Sung Hyun Park was three-fourths of the way to virtually wrapping up her second consecutive LPGA Tour victory Saturday in Oneida when the world's No. 1-ranked women's golfer swiftly and shockingly came back to the planet.
The South Korean hit her second shot on the par-5 15th hole into the water en route to a double-bogey and followed that up with a bogey on the next hole. After making seven birdies and one bogey over her first 14 holes in the third round, the 3-over stretch in just two holes left her with a 3-under-par 69 and dropped Park into a four-way tie for the 54-hole lead at the Thornberry Creek LPGA Classic.
What was starting to look like another record-setting runaway win by a red-hot golfer at the top of her game suddenly turned into a shootout entering the final round of what could be the the final installment of this third-year event.
China's Shanshan Feng (65) and American Tiffany Joh (66), playing partners Saturday and two of the more outgoing personalities in the women's game, were two of the recipients of Park's misfortune. They were already in the clubhouse at 20-under 196 along with Thailand's Ariya Jutanugarn (67) and, once Park and playing partner Yealimi Noh (69), the Monday qualifier from Northern California who was one shot back at 19-under 197, finished their round, the number of golfers within five shots of the lead had swelled to 12.
To Park's credit, she saw a silver lining to the darkness at the end of her day.
"So the third round wasn't my best round, but I still am at the top of the leaderboard and there is still a chance for me to do well (Sunday)," said Park, the runner-up by one shot two weeks ago in Minnesota at the KPMG Women's PGA Championship before winning last week's Walmart NW Arkansas LPGA Championship with a birdie on the 72nd hole. "Although the leaderboard is crowded, I'll try my best (Sunday) and focus on every single shot."
Park's steely focus for 14 holes Saturday staked her to a three-shot lead.
After bogeying No. 1 out of the blocks, she birdied Nos. 3 and 4, Nos. 6 and 7 and No. 9 to make the turn in 4-under 32. Park added birdies at Nos. 10 and 13 to get to 23-under and one birdie away from what would've been a share of the 54-hole scoring record with 2018 runaway winner Sei Young Kim.
That's when this birdie-filled tournament turned on a dime.
"I was just like, 'Wow, she makes mistakes too," Noh — a 17-year-old rookie playing her first LPGA event since turning professional in January — said of her playing partner's stumbles at Nos. 15 and 16, which let her back in it. "Obviously she's human, but it was surprising because she was playing so well. To see that double I was like, 'Oh, even the No. 1 player does that.'"
While it worked out well for Joh, she doesn't expect Park to do that again.
"It's nice that it's going to be a little bit of a horse race (Sunday)," said Joh, 32, a former UCLA golfer excited at the chance to chase down her first LPGA victory in her eighth year on the tour. "But, I mean, at the same time, like S.H. Park, I could like easily see her being on the 59 watch. So, yeah, there is still potential for her to run with it, but at the same time it's exciting that three days in we still have a pretty exciting golf tournament going on."
As the excitement builds in this third Thornberry LPGA Classic, tournament organizers — in the last of a three-year deal with the LPGA — have yet to announce if there will be a fourth. While the event has struggled to attract a few of women's golf's more recognizable names — Lexi Thompson has yet to pay a visit and fellow American Michelle Wie has been injured last year and this — those who have supported the Green Bay stop have come to love it.
"I'm staying with same host family here for three years," Denmark's Nicole Broch Larsen, who shot 65 in the third round to get within six shots of the lead, said of Tim and Lorie Cisle. "I mean, I will probably call them my step-parents. They take care of me like I'm their daughter. So this is definitely a good place to come back to. ... They even hosted a barbecue on Monday night. They asked me to find 50, 60 caddies and players to come.
"I mean, they really enjoy having this event here. Yeah, I've stayed with them for three years and it's really nice."