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Kerr shakes off trouble, adds to LPGA lead

The game of golf is a stroll in the park when tee shots hit fairways and approaches find greens. It's when the results fail to meet the objective that a player's mettle and resiliency are stripped bare for all to see, especially when that player tops the leader board and commands the attention of the tournament gallery.

Through the first two rounds of the LPGA Championship, Cristie Kerr strolled the fairways of Locust Hill almost free of fret and worry. She made all of one bogey on the opening 36 holes and came into Saturday's third round having gone 27 straight without dropping another stroke to par. To that point she had reached 31 greens in regulation. Seldom did she encounter resolve-challenging predicaments in building a five-shot lead.

But rare is it that a golfer sails through an entire tournament with a game that borders on pristine. Errant shots arise. Competitors amp up the pressure by making moves of their own. Add a steady, drenching rain to the mix and there's an increased likelihood that the leader will face situations that invite her to unravel.

Kerr encountered various forms of adversity Saturday and shooed them all away as if they were minor irritants. Three times she made bogey. Three times she arose with fiery eyes, draining two birdies in response to her first miscue, three in response to her second and another to negate the damage of the third. Never did she waver when a lead as high as six strokes on the front nine diminished to three after the 10th hole. Instead, she maintained a steely poise and regained full control as she fashioned a 3-under 69 that expanded a five-stroke advantage to a mammoth eight heading into today's final round. Her total of 13-under 203 supplies the plumpest 54-hole cushion ever in the LPGA Championship, breaking the record of seven set by Mickey Wright in 1961.

While Kerr persevered and eventually excelled, her pursuers in the lead threesome frayed. South Korean Inbee Park double bogeyed the par-4 fourth hole en route to a 3-over 75 and plummeted from five back to 11. Japan's Mika Miyazato, within three shots after the 10th hole, bogeyed the 16th hole and doubled the 18th in an even-par 72 that saw her descend into a three-way tie for second with Azahara Munoz of Spain (70) and South Korea's Jimin Kang (70).

Saturday's known on tour as "moving day," but no one but Kerr made relevant strides.

"I think her putting is perfect," observed South Korean Jiyai Shin, one of two players tied for fifth. "She is real strong and she is strong-minded too."

"She is certainly playing amazing," Munoz said. "I want to ask her what's the secret because 13-under is pretty nice out here. It's playing tough so she is playing great."

Kerr is seeking to become only the second American winner in the LPGA's last 11 majors. U.S. players had been shut out in between Kerr's victory in the 2007 U.S. Women's Open and Brittany Lincicome's win in last year's season-opening major, the Kraft Nabisco Championship. That's the last time a Yank emerged at the top in one of the Big Four tournaments.

"I can feel it in the crowds cheering us on," Kerr said after opening a five-shot advantage on Friday. "I can feel they want an American winner, just in the way they are cheering for me. Our tour is very deep with the international contingent. They all can play. We have to just keep doing what we are doing with the LPGA girls golf programs, and I know I keeping hammering that home. We need to get more girls playing golf in the United States and have them hopefully watching these kinds of tournaments, seeing Americans win."

A Kerr victory could be doubly huge, providing her second career major victory and vaulting her to No. 1 in the world rankings so long as Japan's Ai Miyazato finishes no better than third (she's tied for 24th). No American has ever topped the Rolex rankings under the current format.

"But you don't want to be just No. 1 for one week -- 'Oh my God, I got there, and now I'm No. 1,' " Kerr said. "It doesn't work that way. You have to do what Annika [Sorenstam's] done, you have to do what Lorena [Ochoa's] done week after week to prove you are No. 1. It's great to get there. That's step one. And then prove it over and over again every week."

First things first. Kerr has ascended into her current position by maintaining a keen focus, by staying mentally positive. She insists that this isn't the time to grow complacent and deviate from her determined approach.

"It's great to have an eight-shot lead," Kerr said. "You got to keep going forward. You got to keep putting your foot on the gas, try to extend, try to shoot in the 60s. Do all of the things that I've done the last three days."

e-mail: bdicesare@buffnews.com