World No. 1 Ko lurking at midway point of U.S. Women’s Open

First-round leader Mina Harigae was joined by Minjee Lee at the top of the leaderboard after two rounds at Pine Needles

Mina Harigae, who spent a semester at Duke before turning pro, is tied for the lead at the halfway point of the U.S. Women's Open at Pine Needles (PJ Ward-Brown / North State Journal)

SOUTHERN PINES — Jin Young Ko never seems to stress. Nor does she let up.

The world’s No. 1 player vaulted into contention for a third major championship Friday, playing the final five holes in 3 under to pull within three shots of second-round Minjee Lee and Mina Harigae at the U.S. Women’s Open.

Harigae and Lee were at 9-under 133 after 36 holes at Pine Needles. Lee shot a 5-under 66, and Harigae had a 69.

Three-time major champion Anna Nordqvist and Hye-Jin Choi, who shot a 64 to come within shot of matching the lowest round in the event’s 77-year history, were 7 under. Nordqvist had a 68.

Ko was tied for fifth at 6 under with Swedish amateur Ingrid Lindblad. Ko shot 67, and Lindblad followed up her event amateur-record 65 on Thursday with a 71.

Ko hasn’t won a major since 2019, but won five LPGA Tour events last year and already has a win this year.

“I don’t think about winning,” Ko said. “I just think just myself and just focus on my game. I just talk with my caddie and have fun.”

Ko made her move with a birdie on No. 14, then pounded a 3-wood into the green on the par-5 15th and made a 65-foot eagle putt.

Nelly Korda, the No. 2 player in the world, was six shots off the pace after a 69. She’s playing in her first tournament since undergoing surgery on her left arm to fix a blood clot.

It looked for a while like Harigae might maintain sole possession of the lead for a second straight day.

But Lee, ranked No. 4 in the world, surged into a tie in the afternoon after shooting 31 on the front nine. Lee has already won two LPGA events this year.

Several players talked about the slow pace of play on an afternoon where light rain threatened stop play.

“A lot of waiting, so I feel like I just tried to pace myself,” Nordqvist said.

Lexi Thompson struggled down the stretch just as she did in the final round last year’s U.S. Open when she surrendered a five-shot lead after a back-nine meltdown and lost.

But she managed to close with a birdie for a 69 that left her 3 under.

“Got a few bad breaks, but it is what it is. It’s golf,” said Thompson, the No. 6 player in the world.

Harigae, who spent a semester collegiately at Duke before turning pro in 2008 and idolized North Carolina’s Michael Jordan growing up, said she is much mature person since she first joined the LPGA Tour — and hopes that will help down the stretch.

“I feel like I have better tools to navigate these new experiences,” the 32-year-old Harigae said. “I think just trying to be calm, just go about my day.”

She will need that calmness with some big-time players right behind her.

Danielle Kang, the No. 12 player in the world, barely made the cut at 3 over after revealing she has a tumor on her spine.

Yuka Saso was among those who didn’t make the cut, marking the second straight year the defending champion has failed advance past to the weekend. She finished at 9 over.

Among the other notables who won’t be playing on the weekend include 10-time major champion Annika Sorenstam and 2014 champion Michelle Wie West.

Sorenstam, who earned her way into the event by winning last year’s U.S. Women’s Senior Open, spent a good portion of the back nine in the sand and the 51-year-old seemed to tire as the round dragged on. She shot 81.

Despite the frustrating round, she broke into a smile when she received a hug from son Will as she walked off the 18th green.

“I knew what I had to do today,” Sorenstam, who finished at 13-over 155. “I was shooting for par or better, and coming in here I think I said I felt good about everything. Just not really sure what happened today.

Wie West, playing in the second-to-last career tournament, of the year, missed the cut by two strokes, shooting 73-74. Wie West plans to play in the 2023 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach before retiring.