ATLANTA — Lizette Salas, who is tied for the lead with Nelly Korda after 54 holes of the KPMG Women’s P.G.A. Championship, is not the same golfer who closed with a 79 from the final group of the 2013 ANA Inspiration, her first time contending deep into the weekend for a major title.
That player brooded over imperfect shots and prayed that her ball stayed out of bunkers, so little confidence did she have in her sand shots. Fast forward eight years to the sixth hole Saturday at Atlanta Athletic Club’s Highlands course.
After making birdies on four of her first five holes, Salas’s approach on the par-4 sixth bounced through the green and landed in a bunker. Salas strolled up to her ball, surveyed the 50 feet she had to negotiate to the pin, and smiled. Here was her chance, she thought, to cash in on all the hours she has spent hitting balls out of the sand during her practice sessions.
Salas blasted out to three feet and made the putt. Though she would card six birdies on the front nine, the sixth hole par was her highlight.
“You get this, like, tingle in your stomach when you pull off a shot that you’ve been working on for so long and you just have it perfectly pictured in your mind and somehow your body just knows what to do,” said Salas, who described it as her “best shot” of the day.
“I gave myself props after that one,” she said, adding, “Just knowing that I could pull that off just gives me that momentum to be aggressive.”
Despite consistently using longer clubs on her approaches than Korda, who bombs the ball, Salas wielded her putter like a magician to make Korda’s considerable advantage off the tee disappear. She one-putted 11 times to Korda’s five en route to a third consecutive five-under 67 and a 54-hole total of 15-under 201.
“Lizette was rolling in some nice ones today,” Korda said, “and I told myself, I’ve got to hit it close to even keep up with her.”
Korda chased her second-round 63, which tied the championship record, with a 68. Patty Tavatanakit of Thailand, who won the ANA Inspiration in April, carded a 65 and is at 10-under, five back.
Salas, 31, and Korda, 22, who are both looking for their first major title, combined for nine birdies on the front nine.
“It was a lot of fun, honestly,” said Korda who added, “I think when you get into that mind-set of kind of egging each other on, it’s fun, but it’s also nerve-racking. Your adrenaline definitely gets up there.”
They appeared to be playing a different course than many of the others, including the seven-time major winner Inbee Park, who took 12 more strokes than Salas’s 30 on the front nine on her way to a 77.
Salas, who went 45 holes without a bogey, made her first with a 5 at the par-4 10th. She didn’t record a birdie on the back nine — and Korda made only one — as the water hazards on holes 11, 12, 15, 17 and 18 prompted each to put prudence ahead of pluck.
“When I made that bogey, I just said, ‘It’s OK, there’s lots of golf left,’” Salas said. “I think before I would have chewed myself up in my head and said a lot of negative things.”
On the par-5 18th, Korda had 224 yards to the hole for her second shot. It was a perfect 7-wood, she said, but she decided to lay up and settled for a par. Last week, her caddie, Jason McDede, said he would have advised her to go for the green in two without giving it a second thought.
But not this week, with a major title hanging in the balance. “You tell yourself that there’s so much golf left that you can’t win on a Saturday but you can definitely lose it,” Korda said.
Not all the hazards were on the course. Hinako Shibuno, the 2019 Women’s British Open winner from Japan, lost the services of her caddie, Keisuke Fujino, after he had a positive coronavirus test. Employing a club caddie who was summoned early Saturday morning, Shibuno carded a 76 that included a 10 on the par-3 17th after she put four balls in the water.
Salas has one career L.P.G.A. title, the 2014 Kingsmill Championship. Korda has five career titles, including two this season and, after a victory last week, is bidding to become the first L.P.G.A. player to win a second consecutive major since Lydia Ko in 2016.
The fans rallied around Salas, who spoke about her mental health struggles after her first round. They chanted her name as she walked the fairways, and she made a point of greeting some in return.
“I was embracing it,” Salas said, adding, “It’s been awhile since I’ve done that.”
She added, “Whatever happens tomorrow, I’m just proud of how much I’ve overcome so far.”