By Stephanie Myles, Yahoo Canada
RIO DE JANEIRO — The Olympic golf course morphed from docile lamb into ferocious lion overnight, much to the dismay of the shot makers but to the delight of the scramblers.
The brutish wind on Friday was Gerina Piller’s best friend during the third round of the Rio Games women’s tournament at Olympic Golf Course. The 31-year-old from Roswell, New Mexico, now sits tied for second place with one more round remaining before they award the first Olympic gold medal for women’s golf since 1900.
Piller shot 68 on a day the winds, by most accounts, blew steadily over 40 miles per hour, got worse through the afternoon and wreaked havoc on the scores. On Saturday, she and world No. 1 Lydia Ko of New Zealand will chase South Korea’s Inbee Park, who carries the lead into the final round at 11-under.
On a calm Thursday, 42 of the 60 golfers entered in the event shot par or better. On Friday, only 18 did. One of them was Piller, who had posted scores of 69 and 67 over the first two rounds and somehow managed to maintain that level as so many of the scores blew up.
In the second-to-last threesome, for example, Canada’s 18-year-old phenom Brooke Henderson and Norway’s Marianne Skarpnord posted 75s, and Nicole Broch Larsen of Sweden shot 81. They all but took themselves out of contention.
Going into the day, it was another American, Stacy Lewis, who was one shot off the lead after shooting 63 on Thursday. Lewis shot 76 on Friday and, at 4-under, is seven shots back.
Had Piller stayed out of trouble on the par-5 18th hole, she would have been in second place all alone and just one shot behind Park.
“The wind wasn’t kicking up at all Thursday, but today it started on No. 2 and never let up,” Piller said. “For me to go out there and grind it out, I feel really good about my position.”
Of the eight rounds in the 60s on Friday, it’s no coincidence five came from players in the top eight going into Saturday’s final round.
“This was one of the rounds of golf that will stick in my mind for a long time,” Piller said. “If I’m ever lacking in confidence, to go out there at this stage and in those conditions and post under par, I think that was really good. Just the scrambling I did today. I ham-and-egged it all day pretty well, and it feels great.”
This is heady stuff for Piller, not anywhere as well-decorated as some of the illustrious names on the leaderboard. In more than five years on the PGA Tour after a standout college career at the University of Texas-El Paso, she has yet to win her first Tour event.
But she has improved her world ranking every year, breaking into the top 30 in 2015 and currently holding a No. 15 ranking. Now, she has a gold medal, or at least a medal, within her grasp.
Piller will be in a final threesome with Park (the world No. 5 with six wins at majors in the last three years) and the 19-year-old Ko (two majors in the last year).
“They’re very consistent, great golfers and really good putters. They just don’t make any mistakes, and that’s why they’re tough to beat,” Piller said. “I’m a firm believer in when you see yourself doing something, and you keep it in the front of your mind, you’re more likely to do that.
“I can see myself at the top of that leaderboard, standing on that podium, and just giving myself belief and self-talk that I do belong here, and I feel I have a chance.”
Park hadn’t played at all in the two months leading up to the Olympics and said she wasn’t playing that well even prior to that as she struggles through an injury-plagued season. She was pretty exhausted when she finally sat down in the press conference room but said if she didn’t believe she could win in Rio she wouldn’t have come.
“So much attention from my country and all over the world. I think it’s definitely a lot more attention than a major championship, so therefore I definitely feel a lot more pressure,” Park said. “I feel exhausted every day; it feels like every day is the final round of a major championship.”
Park said that some of the greens just weren’t reachable Friday. And with the desert-type area on the sides of the fairways where a lot of spectators have walked, it was impossible to get a decent lie in the sand when the wind took tee shots awry.
“The balls were oscillating on the greens, so it was hard to concentrate and hard to judge the distance, because sometimes it would take three or four clubs [to compensate for the wind],” she said.
Piller joked that she wanted conditions for the final round to be “just as tough as it possibly can get.”
“I feel like I’m grinder, and the tougher it is, the better it for me,” Piller said. “It allows the creme to rise to the top and if that’s the case, I feel I have a good shot.”
It’s difficult to predict whether the lamb or the lion will show up on Saturday, as the forecast for the winds (7 mph, gusting to 10 mph) is similar to it was on Friday. Yet Friday was not far away from the haboob winds that are common in Piller’s home state of Texas.
Either way, she knows she’ll have thoughts and emotions about the grandness of the occasion. She’s not even going to fight them.
“I think I’m just going to accept them, welcome them into my head,” she said. “They’re going to pop in there; you can’t ignore it. Your mind’s going to wander. I think it’s the way you handle it and how you receive that information.
“Since the time I qualified after the U.S. Open, we had our fitting, and got to try on the medal outfit. I thought, ‘I’m trying it on now and I hope I get to put it on one more time [on the medal podium].’
“I think it would be a highlight of my career, and I really hope I can get there tomorrow.”