Front-Running Feng in Position to Make History on Sunday July 15, 2017 | BEDMINSTER, N.J. By Ron Driscoll, USGA

Shanshan Feng had 33 putts on Saturday, but hit 16 greens in regulation en route to a 1-under 71. (USGA/Chris Keane)

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The important thing, according to Shanshan Feng, is to have a plan.

“Plan A is to hit fairways and greens and try to make the putts,” said Feng, 27, of the People’s Republic of China, the No. 6 player in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings. “If the putts aren’t going in, Plan B is to hit it even closer, so the putts will be a little easier.”

Feng executed Plan B to perfection on the par-5 18th hole at Trump National Golf Club on Saturday, hitting her approach shot inside of 4 feet to set up her lone birdie of the day and give her a one-stroke lead entering the final round of the 72nd U.S. Women’s Open Championship.

Feng has led this championship since her 6-under-par 66 in Round 1 on Thursday, and she extended her lead to two strokes with a 2-under 70 on Friday. In Saturday’s third round, she picked up where she left off late in Round 2, continuing a string of pars that reached 17 holes on Saturday and 23 holes overall before her closing birdie.

“At the beginning of the round, I felt a little bit of pressure because it’s my first time actually leading before the finish in a major,” said Feng, who won her only major, the 2012 Wegmans LPGA Championship, in come-from-behind fashion. “But I think I did pretty well under the pressure and then I started to hit the ball better, closer to the hole so I had some birdie chances.”

Feng’s ball striking was exceptional, as she hit all but one fairway and 16 of 18 greens on Saturday. Her closing birdie enabled Feng to nudge ahead of her two closest pursuers, amateur Hye-Jin Choi and Amy Yang, by one stroke. Choi and Yang lead a group of six players – all from the Republic of Korea – who are within four strokes of Feng.

Unbeknownst to Feng, who wasn’t monitoring the leader board, two of those Koreans – Sung Hyun Park and Mirim Lee – surged up several places thanks to 5-under 67s, the two best scores of the day. Park, who led last year’s U.S. Women’s Open – her first – after two rounds before settling for a tie for third,  jumped from a tie for 21st into solo fourth place, while Lee moved from a tie for 31st into a tie for fifth with 2011 champion So Yeon Ryu and Jeongeun6 Lee, who is competing in her first Women’s Open.

The veteran Yang and the amateur Choi played together in the penultimate group on Saturday, and they matched rounds of 2-under 70. Choi, 17, showed remarkable poise after an opening bogey.

“How old is she? Like 17 or 18?” marveled Yang after the round. “She was very mature out there.”

When Choi sank a 10-foot putt for birdie on the par-3 16th – one of only six birdies on the hole for the day – she took a share of the lead with Feng. Yang birdied the par-4 17th to create a three-way tie at 8 under, before Feng untied things with her birdie on No. 18.

Before the start of this championship, a reporter asked Yang – who has five top-five finishes in the Women’s Open in the past seven years, including a pair of seconds – if she was frustrated by knocking at the door so often without breaking through.

“I’ll keep trying,” Yang replied stoically.

An early bogey-double bogey hiccup failed to faze Yang, who played 4-under golf over her last 13 holes. She has 16 top 10s in majors without a victory, and three victories in her 10 seasons on the LPGA Tour.

“I try to be patient out there,” said Yang, 27, who is playing in her 11th Women’s Open. “This course isn’t suited for aggressive play. It’s playing very tough out there.”

Hye-Jin Choi is trying to become the first amateur to win the U.S. Women's Open in 50 years. (USGA/Chris Keane)

Cristie Kerr is the top American hopeful, five strokes back in a tie for eighth place with Carlota Ciganda of Spain. Kerr had a 2-under 70 in a pairing with fellow American Stacy Lewis, who drew within a stroke of Feng at 7 under par after four consecutive birdies, then saw it all come undone on an incoming nine of 8-over 44 that included a triple bogey on the par-4 11th and a 10 on the closing par 5 with two balls in the water.

Feng admitted entering the week with low expectations after a missed cut in her last start, the KPMG Women’s Championship two weeks ago. Now she is seeking to become the first wire-to-wire Women’s Open winner with no ties since Hollis Stacy in 1977.

She is planning on another day of no scoreboard-watching on Sunday.

“I just want to know about my score and I don’t care about the others,” she said. “I’m just competing with myself. I’ll focus on my own game and let’s see what happens.”

That could be a winning formula by Sunday evening.

Ron Driscoll is the manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at rdriscoll@usga.org.

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