Minjee Lee jumps out to three-stroke lead at U.S. Women’s Open over rising American Mina Harigae

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SOUTHERN PINES, N.C. — When Travis Kreiter arrived on the 13th tee at Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club with fiancé Mina Harigae, he figured it was time for a pep talk.

Hey, this is the U.S. Open. You never know what’s going to happen.

Harigae held a one-stroke lead when she walked off the ninth green on Saturday at the 77th U.S. Women’s Open. By the time she got to that 13th tee, however, she trailed Minjee Lee by four.

“In the past, the round could’ve gotten away from us after 12,” said Kreiter, who has caddied for Harigae for over four years now.

Instead, Harigae enters the final round three back of Lee, a world-class ball-striker and major champion who won the most recent stroke-play event on the LPGA, the Cognizant Founders Cup held last month.

Beating Lee remains a tall order for anyone in the field, though Harigae is the only one within shouting distance. Bronte Law posted a third-round 68 to get to 7 under, but she’s six back of Lee, who at 13-under 200 sits poised to break the all-time scoring record of 16 under, set by Juli Inkster at Old Waverly Golf Club in 1999. A seemingly unflappable Lee carded a 67 on a near-perfect day amidst the Carolina pines.

Mina Harigae confers with her caddie at the 14th hole during the first round at the 2022 U.S. Women’s Open Presented by ProMedica at Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club in Southern Pines, N.C. on Thursday, June 2, 2022. (Jeff Haynes/USGA)

When asked if she could remember another time when she was in this kind of position, Lee said, “No, it’s the U.S. Open.”

Lee put the pedal down with birdies on Nos. 9, 10, 11, and 12, all from 13 feet or less. She’s the first Aussie to lead this championship through 54 holes since Karrie Webb in 2001 – at Pine Needles.

Lee, the No. 4-ranked player in the world, didn’t think to ask Webb for advice ahead of this championship but said she has enjoyed seeing her mentor’s picture up all over the place here. Webb did send her a text message yesterday that said, “Keep it going, let’s go Aussie.”

Lee has a bit of history on her side, too, as the man by her side this week, Jason Gilroyed, caddied for Cristie Kerr when she won at Pine Needles in 2007.

A seven-time winner on the LPGA, Lee looks to move closer to World No. 1. Harigae, meanwhile, is a thirty-something who hasn’t yet won on the LPGA let alone a major. It was just a few years ago that she was running out of money fast, fighting to keep her tour card.

Last year at the AIG Women’s British Open at Carnoustie, Harigae held a share of the lead going into the weekend at Carnoustie. She shot 76 on Saturday to fall out of contention, ultimately finishing tied for 13th.

But her strong play earned her a captain’s pick at last year’s Solheim Cup, and Kreiter said the experience at Inverness on a pressure-packed stage played a significant role in handling her nerves this week. Even the 5-and-4 singles loss to Celine Boutier, he said, was a good learning experience.

After bogeys on Nos. 11 and 12, Harigae stuffed her tee shot on the par-3 16th to two feet to give herself a better chance on Sunday.

Harigae has been pleased with how she has handled herself emotionally this week, saying she’s a different player than she was in her 20s.

How did she get there?

“Just a lot of self-awareness, a lot of butt-kicking from my caddie,” she said with a smile. “A lot of good hard talks. But I just realized if I wanted to get to the next level, I really had to get a hold of myself emotionally.”