Seon Hwa Lee followed her opening-round 65 with a 66 in yesterday's second round of the Fields Open in Hawaii. She leads Natalie Gulbis by two strokes entering today's final round.
Lee up by 2 after shooting 66
Gulbis and Granada are close behind, and eight golfers are within five shots of the lead
Seon Hwa Lee is not the best-known rookie in the field, but the 20-year-old from South Korea sits atop the leaderboard at the $1.1 million Fields Open in Hawaii.
With the large galleries following local favorite Michelle Wie and Morgan Pressel, who completed their second rounds on the front nine, Lee played in relative obscurity on the back side as she shot a 6-under 66 yesterday to post a 13-under 131 at the Ko Olina Resort.
Lee, who turned pro at 14, has a two-shot lead over Natalie Gulbis (66) and a three-shot advantage over Julieta Granada (65). First-round leader Lorena Ochoa followed her 64 with a ho-hum 71 to sit alone in fourth at 9-under 135.
At last week's SBS Open at Turtle Bay, Ochoa lost in a playoff to South Korean Joo Mi Kim. Lee finished in a tie for 13th.
The Koreans would like nothing better than to complete the Hawaii sweep as the LPGA Tour winds up its two-week stay in the island chain, but it's still anyone's game as eight golfers are within five shots of the lead.
Unfortunately for local golf fans, Wie is not among them as she followed her opening 67 with a pedestrian 70 that left her at 7-under 137. She is in a tie for ninth with six other golfers, including Pressel. The two will be paired in today's final round with veteran Sherri Turner, promising a gallery worthy of Grand Slam proportions.
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Natalie Gulbis won more than $1 million last year but never took the big check home from a tournament.
Pressel, who played in a group behind Wie the first two rounds, also fired a disappointing 70 as 33 of the 73 golfers who survived the cut shot 69 or better. It's not as if Wie and Pressel are out of the running, but they'll need a low number to get into contention.
As for Lee, who currently lives in Florida, she won't be distracted by the overflow crowds that will follow the two teen statewide sensations. Last week, the 21-year-old Kim was able to win in a playoff over Ochoa and Soo Young Moon. Lee's main competition will likely be from Gulbis and Granada.
Like Lee, Granada is a tour rookie and Gulbis is a 23-year-old better known for her modeling off the course than her play on it. Not that Gulbis can't swing a club. Despite not winning a tournament in 2005, she still pocketed more than $1 million as she begins her fifth full year on tour.
It sets up an interesting final-round dynamic as the youth movement continues to take charge. The average age of the top 14 players who are 7 under or better is only 24.8. Of that group, only Ochoa, Nicole Perrot, Wendy Ward, Helen Alfredsson, Meena Lee and Liselotte Neumann have managed a win on tour.
"I just play golf and enjoy my game," Seon Hwa Lee said. "So I don't care who is playing. I just practice concentration, poker face. I'm always confident, I'm ready, I'm always ready."
She will need to be as Gulbis tries to prove she is more than just a pretty face. The former University of Arizona player, who was a Wildcat teammate of Ochoa's, was the clubhouse leader for part of the afternoon before Lee caught her late.
Gulbis knows this is her opportunity to exorcise her own demons that have kept her out of the winner's circle since joining the tour full-time in 2002.
"I think (not winning) hangs over your head every week from when I was 10 or 11 years old and trying to win tournaments," Gulbis said. "Every single week I try to go out and win tournaments. You just have to keep putting yourself in position. I did that quite a bit last year. I kept putting myself in position and I think I've done that this week, so I look forward to tomorrow."
Granada is excited about her opportunity as well. She birdied five holes in a row on the front side after teeing off at No. 10 to move into contention. She opened with a 69 on Thursday, before hitting fairways and greens with a great deal of consistency to shoot a 7-under 65 yesterday to move from a tie for 20th into alone in third.
"I didn't start so well," Granada said of her 2-under effort on her front nine. "But after the birdie on No. 2, I really got it going. I was hitting good shots. I had 18 birdie putts. I'm actually excited to be here and am looking forward to tomorrow."
And don't forget about Ochoa. Counting her final two rounds at the SBS Open and the first round of this week's event, Ochoa was 20 under par over 54 holes. She cooled off a bit yesterday with a 1-under 71, but she is certainly capable of going low in a hurry.
"I didn't have my best round today," Ochoa said. "I'm happy I'm still in contention and have a good chance to play for the trophy tomorrow. I hope the birdies I didn't make today, they drop tomorrow. I feel good. It's OK to be a couple of shots back."