In four years as a professional, 25-year-old Jennifer Rosales has never faced the crushing pressure she knows she'll experience Sunday in the final round of the 59th U.S. Women's Open. She'll begin play at the Orchards Golf Club holding a three-shot lead over Annika Sorenstam and two other popular major champions, with pesky 14-year-old Michelle Wie still within six shots and tied for seventh place, despite a three-putt double bogey on her final hole Saturday.
A native of the Philippines who won for the first time this season in Atlanta in May, Rosales began with a bogey but kept her composure and finished with a 69 and 7-under-par 206, the only player among 66 remaining with three straight sub-par scores. Just as significantly, she also was able to withstand the heat put on her by seven-time major winner Sorenstam, 1991 Open champion Meg Mallon and 1995 LPGA Championship winner Kelly Robbins.
"I idolize Annika," said Rosales, who held a two-shot lead in the 2002 Women's British Open through 54 holes, shot 74 and finished fourth. "She's going to try to win this real hard. I've told myself, 'Jen, just try to play hard tomorrow and never look back.' "
And if she becomes the first player from her country to win the Women's Open?
"I can run for president if this happens," she beamed, reminded that Philippines President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo had told her to come home to Manila for a victory parade after Rosales won her first LPGA Tour event on May 2. "I'm so bummed my coach couldn't make it this week. He told me all the people back home are behind me and praying for me."
The three veterans closest to her lead -- with 11 major titles among them -- all ended the day at 4-under 209. Mallon, a native of Massachusetts, had the most impressive round with a 4-under 67 that included a run of three birdies in four holes on the back nine to get her into contention for a possible fourth major title.
"This is my kind of set-up," said Mallon, a crowd favorite here this week. "I like it when 1 under wins the tournament. I like the difficult conditions and I like how you have to work the ball around the golf course and use your short game and all facets of your game. That's why the U.S. Open is my favorite event."
Robbins birdied three of her first five holes Saturday, and was at 5 under after her front nine until she bogeyed the first two on the back side. She recovered splendidly, however, hitting one of just 16 birdies recorded on the dangerous 439-yard 16th and posting a 68 to stay in the hunt.
"Last year and the last couple of years on tour helped me keep my composure today," Robbins said. "It's a long road when things aren't going too well. I've been striking the ball extremely well for months now and haven't been able to score. It's good to see I am scoring, and still making some birdies."
Sorenstam, a two-time Open champion who hasn't won this title since 1996, prevailed three weeks ago in the LPGA Championship and said at the time her goal was to win the three remaining majors of the season. With a fist-pumping 12-foot eagle putt at the 456-yard 13th followed by a birdie from the same distance at the 402-yard 14th, Sorenstam pushed to 5 under, but a bogey at the 377-yard 15th and three straight pars led to her third-round 70.
"I'm in good shape," said Sorenstam, who was in position to win last year's Open until an uncharacteristic off-target second shot from the fairway on the finishing hole led to a bogey and left her in fourth place. "I am chasing someone who is playing well, and I obviously have to shoot a low score. . . . I've been leading, I've been chasing, I've been in the last group. I'll just play my own game. But I've got to go low."
All of her closest pursuers are certainly capable of posting low numbers Sunday. But the golf course has dried out nicely since drenching rains hit on Thursday, and after two straight days of sun and mild breezes, the greens are getting faster and firmer by the minute, as Wie learned the hard way on her final hole.
She was trailing Rosales by four shots when she stepped to the 18th tee, but a wayward drive in the rough, a second shot into the gallery down the left side and a difficult pitch shot that hit a downslope and rolled 40 feet from the flag left her in a precarious position. When she three-putted from there, missing a five-footer for bogey, her hope of becoming the youngest Women's Open champion likely ended.
Asked if she felt she had a chance on Sunday, she said, "The conditions are going to get harder on this course, the scores are probably going to drop, so I don't know." She's still in jeopardy of not even being the low amateur, because Paula Creamer, a 17-year-old Californian, was in at 72 -- 213, just a shot behind her after 54 holes.
Wie, who has had a double bogey in each of her first three rounds, has been saying all week her goal coming in was to shoot 1 under each day and finish at 4 under, usually a score that has a chance to win this championship. "It was my goal to shoot 4 under," Wie said. "I have to shoot 3 under tomorrow."
Rosales also knows she'll have to keep going low on Sunday to prevail. On Saturday, she hit 13 of 14 fairways and was on 13 of 18 greens in regulation, though her putting was shaky, with only five one-putt greens and 31 total. Over three days, she hasn't had anything worse than a bogey and has already made a dozen birdies and an eagle.
Rosales said she knows she will be under immense pressure on Sunday, "but I can't let myself [think about that]," she said. "If I do, I'm putting too much pressure on myself before I tee it up. . . . I'll just play my game, try not to think about that this is like the biggest event in golf, just try to keep my composure until the last hole."