(Reuters) – China’s Yu Liu and Celine Boutier of France lead the chase for the first $1 million winner’s check in women’s golf after the former university team mates finished the third round of the U.S. Women’s Open tied at the top of a crowded leaderboard.
Boutier drove the ball with unerring accuracy en route to a 69 in South Carolina on Saturday, while Liu recovered from an early bogey to pile up six birdies and card a five-under-par 66 that matched the best score of the day.
The pair lead on seven-under 206 with Americans Lexi Thompson (68) and Jaye Marie Green (68) and Japan’s Mamiko Higa (71) one stroke behind at Country Club of Charleston, with six others within four shots of the lead.
Defending champion Ariya Jutanugarn of Thailand is not among the contenders, eight shots behind in a tie for 27th after a birdie at the last for 69.
Liu was stunned to be co-leader in her debut at the tournament.
“I think this is something that’s really out of my expectations because it’s only my first ever U.S. Open,” said the 23-year-old from Beijing.
“I was just happy to make the cut and being able to play the weekend.”
No Chinese woman has won the U.S. Open, while if Boutier triumphs she will be the second from France, after Catherine Lacoste in 1967.
“I was hitting the ball pretty good and pretty straight. Then when I was missing a couple of greens, my short game was there to save me,” said Boutier, who made a clutch 20-foot putt to salvage bogey at the 16th hole after she had duffed a chip.
“I tried not to pay attention (to the leaderboard) because it gets me really stressed out. It was a little bit difficult at the beginning, but then as the round went on, I kind of focused more on myself and my game.”
Liu and Boutier have been close since their days at Duke University in North Carolina.
“She’s just one of our best friends on tour,” said world number 45 Liu, who is in her second season on the LPGA circuit.
“We had pretty similar backgrounds growing up. We were at Duke together for one year, and we won the national championship together.”
Tomorrow they will play in the final group as rivals instead of team mates.
“It’s a major championship. Everybody is out there trying to win, and we’ll be very focused, I think,” said Liu.
Boutier, ranked 94th in the world, expects no favours from her former team mate.
“I think she’s going to be very focused, and so am I, so I don’t really expect anything less,” she added.
They will have to keep an eye on the chasing pack, not least the long-hitting Thompson, who perhaps would have been leading if her putting had matched her tee-to-green game.
She bounced back from consecutive bogeys at the 10th and 11th holes with an eagle at the par-five 15th, where she finally sank a lengthy putt, from 25 feet, after firing a fine three-wood approach shot from 240 yards.
Halfway leader Higa struggled at times but did enough to stay in contention.
“Recovery is going to be the key, so I’m going to eat well and sleep well and recover well,” she said.
(Reporting by Andrew Both in Cary, North Carolina; Editing by Peter Rutherford)