome, one group behind Lopez, who had a huge, enthusiastic gallery following her throughout the round. When Lopez finished with a par on No. 18, Nicholas calmly followed with a 10-foot birdie putt to stretch her lead to three strokes.
Lopez said she was thrilled, at age 40, to be in position to finally get that Open triumph.
“I don’t feel any pressure right now,” she said Saturday. “I really am enjoying the way I’ve played the last few days and I look forward to playing tomorrow. I don’t dread it. I don’t fear it. I can’t wait to get back out here tomorrow.”
Being three shots behind might be a good thing, Lopez said.
“Most of my wins I’ve come from behind,” she said.
Lopez, whose four-year victory drought ended earlier this year at the Chic-Fil-A Charity tournament, will be playing in the last group in the final round of an Open for only the second time. The first was 20 years ago, when she was paired with eventual champion Hollis Stacey.
That was the infamous round when the zipper broke on Lopez’s pants. She said that distracted her and ruined what she believes was her best shot to date at winning the Open.
Nicholas said she would not be intimidated by her pairing with Lopez on Sunday. The two know each other from past competition in the Solheim Cup, which pits the top U.S. players against their European counterparts.
“I know Nancy reasonably well. She’s a great lady. She’s a legend. We’ll go out there and play and enjoy the day, enjoy the moment,” Nicholas said.
Nicholas’ partner Saturday was Liselotte Neumann, the first-round leader whose collapse began with bogeys on the final three holes Friday and continued an ugly downward spiral Saturday. Neumann began the day one shot behind Nicholas.
But by the time she had finished the sixth hole with a double bogey, Neumann had fallen to 1-over, losing an agonizing nine strokes in nine holes. Neumann shot a 5-over 76 and was far back at 213.
Kelly Robbins, who also began the day one shot out of the lead, faltered to a 2-over 74 and was in a group of five golfers at 2-under 211.
The sixth hole was treacherous for all the golfers and was the site of Nicholas’ lone bogey. Her second shot sailed out of bounds and landed on some spectators’ blanket.
“They didn’t want to be disturbed, actually,” Nicholas said.
Nicholas didn’t even take up golf until she was 17 and decided she was too short for tennis.
“It’s tough when you can’t see the player on the other side of the net,” she said.
She has won the British, Swedish and German opens and won twice on the LPGA tour in 1995.
Lopez got off to a strong start with a birdie on the par-4 third hole and took the lead briefly at 8-under by sinking a 30-foot eagle putt on the par-5 fifth hole.
But she followed with a three-putt bogey on the par-3 No. 5.
Lopez has had rounds of 69, 68 and 69. No golfer has ever had four rounds in the 60s in an Open. Nicholas has gone 70-66-67.
With sunny weather and temperatures in the 80s forecast for today, the greens will get faster and the fairways drier for Lopez’s dramatic run at filling in the glaring blank spot in her 48-victory resume.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: LEADERS Front-runners entering the final round of the $1.3 million U.S. Women’s Open at Pumpkin Ridge’s 6,365-yard, par 71 Witch Hollow Course: Alison Nicholas 70-66-67-203 Nancy Lopez 69-68-69-206 Lisa Hackney 71-70-67-208 Kim Williams 71-71-67-209 Karrie Webb 73-72-65-210 Donna Andrews 74-71-66-211 Akiko Fukushima 71-71-69-211 Michele Redman 74-67-70-211 Deb Richard 68-70-73-211 Kelly Robbins 68-69-74-211
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