CLIFTON, N.J. (AP) — For the first two rounds of the Founders Cup, defending champion Minjee Lee of Australia just wanted to put herself in position to repeat.
Her third-round 5-under 67 on Saturday put the 26-year-old in great position to become only the second player to successfully defend a title in the event that honors the 13 founding members of the LPGA Tour.
Matching the day's lowest round, Lee overcame an early bogey and opened a three-shot lead over American Angel Yin and South Korean rookie Hae Ran Ryu heading in the final round at Upper Montclair Country Club.
Lee insisted posting a ninth career win tour wasn't part of her thought process.
“I’m just chilling,” she said. “I’m not really thinking too much or doing anything obviously. I’m just going to play my own game and stick to what I can control and stick to my game plan.”
For Lee, that means finding fairways and greens. Her bogey at No. 1 was the result of a bad drive. She compensated with four birdies and an eagle in posting a 12-under 204 total.
Lee birdied Nos. 2, 6, 8 and 9 on the front side, jarring a 50-footer on the par-3 eighth. Her eagle came from 20 feet on the par-5 12th.
She is the only player in the field to shoot all her rounds in the 60s on the tight, tree-lined course that places a premium on hitting the fairways.
The only player to defend in this event that started in 2011 was Jin Young Ko. The South Korean won in 2019 and 2021. The event was not held in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m just going to try and get more ahead I guess now that I’m not coming from behind,” said Lee, who was a shot behind halfway leaders Ko and Sarah Kemp.
Neither Yin nor Ryu has won on tour. Yin also bogeyed No. 1 but finished with five birdies for a 68. Ryu had six birdies and four bogeys in a 70.
“I guess being in the lead and a few stokes behind is always just in the hunt, so that’s really nice,” said Yin, who led the Chevron Championship after three rounds last month before losing to Lilia Vu in a playoff.
Ko, Ashleigh Buhai and Aditi Ashok were four shots behind Lee and one ahead of Grace Kim and Cheyenne Knight, who were tied for seventh.
Ko believes Lee can be caught.
“I know she’s good player, but I think I have chance to win for tomorrow if I really play well, so I will focus myself and I need some good rest tonight.”
Ranked No. 3, Ko said she felt tired in the third round in shooting 72. She finished with a birdie.
Ashok, the first and only player from India on tour, was only two shots off the lead coming to the par 4 No. 16, but she had a chip on her third shot roll back off the front edge and made double bogey.
“It’s just another day tomorrow,” said Ashok, who had five birdies and two bogey in addition to the double.
Solheim Cup captain Stacy Lewis, who won this event in 2013, was in 6 under along with Atthaya Thitikul, Nasa Hataoka and first-round leader Sei Young Kim, who shot a 68 after a second-round 76.
Kemp ballooned to a 75 on Saturday, 10 shots more than her second round. The 37-year-old Australian who has never won on tour was seven shots off the lead.