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Saso just one shot off leaders

Yuka Saso displays nerves of steel in the runup to the final round of the Ford Championship in Arizona. | CHRISTIAN PETERSEN/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Yuka Saso squandered a joint share of the lead in a midway backside struggle but birdied two of the last three holes to rescue a 69 Saturday and threaten to within one off three leaders in the Ford Championship heading to a frenetic finish in Gilbert, Arizona.

In a windy third round battle of determination and adeptness on the Seville Golf and Country Club, Saso endured tough conditions and challenges, overcoming a three-stroke deficit to grab a share of the lead at 15-under on a birdie-birdie feat from No. 11 for a running four-under card.

A bogey on No. 14 and a double bogey on the next, however, dropped her off the leaderboard. But the 2021 US Women’s Open champion closed out in a fashion that was nothing short of spectacular, showcasing her ability to hit critical shots under pressure.

She birdied No. 16, then came through with a precise bunker shot on the 17th that demonstrated her technical prowess and mental fortitude to save par. From the waste area on the par-5 closing hole, she hit a superb approach shot to within 16 feet and drained the putt.

With a 54-hole haul of 14-under 202, the ICTSI-backed shotmaker positioned herself just one stroke behind Carlota Ciganda, Hyo Joo Kim and Sarah Schmeizal, who matched 201s after 66, 69 and 70, respectively.

But with Maja Stark joining Saso at fourth after a 66, and 10 others, including a slew of major winners, pooling 203s, a wild final round chase is seen in the $2.25 million championship serving as the seventh leg of this year’s LPGA Tour.

Meanwhile, in anticipation of a rainy Sunday, organizers adjusted the tee times for the final round. Players will be grouped in threes and will use both first and 10th tees with the first two groups setting out at 9:08 a.m. and the last at 11:20 p.m.

The wind did introduce a variable that demanded not just skill but strategic acumen from the host of contenders, turning the event into a mental battle against the elements.

Saso, acknowledging the stark contrast in conditions to the previous rounds, adapted commendably. Her ability to maintain composure and minimize errors underscored her comments about playing well in the wind, reflecting a player in tune with the nuances of the game.

“The conditions were obviously a lot different compared to the first two days. Lots of wind, you know, three-club difference on some holes,” Saso said. “Still, I think I played okay with the wind. I controlled myself out there and didn’t have a lot of misses. So I think it was a good day.”

Coming off a solid 63 in the second round, Saso’s performance in moving day was marked by a series of fluctuations. She shot four birdies against a bogey in the first seven holes then rebounded from a mishap on No. 8 with birdies on Nos. 11 and 12 to get a shared view of the top with Ciganda.

A bogey and a double bogey from No. 14, however, momentarily derailed her charge. But Saso’s closing exploits put her in a congested leaderboard, setting the stage for a compelling finish.

Ciganda eagled the 16th and matched Saso’s closing birdie for 66, Kim birdied three of the first four holes and parred the rest for a 69, while Schmeizel gunned down four birdies against two bogeys for a 70.

Stark, on the other hand, produced a solid, eagle-boosted 66 to tie Saso at fourth.

But world No. 1 Nelly Korda stayed in the hunt for a third consecutive title as the Tokyo Olympics gold medalist birdied Nos. 16 and 17 to lead the 13-under par scorers, who include Sei Young Kim, Lydia Ko, Lexi Thompson, Mi Hyang Lee, Narin An, Emily Pedersen, Caroline Masson and Azahara Munoz.

Saso drew Stark and Lee in the 11:09 a.m. flight on No. 1 ahead of the championship group made up of the joint leaders.

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