I think of Ilhee Lee as being at the same stage of her LPGA career as players like Chella Choi, Haeji Kang, and Jenny Shin--someone who's shown plenty of promise and played brilliantly in stretches, but who hasn't yet become a consistent threat to the top golfers on tour. What sets her apart from those peers is that she already has a win--albeit a rain-shortened win--to her name. After shooting a bogey-free 64 today at the Sime Darby LPGA Malaysia, Lee has put herself in a great position to erase that asterisk from her resume.
But she has a long way to go to stay ahead of her lead chase pack, which includes Brittany Lang at 65, Paula Creamer, Beatriz Recari, Eun-Hee Ji, and Jodi Ewart Shadoff at 66, and a host of golfers at 67, including Suzann Pettersen, Shanshan Feng, In-Kyung Kim, Cristie Kerr, Caroline Masson, Lexi Thompson, and Brittany Lincicome. Moreover, with 21 players breaking 70 on the par-71 Kuala Lumpur Golf and Country Club--including hot Europeans Anna Nordqvist (68), Caroline Hedwall (68), and Sandra Gal (69), Americans Morgan Pressel (68), Jessica Korda (68), and Stacy Lewis (69), and my favorite golfer Ai Miyazato (69) and fellow Okinawan Mamiko Higa (68)--there are plenty of players who are poised to contend if they can go low once or twice in their last 3 rounds.
Lee has benefitted, however, from terrible starts by Na Yeon Choi and Chie Arimura (76s), as well as Lizette Salas (75), bad starts by Morita Jutanugarn (74) and Charley Hull (73), and slow starts by Mika Miyazato and Azahara Munoz (both 72s), Ji-Yai Shin, Ya Ni Tseng, Karrie Webb, and Carlota Ciganda (all 71s), and Inbee Park and So Yeon Ryu (both 70s). Anything can happen over 54 holes, it's true, but they have to climb out of the holes they've dug for themselves before they can start trying to chase down Lee.
Mikan, for instance, who just won the Japan Women's Open for the 2nd time in the last 4 seasons, bogeyed 3 of her last 4 holes on the front today to erase her earlier flurry of birdies that surrounded her double bogey on the par-5 16th. Contrast that to Higa, who was +3 in her 1st 5 holes after doubling the par-4 14th, but who battled back with 5 birdies and no bogeys over her remaining 13 holes. Or Ai-sama, who couldn't do anything right at the JWO and was +2 with no birdies in her 1st 14 holes today, then closed out her round with 4 birdies in a row. If Mikan can straighten out her irons (she hit only 7 greens), if Higa can keep her putter going, and if Ai-sama can really get her putter going, they can all be threats this week. But they'd better figure things out quickly, or they're going to get left in the dust.
Lee herself made a little run of her own to close out her day, birdieing 4 of her last 6 holes to turn a good round into a great one. That's the kind of golf that's going to be needed to stay ahead of the likes of Pettersen, Lewis, and Feng, who are definitely the hottest golfers on the planet right now. You think Paula Creamer wouldn't love to make her mark on this tournament and snap a losing streak that dates back to Oakmont in 2010?
Well, the tournament organizers decided to up the drama by reshuffling the pairings. We'll get to see how Lee handles playing in the final group off the 1st tee with Lang and Ji tomorrow!
[Update 1 (7:50 am): Here's bangkokbobby's survey, complete with photos!]