BETHESDA -- Barb Bunkowsky put herself squarely in the hunt for the 37th Mazda LPGA Championship by practically standing still on the leader board yesterday.
Bunkowsky, 32, from Burlington, Ontario, dropped two strokes on the first nine, then came back with three birdies for a 70 and a 54-hole total of 208 at Bethesda Country Club.
"I didn't hit it very well on the front, but I played the back side great," she said.
Actually, she could have said she putted great because her birdies were on strokes of 20 feet, 10 feet and 30 feet during the first four holes of the incoming nine.
Playing just ahead of Ayako Okamoto, and unaware of her closing bogeys, Bunkowsky, taking the standard line, said she wasn't moved one way or another by her standing.
"I can't do anything about them. I'm only concerned with myself," she said. "I'll try to focus on my own game and do the best I can."
After a so-so 1991 start (she missed four cuts in the first six events) that kind of mirrored her nine-year pro career, Bunkowsky started on another upward climb.
There was a tie for second at Phoenix in March, highlighted by a second-round 68 that included eight birdies among 13 one-putt greens. Including that event, she has missed only two cuts in her past 10 starts.
The result has been career-high earnings of $80,600 and a career-best stroke average of 73.2.
She put herself in position by dipping 4-under for 36 holes, then suddenly became a factor without knowing it.
"I could see something like this coming," Bunkowsky said. "It's been building. I did the same thing my second year."
That was 1984, when she won her only tournament, the Chrysler-Plymouth, and hit her previous high-water mark in earnings with $71,682.
In three of the past four years, she has had best finishes of third or fourth, although there was a No. 154 on the money list sandwiched in there two years ago. In that down year, her best finish was a tie for 55th in the Greater Washington Open here.
Now, she is in position to recapture some of those past heroics. At least she has been there before and one of those building blocks is a renewed confidence.
* Betsy King, who has won two Dinah Shore titles and will be aiming for a third successive U.S. Open crown in two weeks, made a move up the leader board with a 4-under-par 67, and a share of the day's low round.
Her 69-75-67211 left her at 2-under, tied with three others four shots back of the leaders with seven players in front of her.
"I hit 17 greens and had six birdies and two bogeys, one a three-putt," she said. "Regardless, I think it's hard to be consistent out there. I had a double each of the first two days."
She said her tour-leading position in birdies made is deceiving, too, because she probably has played more rounds than anybody else (55 in 15 events without missing a cut). Still, she had four Thursday and three Friday ahead of her third-round barrage.
Looking at Okamoto's string of pars, she said: "She's sort of due [to win].
"You get up there enough times, and either you play well to win or somebody gives it to you."
* Baltimorean Tina Barrett called her 2-over-par 73 "steady if not spectacular." The round left her at 217.
"I'd like to be hitting my irons better, because I never really hit it close enough to put myself in position for birdies. But I hung in there," Barrett said.
* MISCELLANEOUS: Bradley posted her third-round 71 with substitute caddie Donna Early, the regular bag-carrier for Amy -- Benz, who missed the cut. Early was pressed into service when Bradley's longtime caddy, Greg Sheridan, came up with a stomach virus and was forced to miss his first assignment since the 2 began working together nearly 9 years ago. "I didn't give her a club all day, and with her length compared to Benz's, I thought I was on the men's tour," Early said. . . . Deb Richard was tied with Bunkowsky going to the final hole, then missed a 5-foot par putt. She had been 7-under but hit a ball out of bounds at No. 16, leading to a double-bogey. . . . Deborah McHaffie, who tumbled from 66 to 81 and just made the cut, continued her downward slide with a 79 that included a 9 at the 379-yard dogleg 15th, where she pumped 2 balls into the road from the middle of the fairway. . . . Liselotte Neumann, winner of the 1988 U.S. Women's Open at Baltimore CC, had her first par round of the week, tacking a 71 onto earlier efforts of 72-73 for 216. . . . Sandra Spuzich, 1966 U.S. Women's Open champion, made the cut here for the second straight year, and is at 220 after a third-round 75. At 54, she is the oldest player in today's final round. JoAnne Carner, 52, bothered by the heat and a splitting headache, still managed a 70 and is at 2-under 211.