Lucy Li starts slow and finishes strong to lead LPGA Tour

SYLVANIA, Ohio (AP) — Lucy Li played with a lead for the first time on the LPGA Tour and the 19-year-old was up to the task Saturday, recovering from a sluggish start for a 4-under 67 and a one-shot lead in the Dana Open.

Li was 2 over through seven holes and quickly fading from the picture at Highland Meadows when she responded with five birdies over the next 10 holes to regain the lead and set up a final round filled with possibilities.

Lexi Thompson ran off three straight birdies late in the round for a 65, while Caroline Masson of Germany also had a 65. They were one shot behind.

Six other players were three shots back, including Lydia Ko, a two-time tournament winner who had the low round of the day at 64.

“I was probably a little nervous. It wasn’t anything crazy, but haven’t felt nervous in a long time,” Li said. “Actually making those bogeys might have helped a little, just getting that out of the way and knowing that I could just freewheel it out there a little.”

Li was at 14-under 199, and the final group offers a pair of prodigies.

Thompson was 12 when she first qualified for the U.S. Women’s Open at Pine Needles. Seven years later, Li broke her record when she qualified for the 2014 Women’s Open at Pinehurst No. 2.

“It’ll be great,” Thompson said. “I played with her a little bit — not so much out here. But I think everybody knows how amazing of a player she is. Just speaks wonders to the amount of work that she’s put into her game, just the amount of talent she has.”

Li recalls playing a practice round with Thompson in the ‘14 Women’s Open.

“She outdrove me by like 60 yards. She probably still outdrives me by 20 yards,” Li said. “I haven’t spent that much time on the LPGA, so I haven’t really gotten to know her that well. She’s a lot — quite a bit older than me.”

Thompson is 27.

This week already has felt like a bonus for the California teen. Li secured her LPGA Tour card for next year with two wins and a runner-up finish on the Epson Tour, which offers LPGA cards to its leading 10 players.

Li received a sponsor’s invitation in Canada last week and tied for ninth in the CP Women’s Open, which got her into the field in Ohio. Now she has a chance to win and join the LPGA Tour for its final two months of the season.

But it will require navigating through a traffic jam of key players, a list that includes four major champions. Also in the mix is Nasa Hataoka, the defending champion, who had a 67 and was part of the big group at 11-under 202.

Equally daunting is Ko, who won at Highland Meadows in 2014 and 2016 and had a great chance in 2020 until a bogey on the par-5 closing hole.

Ko started on the back nine and after a bogey on the 11th, she holed out for eagle on No. 12 and ran off a series of birdies. She had a chance to go even lower on her final hole, the reachable par-4 ninth. But her chip from right of the green didn’t get up the hill, she chipped strong and missed the par putt.

“They moved the tee forward a little on 12 and I was just, ‘Hit driver off the tee.’ I only a gap wedge,” she said. “It’s not the greatest finish. … I did what I needed to do.”

For Thompson, the No. 7 player in the women’s world ranking, it’s another chance to end more than three years without winning.

“I go into every tournament wanting to win. Yeah, it has not worked out the way I want it to in a few events, but that’s golf,” Thompson said. “I think you never lose; you’re always learning. There is always something to build on and learn from those days.

“It’s golf. I mean, it’s a crazy game. It can be with you one day and not the next.”

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