CARLSBAD, Calif. — The Kia Classic and the enchanting Aviara Golf Club in this seaside town is the gateway to the ANA Inspiration, when players come here to find form that can travel to the first LPGA major of the year.
Lydia Ko, for instance, won the Kia Classic in 2016, took her A game to the desert and won the ANA Inspiration.
On that note, Mirim Lee, a South Korean who has been lurking just outside the best players from her homeland, 21st in the Rolex Rankings, made a statement with a stress-free victory in the Kia Classic on Sunday, the third of her LPGA career.
Lee, 26, began the final round with a one-stroke lead, made the turn up five strokes, and won by six over another South Korean So Yeon Ryu and American Austin Ernst. Lee tied a tournament record with a 72-hole score of 20-under-par 268.
It was a flawless performance from Lee, who shot a bogey-free 65 on Sunday that included seven birdies. She played her final 35 holes without a bogey and made only four in 72 holes.
It was the closing act she was missing two years ago, when she took a lead into the final round of the Kia Classic, shot 70 and lost to Cristie Kerr by two.
“I think this was better than two years ago,” Lee said. “I was a little nervous, but I made it.”
The victory was Lee’s third top-10 finish in four starts this year, a significant confidence boost heading into a major championship, as are two top-four finishes in majors last year, though she did not necessarily concur.
“I think I did not hit it good on the back nine,” she said, noting that after a day off she will prepare as though it were any other tournament.
The ANA Inspiration has no clear-cut favorite, if form is the guide. Ko, No. 1 in the Rolex Rankings, comes into the event having missed the Kia Classic cut, just the second MC of her LPGA career. Ariya Jutanugarn, ranked second in the world and the reigning LPGA player of the year, tied for 21st at Aviara, though in three of four previous starts she has finished no worse than third.
Among those other than Lee who built momentum at the Kia are her fellow South Koreans Ryu and In Gee Chun.
Ryu, the 2011 U.S. Women’s Open champion, is on her own roll, having finished second, seventh, fifth and second in her last four starts. Moreover, she finished second in the ANA Inspiration in 2013.
Chun, though, might pose a greater threat. At 22 and already the winner of two majors, she finished the Kia in 10th place, despite a double-bogey 6 on the 18th hole. A week earlier, she tied for second in the Bank of Hope Founders Cup. She is ranked third in the world and won the Vare Trophy for lowest scoring average in her rookie season in 2016.