Kim clings to 1-shot lead with $1.5 million on the line

DOUG FERGUSON (AP Golf Writer)
The Associated Press

NAPLES, Fla. (AP) -- Sei Young Kim had only one birdie on the back nine and held on for a 4-under 68 and a one-shot lead over Nelly Korda, who made a charge going into the final round of the CME Group Tour Championship with the richest prize ever in women’s golf on the line.

Kim led by as many as five shots with three birdies over the opening seven holes. She stopped converting birdie chances on the back nine of Tiburon Golf Club, and Korda made her move.

Korda began the back nine with three straight birdies, including a bunker shot she holed, and shot 31 on the back for a 66.

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Kim was at 16-under 200 and will be in the final group with Korda. At stake is $1.5 million to the winner.

Caroline Masson of Germany, who will join them in the final pairing, had a 70 and was four shots behind, with Charley Hull of England another shot behind after a 66.

For so many others, an ideal day for scoring at Tiburon turned out to be a lost opportunity.

Brooke Henderson of Canada, who attracted the biggest gallery playing with Korda and with a horde of Canadians in Florida for the winter, had bogeys on three of the par 5s and never got anything going for a 71. She was six shots behind.

Defending champion Lexi Thompson made an early charge, only to be slowed by a pair of bogeys on the back - all her bogeys this week have been on the back nine - that gave her a 70 and put her seven shots behind.

Kim has shown few signs of coming back to the field. She has made only one bogey through 54 holes, and with her strong start it looked as though the 26-year-old Korean might siphon all the drama out of the final day.

She hit the brakes on the back nine. Korda poured it on.

“I told myself to be really aggressive on the back nine, and it worked out today,” said Korda, the highest-ranked American in the world at No. 3.

She opened with a birdie. In trouble on the 11th, when Korda fanned a shot from a waste area into a bunker, she blasted it out and watched the ball crash into the pin and drop for birdie. She made another at the par-3 12th and took advantage at the end with a 4-hybrid on the green at the par-5 17th for at two-putt birdie.

Kim gave herself plenty of reasonable looks at birdie on the back nine. She couldn’t get any to fall except for a 25-footer on the 15th hole that restored her lead to two shots, but only briefly.

Kim’s second shot into the 17th was well short and to the right into a bunker, and she blasted out to some 30 feet away. She played away from the flag on the 18th and two-putted for par from about 40 feet.

Still, she was in the lead after the third straight day, one step closer to a massive payoff.

The format changed this year from a points-based system in which only the top 12 players had a shot at a $1 million bonus to any of the 60 players who made it to the Tour Championship getting $1.5 million in official money by winning the tournament.

Jin Young Ko, celebrated Thursday night as LPGA player of the year, tried to get back into the game with a 66. She still was six shots behind along with Jessica Korda (69), the oldest sister of Nelly Korda.

Ko is virtually a lock to win the Vare Trophy for the lowest scoring average and needs a 65 to become only the second woman to finish with a sub-69 average score for the year.

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