PINEHURST, N.C. (AP) — Juli Inkster heard plenty of cheers as she walked up the 18th fairway Saturday at the U.S. Women’s Open.
It was hard to tell whether they were for her past — or her present.
Playing her 35th and final Women’s Open, Inkster shot the best round of the tournament at Pinehurst No. 2 — a 66 that put her in a tie for third, four strokes back.
“It’s great — I’m going to be right in the mix,” Inkster said. “Let’s just say I’m in a lot better shape today than I was (Friday). I knew I had to come out here, if I wanted to do anything, and have a good round and I was able to put it together today.
“So who knows tomorrow?” she added. “I’m just going to enjoy it.”
Inkster — who turns 54 on Tuesday — made the cut at her first Women’s Open as an 18-year-old in 1978, won it in 1999 at Old Waverly and then did it again three years later at Prairie Dunes.
Sunday will be one for the Hall of Famer to savor — both because it will be her last at a Women’s Open, and because it’s been a while since she played a fourth round at one. Inkster missed the cut in each of the past four years.
She had five birdies in her third round — three on the front nine — and the only blemish was a bogey on the par-4 eighth.
Inkster said earlier in the week that this “probably” would be it for her at the Women’s Open.
She seemed more certain Saturday.
“Because, you know what, I’ve played 35 of them,” she added. “Is one more going to really make a difference, one way or another? I don’t think so. It’s a grind. It’s a lot of work. The practice rounds and then the playing and 5 1-2 hour rounds.
“It’s just — I’m good with it.”
WIN AND YANG: Amy Yang is still chasing her first Women’s Open victory but at least she can draw on her experience of being a contender.
The 24-year-old South Korean shared the 54-hole lead with Michelle Wie at 2-under.
Yang was the runner-up to winner Na Yeon Choi two years ago at Blackwolf Run in Wisconsin after playing in the final group with her. She also finished in the top 10 in 2010 and ’11.
“Still working on it, but I’m much better at controlling my emotion and controlling the nervous feeling,” Yang said. “I think it’s going to be a fun round. I’m also good friends with Michelle, so I think it’s going to be a good round.”
LI’S BACK: Eleven-year-old Lucy Li joined the final group at the Women’s Open.
As a fan.
Li, the youngest player to qualify for the Women’s Open, watched the final pairing of Michelle Wie and Lexi Thompson from inside the ropes during the third round.
Wie and Thompson were former child prodigies who each qualified for their first pro events when they were 12. Thompson was the youngest to qualify for the Women’s Open — she was 12 in 2007 down the road at Pine Needles — until Li came along.
The ice-cream-loving pre-teen from the Bay Area was a breakout media darling this week at Pinehurst No. 2.
She shot a pair of 78s and missed the cut by nine strokes — but still finished better than 16 pros.
STACY’S STRUGGLES: First-round leader Stacy Lewis continued her steady slide during Round 3.
The world’s top-ranked player had an early double bogey during her 74 that left her six strokes off the lead. She shot a first-day 67 but followed that with a 73 that put her four strokes behind Michelle Wie.
She hit a poor drive on the par-4 third, and her bogey putt lipped out.
In addition to the double bogey, Lewis has had 10 bogeys during her middle two rounds after being bogey-free during her first trip around Pinehurst No. 2.
She sandwiched a pair of birdies at the turn but followed with a bogey on the par-4 12th and added two more on the 15th and 16th.
The two-time major winner has yet to win a Women’s Open title.
PLAYING SOLO: Some alone time apparently did Jennifer Johnson some good.
The 22-year-old had the first tee time of the morning, and with an odd number of players who made the cut, she was given the option of having a marker, or playing partner, but declined.
She shot a 72, the best of her three rounds of the week.
“I actually never played alone in a tournament before,” Johnson said. “You have to remind yourself to take some breaks because, normally, when you play in a threesome, you take a break when other people are hitting.”
LANG’S BIG DAY: The day’s first round under par belonged to Brittany Lang.
The former Duke player moved to 7 over with a 69 that included three birdies on the front nine and eight consecutive pars on the back before her bogey on the 18th.
“I had like 12-hole stretches the first two days I played really well,” Lang said. “Today, I finally put all 18 together.”
And playing in a region where Tobacco Road rivalries run deep meant hearing plenty of college cheers from the gallery. Lang helped the Blue Devils win consecutive Atlantic Coast Conference titles in 2004-05.
“I have a lot of fans (who) say ‘Go Duke’ a lot,” Lang said.
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