NORTH PLAINS - Na Yeon Choi, hoping for her first LPGA victory of the season, maintained her poise on day two of the Safeway Classic, and stretched her lead to three shots.
But up-and-coming third-year pro Stacy Lewis, already a major champion, is lurking as the 40th annual tournament heads into Sunday's final round at the Ghost Creek course at Pumpkin Ridge.
Choi, 23, from Seoul, South Korea, followed her 6-under-par 65 with a solid 69 on a hot day and firm track. She already knew that Lewis had played early in the day and fired a 68 to get to 5-under 137. But Choi kept her composure, avoided major mistakes and negotiated the fluctuating winds and firming greens as the temperature rose into the mid-90s.
Choi continued to putt well as she hit the 36-hole mark at 8-under 134.
Her competition is down to Lewis and possibly a few others, but it might not be easy for third-place Mika Miyazato (72-67-139) or others to catch the lead twosome.
Not out of the picture are three players at 2-under and a six-some at 1-under. Those at 140: Brittany Lincicome, who shot 68 on Saturday; rookie Ryann O'Toole, who had a 69; and veteran Grace Park, who slipped to 73 after her opening 67.
The crowd at 141 includes the world's No. 1-ranked player, Yani Tseng, who fired a 69 in round two; and Paula Creamer, who also took 69 to get around Ghost Creek.
But Saturday belonged mostly to Choi and Lewis.
'I felt calm out there,' said Choi, who had a two-shot lead after the first round. 'I played well today.
'It was really warm, and the winds were switching a lot, so it was tougher than (Friday). Sometimes it was hard to stop the ball on the green. But I felt very comfortable and confident out there - probably as comfortable as (Friday).'
Choi enjoyed the greatest hot streak of her career on Friday, getting birdies on seven straight holes with putts from between 15 and 25 feet.
'Today my putter wasn't great like (Friday), but I missed only one short putt,' said Choi, 13th on the money list this season with $507,118 in earnings. 'I like these greens. I feel like I can read them well.'
Choi won a pair of titles in both 2009 and '10. Her best finish this year is third in a pair of events.
'It's nice to be in this position,' she said. 'I'm excited for (Sunday)."
Lewis. 26, from Fayetteville, Ark., birdied her first four holes in the second round, played the next seven in 3-over, then rallied.
"Kind of a roller-coaster ride," she said. "(On the first four holes) I didn't hit great shots. The closest (putt) was eight feet. I made two 25-footers and a 30-footer. They were just going in. Then the golf course got me a little bit and I made some mistakes in the middle, but I finished it off good."
Lewis said she knew going into the day that she had to break par to have a shot at winning the tournament, and she noticed that the course was playing tougher as the day went on, and as Choi was just getting into her round.
"You could see it just as our round went on. After we made the turn, the greens got a lot firmer," Lewis said. "Balls were rolling out and flying further. The hardest part is, once it hits the green, it's not stopping - it's going into the rough and you're left with awkward shots. If you short-side yourself, you're making bogey."
Lewis' major title at Rancho Mirage, Calif., which was her first on the tour, continues to help her in events like the Safeway Classic.
"I knew I could win. I knew I could do it. but to do it against the best players in the world in the way I did it, I was kind of surprised," she said. "I've been riding that high ever since. I've been playing well. I know I am. The confidence level is just a lot higher."