RIO DE JANEIRO — Inbee Park was in the 16th fairway, only 50 yards from the hole, and couldn’t imagine a worse spot to be.
She already had lost a three-shot lead in gusts up to 30 mph Friday at Olympic Golf Course. And now she faced a shot that would punish anything just a little long or a little left. The safe play was the middle of the green and get out of there with a par.
Park had other ideas.
She took two months off from golf to get ready for the Olympics, and it was time to trust her instincts.
“Luckily, I had an uphill lie,” she said. “I said, ‘I’m just going to go for this pin.’ I have confidence that I can stop it if I hit the distance. I played aggressive golf there, and it really worked good.”
Starting with that pitch to tap-in range, she birdied two straight holes and shot a 1-under 70 to take a two-shot lead into the final round.
Now comes the real test.
Just as difficult as the wind was seeing the name of Lydia Ko — the No. 1 player in women’s golf — right behind her.
Ko made the first hole-in-one of her career as she raced into contention with a 65, closing the gap to two shots. The 19-year-old Kiwi started the day seven shots behind and now has a solid chance at gold.
“We all know there’s a lot on the line at the end of tomorrow,” Ko said. “I think I’ve done a good job of putting myself in there and still having the chance to be standing on that podium.”
Gerina Piller, the American who narrowly qualified for the Olympics in her final event, shot a 68 and joined them in the final group, two shots behind. Piller has never won on the LPGA Tour, though there is something about playing for her country that brings out her best golf. Piller’s signature moment was making the winning putt for the United States in the Solheim Cup last year in Germany.
“I feel like I have a chance at this,” she said. “I’m going to try to do the best I can and represent my country with class.”
Shanshan Feng of China shot 68 and was three shots back.
Starting times have been moved up with play starting on the first and 10th tees because of more rugged conditions in the forecast.
Park was still the player to beat.
The 28-year-old South Korean finally got her putter going, and she’s among the best in women’s golf on the greens. Her struggles were with the longer clubs, especially as the wind became fierce. Park tried to play short on the par-4 12th into the wind and hit into the sandy native area. On the par-3 14th, her hybrid went well over the green into more trouble, and she lost her lead.
Those two late birdies helped alleviate one final mistake. On the par-5 closing hole, Park’s tee shot found a bunker and it took three more shots to reach the green. She made one last bogey and was at 11-under 202.
“I feel I hung in there, and I’m very happy I have a chance tomorrow,” Park said. “It was hard to judge the distance, and on the green it was hard to concentrate because the ball was oscillating. I’m pretty exhausted.”
Charley Hull of Britain fell out of the chasing pack by missing three par putts inside 5 feet on the back nine. She shot 74 and was six shots behind. Brooke Henderson of Canada, the No. 2 player in women’s golf, struggled even more. Henderson was still in the mix when she four-putted for double bogey on the 16th hole, taking three of those putts from 3 feet. She wound up with a 75 and was seven back.
Ko is right where she wants to be and is the most seasoned of those going after the gold medal, the first for women’s golf since 1900. She is a four-time winner on the LPGA Tour this year, the best player in women’s golf and finally got some confidence in her putter.
She used a 7-iron for her hole-in-one on the par-3 eighth hole — the second of the day after Lin Xiyu of China made an ace on that hole — as the highlight of a front nine in which she shot 29. Ko was stunned to hear the cheering when it dropped in.
“I made my first ever hole-in-one, so to do that at the Olympics, it doesn’t get any better than that,” Ko said. “But to put myself back into good position going into tomorrow I think was a job well done going forward.”
Stacy Lewis went backward. The American, who began the day one shot behind, made a bogey on the easy par-5 fifth by hitting into the water, and closed out her round with a double bogey on the 18th when her third shot sailed long into the native area, and she chipped back over the green. She shot 76.