The U.S. Women’s Open has turned into a birdie-fest — headlined by Minjee Lee

Minjee Lee has taken advantage of benign conditions at Pine Needles, setting the 54-hole scoring record on her way to a Saturday-night lead.

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SOUTHERN PINES, N.C. — You know it’s going to be a tough test when the USGA sets up a golf course.

For years, the calling card of the governing body’s marquee tournaments — the U.S. Open and the U.S. Women’s Open — has been chaos. Setups featuring tight fairways, deep rough and lightning fast greens. Carnage was to be expected (and even celebrated) and by week’s end, few players remained under par.

But havoc has been absent this week at Pine Needles. Instead of players firing away from pins and scrambling for pars, the week has been a bombardment of birdies.

pine needles 18th hole
Inside the daunting 3-hole closing stretch at U.S. Women’s Open host Pine Needles
By: Zephyr Melton

Through 54 holes, the scoring average at Pine Needles is 73.2. If that number holds, it would rank as the second lowest U.S. Women’s Open scoring average in the last decade. It would also be the lowest scoring average of any of the three national championships hosted at Pine Needles, playing almost a shot easier than the next lowest mark from 1996, when players averaged 74.1 shots to get around the Donald Ross design.

“I don’t know if they were planning for the greens to be a little firmer than they are,” said Nelly Korda, who is solo 14th at four under after three rounds. “[But] you can be more aggressive than you think you can just because the greens are pretty soft.”

Those receptive greens have played right into the strengths of 54-hole leader Minjee Lee, who is 13 under after a Saturday 67. Lee, a seven-time LPGA winner, leads the Tour in SG: Approach this season, gaining an average of three shots per round from the fairway over her peers.

That pin-point accuracy with an iron in her hands (coupled with the soft conditions) has helped Lee make history at Pine Needles — and has her on the verge of rewriting the U.S. Women’s Open record book.

Her 54-hole total of 200 is the lowest total score through 54 holes in the history of the event. And if she can muster an even-par 71 (or better) in the final round, she’ll set the mark for lowest four-round total as well.

“My approach [tomorrow] is going to be the same as the last three days,” Lee said. “I’m just going to try and make as many birdies as I can to give myself as many opportunities as I can on the greens.”

If Pine Needles’ meek setup over the first three days is any indication, she’ll have no trouble getting plenty of birdie looks on Sunday.

“I think it has helped a little bit that it’s a little bit softer,” Lee said. “We can hit the greens a bit more easily and not have to run it [on] the fronts.”

Mina Harigae, Lee’s third-round playing partner, hasn’t had much trouble taming Pine Needles this week, either. She’s already amassed 18 birdies through three rounds — meaning a third of her holes have ended with circles on the card — and is three shots behind Lee heading into the final round.

“I’m just really happy with the way I’m handling it,” Harigae said of her play this week.

Harigae, a 12-year veteran, is looking for her first LPGA victory on Sunday.

A look at the leaderboard through three rounds.

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Further down the board, Englishwoman Bronte Law lurks six shots back. She’s one of two players in the field — along with Lee — to card three consecutive rounds in the 60s this week. Her third-round 68 has her in position to register her first career major top 10.

“[I] played pretty solid the whole day; played smart,” Law said. “I think that is the key out here.”

Making a bunch of birdies helps, too. Law made five of them in Round 3, and her four-under 67 was the second best mark of the day.

But just because it’s been an easier-than-usual week at the U.S. Women’s Open doesn’t mean there have been many complaints. No one likes to take a beating on the course, and Pine Needles appears to have struck just the right chord with players.

karen stupples golf channel
For NBC, the stakes couldn’t be higher at the U.S. Women’s Open
By: James Colgan

“No matter what kind of game you have, no matter if you play a fade or a draw, you can all get around [this] course,” said Lydia Ko, who fired the low round of Saturday with a 66. “I think that’s what it’s showing.”

It’s also showing it can identify a deserving champion. Lee is second on the LPGA this season in strokes gained, and emerging from the Carolina Sanhills with a trophy in hand should shock no one.

And besides, perhaps it isn’t the setup that has the scores so low this week. Maybe the answer is something simpler.

Just ask major champion Anna Nordqvist.

“These girls are just good.”

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Golf.com Editor

Zephyr Melton is an assistant editor for GOLF.com where he spends his days blogging, producing and editing. Prior to joining the team at GOLF.com, he attended the University of Texas followed by stops with Team USA, the Green Bay Packers and the PGA Tour. He assists on all things instruction and covers amateur and women’s golf.