NAPLES, Fla. (AP) — Alison Lee birdied four of her last five holes Friday to extend a hot streak that stretches from Saudi Arabia to South Korea to Florida. Her 8-under 64 gave her a share of the lead with Nasa Hataoka in the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship.
Hataoka atoned for missing a short par putt by closing with a pair of birdies, finishing with a 25-footer on the last hole for a 67 in a wide-open chase for the $2 million prize.
Lee had five birdies in seven holes at the start, and then had a strong finishing kick that included a wedge to a foot on the 15th and a 12-foot birdie putt on the 18th.
The 28-year-old Californian has never won in her nine years on the LPGA Tour, but no one brought as much momentum. In her last three tournaments worldwide, she has runner-up finishes in the BMW Ladies Championship in South Korea and The Annika last week in Florida. She also won an Aramco Team Series event on the Ladies European Tour.
Lee now is 46-under par in her last 10 rounds.
“I feel like the last month, everything is falling into place,” Lee said.
Lee and Hataoka were at 14-under 128, remarkably low scoring for Tiburon Golf Club but to be expected given the 4 inches of rain that drenched the course on the eve of the tournament. The greens were soft and rolled well given only 60 players are in the field.
Eight players were at 10 under or lower going into the weekend.
Women’s PGA champion Ruoning Yin of China had a 66 and was part of the group one shot behind that included Minjee Lee (67) and Amy Yang (63). Xiyu Lin, who like Lee is trying to win for the first time on the LPGA Tour, had a 66 and was another shot behind.
“Better late than never,” Lee said with a smile.
The top 60 players from the Race to CME Globe qualify for the Tour Championship, and then it’s a four-day shootout regardless of the standing in the points race. Only six players have earned $2 million or more this season, and that’s what the winner gets.
“I feel good about my game right now,” Lee said. “I wish I knew the recipe for success, but just try my best to ride the wave right now.”
It’s been quite a ride. She was the No. 1 amateur a decade ago and then struggled on the LPGA Tour and her confidence took a beating. Lee said on more than one occasion she began to think she would never win.
She had plenty of support, including one unlikely source — Fred Couples. They played in a corporate outing in New York this summer. Couples got her number and began texting messages of encouragement, mainly that she had plenty of game.
“He would ask me a lot of questions and I would ask him questions back, and I slowly started to open up to him over the last month or so bit by bit, kind of telling my personal experience, what I went through, why I’m in this place, why I didn’t believe in myself,” Lee said.
“He’s been playing golf for so long. He’s still playing golf now. He’s been everywhere. He’s won so many times on tour,” she said. “He’s been like a really great mentor to me over the last month and hammering a lot of positive energy and confidence.”
Still to go are 36 holes and a half-dozen players within four shots of the lead.
Lilia Vu, the double major winner this year who moved back to No. 1 in the women’s world ranking, had a 66 and was still six shots behind. But she moved closer than ever to winning the points-based LPGA player of the year. Celine Boutier would have to win the Tour Championship to have any chance, and she was nine shots out of the lead in a tie for 33rd.
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