NAPLES, Fla. — Ruoning Yin hit the ball so poorly on the practice range that she wasn’t expecting much Thursday in the CME Group Tour Championship. The big surprise was a 9-under 63 and a share of the lead with Nasa Hataoka in the chase for the $2 million prize.
Yin opened with five birdies through eight holes, played bogey-free and got a bonus at the end when her fairway metal took a good hop off the collar and onto the green at the par-5 17th for one last birdie.
Hataoka and Yin led by one shot over Minjee Lee, who made a 30-foot birdie putt from off the 18th green at Tiburon Golf Club.
“I do my warmup and I don’t feel today is the day,” Yin said. “I was not in the mood for chatting. After nine holes, ‘OK, 5 under. Maybe I shouldn’t talk that much.’ I think this course really suits me. The fairway is wide open. The greens are not that hard. It’s not that long.
“Just tried to hit every fairway, every green and make the putt.”Hataoka began her round with 11 consecutive one-putt greens, three of them to save par. She was 8 under through 13 holes and then picked up one one more birdie at the easy 17th on the way in for her 63.
One reason for such low scoring was 4 inches of rain that fell overnight, making the fairways soft and the greens easy to hold. Good weather is in the forecast for the rest of the week, though it will probably take until the final round to dry out.
At stake in the season finale is $2 million to the winner, regardless of where she ranks among the top 60 in the Race to CME Globe who qualified for the tournament.
Celine Boutier finished atop the standings and shot 69. She was one shot ahead of Lilia Vu, who was slowed by back-to-back bogeys around the turn. They have their own race going on beyond the $2 million prize, and Vu has a big advantage.
Vu, a two-time major champion this year, won last week at Pelican Golf Club to lead by 27 points in the race for LPGA Player of the Year. Boutier would have to win the CME Group Tour Championship and have Vu finish worse than eighth to move past her.
They played together Thursday as the leading two players.The format is all-or-nothing for the big money, so the season’s work means nothing. Boutier as the No. 1 player in the Race to CME Globe has the same chance as Madelene Sagstrom, who is No. 60 and barely got into the field.
Anna Nordqvist played early and shot 65 to set the target. Right behind her was Patty Tavatanakit, who wasn’t sure she would crack the top 60 until the final few holes last week.
Lee, a former U.S. Women’s Open champion, also played bogey-free and had a strong finish. She two-putted for birdie on the 17th, the easiest hole at Tiburon, then saw her approach ran just over the back of the 18th. Her putt started left, broke back to the right and dropped for birdie.
“Actually, I hit two kind of average shots into the hole,” Lee said. “Probably picked the wrong club on the last, but went a little long and that putt, I think it was just a bonus that it went in. It was kind of two different breaks obviously before it got to the green and to the hole, so it was nice to see it go in.”
Nelly Korda was trying to keep pace and was poised to get closer until she missed the 17th green to the left. Her first chip wasn’t strong enough and rolled back down the slope. She powered the next one some 35 feet by, left the par putt 6 feet short and had to make that to salvage a bogey. She finished with a 68.
Just over half the 60-player field shot in the 60s at Tiburon. Rose Zhang and Jin Young Ko, a former world No. 1, each had to settle for 71.