[ GOLF ]

Lee keeps challengers
close with iffy putting

Today, the 28-year-old pro could become
the first golfer to win the Mid-Pacific Open
three years in a row

After completing the third round of the Mid-Pacific Open yesterday, defending champion Regan Lee headed straight for the putting green.

Lee had just fired a 1-under-par 71 in blustery 30- to 35-mph winds, and he still had a two-shot lead heading into today's final round at the Mid-Pacific Country Club. But the 28-year-old pro was less than satisfied with his short stroke.

"A 71 in these conditions is a good score," he said. "But it could have been lower. I let several short ones get away."

Lee's 71 gave him a three-round total of 1-under 215, good for a two-shot edge over Japanese pro Kenichiro Kato, who was at 217 after posting a 66, the low round of the tournament. Local pro Joe Phengsavath was three more shots back at 68-220.

Due to the high winds that continued to rake the Lanikai course, officials moved up many of the tee boxes yesterday and placed the pins in more forgiving locations to make the course more playable.

"It was still difficult," said Lee, who was one of only five golfers to better par.

Lee has won this event the past two years and will be gunning today to become the first golfer in the 42-year history of the tournament to win three consecutive titles. Lance Suzuki won back-to-back events in 1977-78, 1983-84 and 1992-93 but was never able to pull off the three-peat.

"Winning three times in row would be nice," said Lee. "But Lance has won this thing eight times. I'd take eight times any day."

Lee entered yesterday's third round with a two-stroke lead over 1996 champion Casey Nakama. He began his round on the back nine and played steady golf, offsetting a lone three-putt bogey at the par-3 14th with birdies at five and six.

Although Lee never made another three-putt, he squandered a number of birdie opportunities, including a missed 10-footer at 10 and a 6-footer at 13 to make the turn in 37.

His putting woes continued on the front nine when he blew a 4-footer for birdie at the first and then failed to get up and down at the long par-5 third after blasting two drivers to the edge of the green.

At the par-5 fifth, where water borders both sides of the fairway off the tee and the green sits on an island, Lee launched a drive 350 yards downwind and then lofted a wedge to within 8 feet of the flag. He missed his eagle attempt.

"That was my first birdie of the day," he said. He followed it up with another birdie at the par-3 sixth, where he rolled in a 20-footer.

At that point, Lee still held a two-shot lead over Nakama, who was 1-under for his round through the first 15 holes. But at the par-4 seventh Nakama pumped his drive out of bounds. It was the beginning of a disastrous finish that saw him go double bogey, double bogey, bogey. He wound up seven shots back at 76-222.

If was left to Kato and Phengsavath to defy the elements and stay within striking distance of Lee. Kato recorded five birdies and an eagle en route to his 66 while Phengsavath poured in seven birdies for his 68.

Mid-Pacific head professional Mark Sousa said he expected the course would be set up a little harder for today's final round. "We'll make it more difficult for Sunday," he said.

Lee's plan is to continue playing steady golf but make a few more putts. "I'm going to try to play another round like this," he said. "Par is a good score in these conditions. It's going to be tough for someone to break 70."


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