BETHESDA -- The third round of the $1 million Mazda LPGA Championship was much like rush hour on the Capital Beltway: lots of aggravation, but very little movement. Eventually, the bumper-to-bumper traffic on the course gave way to gridlock on the leader board yesterday afternoon at Bethesda Country Club.
After 16 straight pars helped second-round leader Ayako Okamoto remain two strokes ahead of the field, three-putt bogeys on the last two holes enabled Pat Bradley and Meg Mallon to forge a three-way tie for first at 6-under-par 207 going into today's final round. They are one shot ahead of Barb Bunkowsky, who shot a 70 yesterday.
"With 6-under-par leading, the door has opened to anyone else even-par or better to win this tournament," said Bradley, who, like Mallon, finished the round at even-par 71.
It certainly opened the door for defending champion Beth Daniel. Finding herself 3-over for the round, 2-over for the tournament and 10 shots off the lead at the turn, Daniel barged into the picture with six birdies on the last seven holes, including five straight to finish at 4-under 209. Daniel (68) is tied with Deb Richard (72), who double-bogeyed No. 16 and bogeyed 18.
Those who are also within six shots of the lead include Amy
Alcott (71), who is three strokes behind as she pursues a victory that would put her in the LPGA Hall of Fame; Betsy King, whose 4-under 67 put her in a group with Hall of Famer JoAnne Carner (70) at 2-under 211. Rosie Jones, last year's runner-up, is at even-par 213 after a 75.
"Everyone on the leader board has a chance, and I am one of them," said Okamoto, still looking for her first major championship after 11 years on tour.
The 40-year-old Japanese golfer had plenty of opportunities t distance herself from the field yesterday. But, unlike she did in Friday's 7-under 64, during which she tied a course record and didn't miss a putt under 10 feet, Okamoto had trouble making anything. Starting with a missed 6-foot birdie putt on the first hole, Okamoto's putter was about the only thing that cooled off.
It finally caught up with her at the par-4 17th, when she missed the fairway for the first time all day and three-putted from 30 feet, missing a 4-footer for par. It continued at the par-4 18th, when she missed the fairway again, and three-putted from 40 feet, missing a 5-footer coming back.
"When I'm standing over my putts, I feel like they were going to go in," Okamoto said through an interpreter. "But it goes in the wrong direction."
That was the feeling Daniel had for the first two rounds and through the first seven holes yesterday. Attempting to win her second straight tournament overall, her second straight LPGA Championship and her third straight on the 6,246-yard course, Daniel found herself hopelessly behind going into the back nine.
But she began to climb back by chipping in from the fringe for birdie at No. 11 -- "I was putting so well, I decided to chip; I picked the right option, " she said -- and had a 20-foot putt for eagle at the easy, 445-yard, par-5 12th hole. She missed by 6 feet, but made the putt for birdie.
"When you're not putting well, you just try to force things," said Daniel. "On the front, I was trying to hole everything, so I didn't have to putt. After the seventh hole, I said to myself, 'Oh, Beth, just chill out and play golf, because you're out of the tournament.' "
Chilling out might have been next to impossible yesterday, considering the 96-degree heat that is expected to go up a few notches today. The eagle putt on 12 turned out to be the last one Daniel missed. She made an 8-footer at 14, a 40-footer at 15, a 20-footer at 16, a 5-footer at 17 and a 12-footer at 18 to finish with a 3-under 68.
"Certainly, I'm just happy to be back in the hunt," said Daniel, who started five shots behind Jones last year and won by a stroke. "If I play well tomorrow, I have a chance to win the golf tournament."
So does Mallon, 28, who many believe is on the verge of breaking through into the game's upper crust. She steadily has improved in her five years on tour, won for the first time earlier this year in Hawaii and has been in contention at majors twice before, including at last year's U.S. Open.
When reminded that she has a chance to win, Mallon smiled. "Uh-oh," she joked. Asked if her earlier victory would help today, Mallon said, "There is a different feeling this week. At the beginning of the year, I was surprised it happened. But this is a major championship, and I will be playing with two of the greatest players in the world."
Okamoto, perhaps the best player in the game never to have won a major, recently has faded from contention on the weekends, especially on Saturdays. Admittedly a superstitious person, she attributed it partly to low biorhythms and bad luck.
"When I get up on Saturday, I feel great," she said. "There is probably someone I meet at the golf course who is not good for me."
One of the people she will meet up with today is Bradley, the tour's No. 1 money winner, who, at 40, remains one of the most hard-nosed players in golf. Bradley, looking for her seventh major title and second LPGA Championship, was able to hang through a round that included three birdies, three bogeys, a double-bogey at No. 9 and an eagle at No. 12.