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story.lead_photo.caption Nasa Hataoka of Japan blasts from a bunker on the seventh hole Saturday during the LPGA Northwest Arkansas Championship at Pinnacle Country Club in Rogers. Hataoka shot a 6-under 65 on Saturday and has a share of the lead entering today’s final round. - Photo by Charlie Kaijo

ROGERS -- The rain held off and the leaderboard stacked up as the second round of the LPGA Northwest Arkansas Championship ended Saturday evening at Pinnacle Country Club.

Minjee Lee and Nasa Hataoka took advantage of near-perfect morning course conditions to move to the top of the leaderboard at 13 under heading into today's final round. Lexi Thompson, the No. 3 ranked player on the LPGA Tour, is two shots back at 11 under with two others three shots back at 10 under.

Hataoka, the 19-year-old phenom from Japan, turned an average second round into a spectacular one by riding a red-hot putter over a nine-hole stretch. Hataoka, who is named for the NASA space program, started on the back nine Saturday and had six consecutive pars to open the round, then surged with birdies on Nos. 16, 17 and 18. She birdied No. 1 to make it four in a row and added two more to finish at 13-under.

"I hit it well the first few holes, I just didn't make many putts," the 2017 tour rookie said.

Hataoka, who missed the cut here last year, has played well the past five tournaments with four top 10 finishes. She finished second at the Kingsmill Championship at 14 under to earn $103,076, which accounts for a third of her career winnings.

Lee came to Rogers No. 9 in the Rolex World Rankings. She opened Saturday's round with birdies on three of her first four holes on the back nine and added birdies at No. 1 and No. 7 on the front nine to move to 14 under before ending the round with a bogey at No. 9 to fall back into a tie with Hataoka.

"I had a pretty good start to my round," Lee said. "I thought it was not going to be as windy but it got a little bit gusty here and there on my back nine, so I tried to take advantage of the calmer conditions in the morning."

Lee said she feels confident heading into today's final round. In three starts prior at Pinnacle Country Club, she has finished in the top 10 all three times and tied for sixth last year.

"I'm just going to stick to my gameplan and do what I do best, which is just play," she said. "I can't control what the other players are going to do. I'll just try my best and have fun."

Lurking two shots back of the lead is Thompson, who has played back-to-back solid rounds to move to 11 under. She opened Friday with a 67 and was even better Saturday with a 64 to put herself in position to win the tournament.

"This golf course is a little different set up for me," Thompson said. "I only get to hit three drivers, maybe four. So it's a lot of 3-woods, a lot of hybrids. The course is in great shape for us, so it's just all about placement. I had a slow start yesterday, but then really picked up on the back nine and I was able to take that into today. I hit a lot of fairways today and I hit 17 greens."

Thompson, who has not played this event since 2015, had a chance to move even closer to the lead but missed a tough downhill putt at No. 9 for birdie. Her iron shot from about 105 yards rolled past the pin, which was tucked far back and left for Saturday's round.

"I hit a great iron shot, but I told my caddie I left myself the hardest putt on the green. It was so quick," she said of the 8-foot putt from the back of the green. "It missed by like half a ball, it was a very touchy putt. I hit a good putt, just a little too hard."

First-round leader Gaby Lopez had a tough round Saturday with a 4-over 75 over to fall to 4 over for the tournament. The former University of Arkansas, Fayetteville All-American had three bogeys in her first four holes on and never recovered. She had four more bogeys on her back nine.

Photo by Charlie Kaijo
Minjee Lee of Australia birdied three of her first four holes on the back nine Saturday and moved into a share of the lead.
Photo by Charlie Kaijo
Nasa Hataoka shares the 36-hole lead the LPGA Northwest Arkansas Championship with Minjee Lee.

Sports on 06/24/2018

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