On Saturday night in eastern Pennsylvania, Andrea Lee is hanging out with her parents, Minjee Lee is reading the Andre Agassi biography, Open, and perhaps watching an episode or two of “The Rookie”, and Wichani Meechai is wearing the Buddhist protection amulet her mother gave her and hoping that all interactions with the ghost at her rental house will continue to be more or less peaceful.

These are the three women who share the lead at the 79th US Women’s Open, knotted at five-under. And along with Yuka Saso and Hinako Shibuno, they’re the only ones who have managed to beat par through 54 holes.

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Of the group, it’s hard not to cast Minjee Lee as the favourite. Not only has the West Australian captured two major championships, including the 2022 US Women’s Open, but she was the one who really seized the momentum on moving day, shooting a championship-best four-under 66 at a slightly less cruel Lancaster Country Club and rocketing into the final group for the final round.

Minjee Lee plays her shot from the second tee during the third round of the US Women’s Open. [Photo: Sarah Stier]
The 28-year-old appeared cool as can be throughout the third round and into her press conference, where she wore the slight Mona Lisa smile she favours as she recounted the sterling round that included four birdies to just one bogey. As for pressure, Lee acknowledged the way you might greet an old friend who only visits once every two years or so; a little wild, this friend, but fun in small doses. And as she’s learned twice already, it might end up being the time of your life.

“I feel like you don’t always get to feel these feelings,” she said, “so just kind of try to embrace the best that you can, adrenaline, a lot of the good stuff. It brings a lot of the good stuff, too.”

Minjee Lee moves into equal top spot at US Women’s Open

Andrea Lee, a former American prodigy, lit up the junior ranks and rose to No.1 in the junior world ranking twice, and set a record at the time for individual wins at Stanford University. It took her three years to capture her first LPGA title, though, and so far, that 2022 win at the Portland Classic is the only one on her résumé. In majors, she is only 50-50 at making the cut in 22 tries before this week.

But Lee started her third round like gangbusters, pouring in birdies on the first and third holes before handing back a couple of strokes before the turn and settling in for a long streak of pars. She forced herself out of neutral on the 15th with an 11-foot birdie putt, followed that with an approach to two feet on 16 for another birdie, and coasted in with two pars to shoot 67 and tie the lead while earning a spot in the final pairing alongside her namesake Minjee. Like her peer, she projected a kind of serenity in the face of what could be a career-altering Sunday.

Andrea Lee acknowledges the crowd after a putt during the third round. [Photo: Patrick Smith]
“I think I’m just steadily getting a little bit better every year and just finding my rhythm out here on tour,” she said. “I feel like this is the most comfortable I’ve felt out here and the most fun that I’ve had since turning professional.”

Among Andrea Lee’s supporters is Michelle Wie West, the former pro and Stanford student who has been texting her this week encouraging her to maintain a spirit of fun as she chases her dream.

Wichani Meechai, from Bangkok in Thailand, who has no LPGA wins, openly admitted that she doesn’t like pressure, and never has. When asked what it felt like, she was ready with one of the most interesting answers of the week.

“It makes me cannot focus anything,” she said in her purposeful English. “My brain just stop working. It just like go outside and then just flat. I don’t know how to say it in English, but it’s like blank. It’s like when you have a lot of pressure you cannot think about anything. You cannot feel your body. You cannot feel your brain. You cannot feel your hands. So I just hate it. But you’re not going to be able to get rid of it. I think the best part for the three rounds for me, it’s like I kind of managed to get along with the pressure.”

Meechai got along with pressure just fine in the third round, shooting a 69 on a course where any score under par is a victory, and she did it despite being heavily fatigued as early as the 12th hole. She didn’t expect to be in that position, and in fact her mindset on Friday after an opening 69 was about as far from the school of positive thinking as an athlete can get.

“To be honest, yesterday I thought about missing the cut because I used to be in this position,” she said. “Like the first day I shot pretty good, and then the second day I just like 80s and missed the cut by one. I cried a lot. I never think that I’m going to be on the leaderboard or something like that.”

Also dogging her this week is the spectre of… well, a literal spectre. The gathered press laughed on Friday and Saturday when she brought up the ghost at the rental house she inherited from her countrywoman Pajaree Anannarukarn, who booked it in anticipation of qualifying for the tournament but passed it on to Wichani when she missed out. On Friday, Wichani alluded to the house being haunted and being terrified on the first night, but settling into a truce with the ghost as the week went on. Despite the laughter, though – Wichani laughed, too – as a practising Buddhist she is a serious believer in ghosts and the world they inhabit. Her manager even offered to stay with her to ease her fear, but she refused. In fact, she now believes the ghost might like her.

“I’m not going to say I’m not afraid of it, but I will get along pretty well with the ghost,” she said. “I’m trying not to say anything if I hear something, so I’m just like, act normal. But it was fine last night.”

To recap: as the final round looms, one of the three main contenders is a two-time major winner who seems to have ice running through her veins, another is a child star whose success on the professional circuit seems inevitable, and the last is a 31-year-old who had so little confidence in her game that she expected to shoot 80 and miss the cut, hates pressure and doesn’t think she handles it very well, seems dead tired from the hard walk at Lancaster Country Club, and has been coping with the fear of a ghost.

So yes, it is not a typical leaderboard, and fans, media and sponsors will be ruing the absence of many familiar names, foremost among them Nelly Korda. But there are wonderful stories looming at the top, including one so strange that you think she cannot possibly win, and so irresistible that you think she must.