Nelly Korda had to work for pars instead of making birdies look routine, and the 23-year-old American did well enough to keep her distance in pursuit of an Olympic golf medal.
Korda saved par with a 5-foot putt on the 17th hole and then got up-and-down from behind the 18th with a nifty pitch to 4 feet to finish with 12 straight pars for a 2-under 69.
She had a three-shot lead over Aditi Ashok of India, who is nearly last in the 60-player field in driving distance and near the top in sheer determination. She had a 68.
And for now, there will be a final round.
Olympic golf officials plan to start play as early as possible Saturday and take advantage of a window they hope is big enough to squeeze in 72 holes before a tropical storm in the forecast arrives.
Korda let out a sigh when her final par putt dropped. This was a day when her swing was off and she managed to hold it together at Kasumigaseki Country Club.
Asked what made her happiest amid such a struggle, she replied, “Probably my fight.”
“I didn’t have a really good back nine. I was kind of spraying it all over the place. I had some testy par putts,” Korda said. “But made all pars and I fought really hard to stay in it really, or ahead of it.”
Korda was at 15-under 198 as she tries to add a gold medal to a year in which she won her first major and reached No. 1 in the world.
Behind her was another fight shaping up for the bronze. Mone Inami of Japan, who was given the honor of hitting the opening tee shot, missed a 7-foot par putt on the final hole for a 68. She was five shots behind in four-way tie for third with Lydia Ko of New Zealand (66), Hanna Green of Australia (67) and Emily Kristine Pedersen of Denmark (70).
Inami said she spoke briefly to Hideki Matsuyama, who was eliminated in a seven-way playoff for the bronze in the men’s tournament.
“He said that because he wasn’t able to win the medal on the men’s side he wished us good luck on the women’s side,” she said.
The scenario was far different from last week with the men’s competition, when eight players were separated by four shots going into the final round. Outside of Ashok, the closest players to Korda were five shots back.
One of them was Ko, the silver medalist from Rio de Janeiro, who mentioned how Minjee Lee came from seven behind on the final day to win the Evian Championship two weeks ago for her first LPGA major.
“You can never give up. I think it doesn’t matter how many shots back you are,” Ko said. “Rory Sabbatini shot 10 under on the last day last week to become the silver medalist. Sometimes I just don’t think you can count yourself out of it.”
At least there’s a reasonable chance. For a short time, it looked as though Korda might turn this into a runaway. She quickly stretched her lead to five shots by opening with three birdies in six holes. She had a wedge from 80 yards for her third on the par-5 eighth.
But she hit a clunker, and it came down a ridge some 50 feet away. Korda came up 10 feet short and three-putted for a bogey. Until then, she had made birdie on every par 5 this week.
“There’s something inside of me when I bogey a par 5 that I just get so frustrated about because I shouldn’t be doing that,” Korda said. “But I kept telling myself that there’s more opportunities ahead.”
She just didn’t capitalize on them. Her last birdie of the day came on the sixth hole.
Ashok stayed close, even after a bogey from the bunker on No. 9 and a three-putt bogey from some 60 feet on the 11th hole.
She holed birdie putts from 18 feet on the 15th hole and 15 feet on the 17th hole, and her nervy par on the 18th kept her in range of Korda, with high hopes for bringing home a medal.
“One more day of golf and a lot happens on the final day,” Ashok said. “Sometimes the final day, although it’s just one round, it feels long mentally. So definitely staying patient, and hoping we have good weather and hope I play good tomorrow.”