HOUSTON – No spectators. Two golf courses in play for the opening rounds. A major championship two weeks before Christmas. Nothing about this U.S. Women's Open felt normal until Saturday.
That's when it became a grind that for so many years has defined this biggest event in women's golf. The long, soft and mud-splattered Champions Golf Club put a premium on par.
Hinako Shibuno did her best to hang on.
The 22-year-old from Japan watched a four-shot lead shrink to a single shot when her par putt on the final hole slid by the cup for a 3-over 74. She still had the lead on a day so tough only two of 66 players broke par.
“All the holes seemed to be very difficult for me,” she said.
It was like that for just about everybody.
Amy Olson, who nearly holed out from the 17th fairway and finished strong for a 71 that felt much lower, lost track of how often she had mud on her golf ball.
Stacy Lewis saw her chances of winning on her home course slip away with consecutive three-putts, the second one for a triple bogey on the 14th hole.
Next up might be the toughest day yet.
Rain that soaked the course Friday night was expected throughout Sunday, and the USGA moved up the starting times as early as possible with hopes of crowning a champion.
Shibuno, going for her second major in as many years, was at 4-under 209 and headed for the practice range to sort out her driver, staying there until the fading sun cast long shadows.
“I myself was very nervous,” she said. When asked why a major champion with an endless smile and seemingly not a care in the world would be so nervous, Shibuno replied, “Because I was on top of everybody, that's why.”
And she still is. Just barely.
Moriya Jutanugarn, playing in the same group as her two-time major champion sister, Ariya, was right in the mix until she bladed a bunker shot to the back of the 17th green and three-putted for a double bogey. She still managed a 72 and was three behind, among only four players who remained under par.
The other was Ji Yeong Kim2 of South Korea, who was on the opposite end of the Cypress Creek course. Kim2 made the cut with one shot to spare and shot a 67 — one of only two rounds under par — that moved her into a tie for third. Kim finished by chipping in for birdie on the par-5 ninth hole.
Shibuno is trying to become only the third player to make majors their first two LPGA Tour titles. The others were In Gee Chun (2015 U.S. Women's Open and 2016 Evian Championship and Se Ri Pak, who won the LPGA Championship and U.S. Women's Open in 1998.
Shibuno won the Women's British Open last year at Woburn, and declined to take up LPGA membership because she didn't think she was ready. Now her only way to join the LPGA is to win on Sunday, and it doesn't figure to be easy.
Eight players were separated by four shots going into the final round, a group that includes Lydia Ko (72) and Texas senior Kaitlyn Papp, who played in the final group with Shibuno and held her own until dropping two shots over the last three holes for a 74. They were at even-par 213, along with 19-year-old Yealimi Noh (72) and Megan Khang (74).
Jin Young Ko, the No. 1 player in the world and a two-time major champion, made 16 pars in her round of 71 and that was enough to at least give her a chance. She was at 1-over 214 with Women's PGA champion Sei Young Kim (73).
All of them had to contend with a course that played 6,635 yards and felt even longer because of heavy rain Friday after the second round ended. More than length was mud that gathered on the golf ball in the fairway. That creates problems for Champions because of its enormous greens.
Asked about the mud, Olson laughed and replied, “Which one? There were about 18 of them.”
“At one point I laughed and it was like, ‘Is it going to be in a divot or a mud ball?’ Because it was one or the other pretty much all day,” she said. “So I'm really hoping that we either do lift, clean and place or it's so wet tomorrow that the water just pulls the mud off.”
She delivered her best shot on the 17th, hitting an 8-iron — the same club, the same type of shot for her hole-in-one in the opening round — that came inches away from going in. The tap-in birdie and a solid par on the last puts her in the last group as the 28-year-old from North Dakota tries to win for the first time.