By Jeff Babineau

BOCA RATON, Fla. – Morgan Pressel, a Boca local and club member, said a rare winter Saturday like this at Boca Rio Golf Club would be the kind of day in which the dining room might be packed, and the golf course relatively empty. 

Conditions were highly challenging, for sure. Players teed off in temperatures hovering in the 40s, but the bigger test was the wind. It blew steadily at 15-20 mph, and gusted to 33 mph. For 74 players competing in the Gainbridge LPGA at Boca Rio, the task was figuring out how to get to that dining room at day’s end by making as few bogeys as possible. It wasn’t easy. There were lots of reddened cheeks, and the words “British Open” were used a bunch. 

Lydia Ko handled things better than most, which is nothing new. Though only 24, she already is a 16-time LPGA winner (including two majors). She has been winning LPGA trophies since she was a 15-year-old amateur, and she is the third-ranked player in the world. On Sunday, she will be in great position to collect another title. Ko’s very steady effort on Saturday – one birdie, one bogey, 16 pars and a hard-earned 72) staked her to a two-shot lead over good friend Danielle Kang entering Sunday’s final round of the LPGA’s first full-field event of the season. 

Ko is the only player sitting at double-digits under par; she is at 11-under 205 through 54 holes. Kang (74) is 9 under, one shot better than France’s Celine Boutier, who had the round of the tournament on Saturday (yes, even better than Ko’s opening 63 in perfect scoring conditions). Boutier made three birdies, no bogeys and her 3-under 69 was the lone sub-70 round of the day. She will start Sunday three shots behind Ko, at 8 under par. 

Boutier’s round beat a quartet that managed to shoot 71 on Saturday. Thirty-three of the 74 players who survived the cut would shoot rounds of 76 or higher.  Ko made a terrific up-and-down from a back bunker to salvage her 72. 

Kang had a nice up-and-down at 18, as well, but struggled on the back nine, where she said she temporarily “checked out” mentally. She made three bogeys coming in after making the turn at 1-under 35. Kang is coming off a victory at the Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions last week in Orlando. Saturday marked her first round of 2022 that wasn’t in the 70s. Her 74 kept her in the tournament, though. The day’s scoring average was 75.136, more than three shots higher than Thursday’s average. It was a day to plug away and minimize the damage. 

“You have to be more focused, and, you know, try and move on when you do make mistakes,” Ko said. “Overall, I don’t think I gave myself a lot of birdie opportunities, but I still was able to hit a fair amount of greens, and that way putting obviously makes it a little bit easier to kind of get around the golf course, and not having to scramble a lot.

“But finishing the two pars in the last couple holes, I think I got away with it there. And to finish even par after a tough, ‘grindy’ day, I think it was a solid day in the office.”

Stacy Lewis, a former World No. 1, said the value of experience comes in big on such a demanding day conditions-wise. She woke up, saw the cold and windy conditions, and couldn’t wait to play. A missed 4-footer at the last hole kept her from posting the day’s sixth under-par round. She stepped up to the 403-yard fifth hole, for instance, playing into a hard breeze, and faced 163 yards to the flagstick. So she decided to pull a 4-iron, her normal club from 185 yards, and ripped it. “Perfect shot,” said Lewis, who enters Sunday tied for seventh.

Lewis played alongside the current World No. 1, Nelly Korda, who normally would be pounding the ball well beyond where Lewis could hit it. But Saturday had little to do with power and distance, and far more to do with creativity. Korda made one birdie and struggled to a round of 76.

“As I get older, I need more days like this,” Lewis said. “If it’s hot and nice and sunny, Nelly is hitting it 50 by me, and it’s a different day completely. As I get older, I love days like this.”

Experience is everything – experience and attitude. You know, if you go into it with, ‘I don’t want to be here,’ the score is going to show. So you just try to have a good attitude about it and not complain too much, and just keep fighting through it.”

Sunday is not as expected to be nearly as windy, but could be even colder, with morning temperatures potentially in the 30s. Readying for the potential of frost on the course, players have been grouped in threesomes, not twosomes, and will go off two tees beginning at 9:28 a.m. 

It will be a day to layer up and fight for pars. This much we know: The player who holds aloft that winner’s trophy late Sunday afternoon at Boca Rio will have earned every bit of it. 

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