Juli Inkster soared to the rarified air where no golfer, male or female, has ever ascended in a U.S. Open championship today at Old Waverly Golf Club.
On a third straight day of smothering heat and torrid scoring from most in the remaining field of 63, Inkster quickly separated herself from co-leader and playing partner Lorie Kane with birdies on the first two holes and went on to shoot a 67 that left her at an Open record 15-under-par 201.
Inkster will go into Sunday's final round with a four-shot lead on 22-year-old two-time U.S. Amateur champion Kelli Kuehne (70) and Kane (71), who had bogeys on two of her first three holes but rallied nicely to stay in contention with three birdies in a stretch of four early back-nine holes. Kane and Kuehne, who birdied the tough 18th with a curling 35-foot putt, are at 11-under 205.
"I think it's my tournament," Inkster said after shooting the low round of the day. "I don't think 15 under will win either. All the pressure will be on me. But I'm playing well, playing relaxed and I feel good about my game. If I can shoot 2 or 3 under, I'll have a good shot at winning this thing."
After two rounds, both Inkster and Kane had matched the lowest score in a women's Open, a 10-under 274 posted by champion Alison Nicholas at Pumpkin Ridge in Oregon two years ago. Nicholas also held the previous 54-hole Open record at 203 in the same event. In the men's Open, Gil Morgan got to 12 under in the third round of the 1992 event at Pebble Beach, but faltered later in the day to fall back in the pack in a tournament eventually won by Tom Kite.
Old Waverly has taken a severe pounding this week for many reasons. There's been virtually no wind. Because of a cool spring, the rough never grew to normal U.S. Open standards. And heavy rains on Wednesday softened greens, allowing players to aim at pins on slow putting surfaces and be relatively sure they'd stop not far from where they landed.
Though the greens started to firm up today and roll a tad faster than the first two days, the course nevertheless has the look and feel of most regular stops on the LPGA Tour. Inkster certainly was not complaining.
"I don't think there's anything wrong with that," said Inkster, who's had only one bogey on her card all week and has gone 33 straight holes without one. "I know I'd rather see what I'm seeing out there this week than what I saw out there last year [at Blackwolf Run in Kohler, Wis., when 6 over made the playoff]. I mean it was a joke. Bogey, bogey, bogey, bogey. At least we're out here making some birdies. It's exciting."
Inkster, 38, has won 17 events on the LPGA Tour, including three majors, but has never won an Open. She finished second to Patty Sheehan in 1992 at Oakmont when Sheehan birdied the last two holes to force a playoff, then prevailed by two shots.
"I played my heart out in 1992," Inkster said, "the best golf of my career that week. I wouldn't change anything, I wouldn't do one thing differently. I have nothing to hang my head or be ashamed of. But that was seven years ago, a different course. And right now, I'm playing better."
In addition to Kane and Kuehne, only one other player is within five shots of the lead. Veteran Sherri Turner, at 42 attempting to become the oldest women's Open champion, managed to get to 12 under through 15 holes. But bogeys on two of her last three holes led to a round of 68 and 10-under 206.
"I don't know if Juli is catchable," she said. "It's possible she just might shoot an even par round tomorrow. But the way she's playing, I don't really expect that to happen."
Australian star Karrie Webb, winner of four events this year, got off to a torrid start and finished with eight straight pars for 68 -- 208, seven off the pace. "The way things are going," she said, "I'm definitely going to have to shoot 65, or below 65 range."
Kane also admitted that she's not counting on Inkster to falter on Sunday, not after watching her hit all but two fairways and 14 greens in regulation today, with 27 putts.
"She's playing very solid golf, doing all the things you need to do to win a U.S. Open," she said. "I've said before that if I wasn't playing, or if I wasn't in the position I am now, I'd be betting on Juli Inkster. She deserves to have the U.S. Open. She's very comfortable out there. . . . I'm looking at her shooting a lower score than she did today."
Inkster always has had a reputation as a solid closer once she's moved to the lead. She wasted little time leaving the pack behind, making a 20-foot birdie putt on the first hole, then hitting out of a greenside bunker at the 475-yard second hole to within four feet and making the birdie putt. She had a 15-footer for birdie at No. 8 and a 10-footer at No. 9 to post a 4-under 32 on the front side.
Her 14-foot attempt at the 10th caught the right edge of the cup but horsehoed around and out for par. Her only back-nine birdie came at the 338-yard 16th when she hit an 8-iron to within three feet of the hole and buried the putt.
Kuehne, who opened the tournament with a course-record 64 on Thursday, made her only bogey of the week today with a three-putt at No. 6. But her birdie putt at the tough 375-yard 18th, only the second birdie on the hole all day, got her into a Sunday final group pairing with Inkster.
"I actually like my position," the feisty second-year pro said. "Everyone expects her to win. I'll be the underdog. There's no pressure on me to win because I'm not expected to win. But I'll shoot at every pin I can. I'll have to go low. I'm comfortable to be paired with her. I won't have to watch the leader board. I'll just watch her. That'll make it a lot easier."
U.S. Women's Open
Third round in West Point, Miss.:
Third round in Dublin, Ohio:
NFL Golf Classic
Second round in Clifton, N.J.:\
CAPTION: Juli Inkster figures she'll need another good round today to win the U.S. Open. "If I can shoot 2 or 3 under, I'll have a good shot at winning this thing," she said.