Liu rallied from four shots behind when the round began with a 66 to get to 7 under. Her good friend and fellow starter on the 2014 NCAA championship squad, Boutier, shot a 69. "I don't know about other people, but when I see Duke players playing well, I kind of want to play well, too," Boutier said.
There's been plenty of that recently, especially at the Country Club of Charleston. Duke won another NCAA title last week and sophomore Gina Kim, an amateur, has been near the top of the leaderboard much of the tournament. Liu and Boutier kept that going to set up an ultimate Duke-on-Duke showdown for a major title.
"It's a major championship," said Liu, 23. "Everybody is out there trying to win and we'll be very focused." Liu remembers the 25-year-old Boutier driving her to dinners and generally looking after her younger teammate. They kept their friendship after going pro, spending time at Symetra Tour and LPGA events.
They've even played together in a final pairing before, Liu said, at the HSBC Women's World Championships earlier this year. "I didn't play very well and she didn't play very well, either," Liu said. Liu and Boutier were a stroke in front of Lexi Thompson, Jaye Marie Green and Japan's Mamiko Higa, the surprise leader the first two rounds.
Boutier held the lead at 8 under until she made her only bogey of the round on No. 16 after stubbing a chip and needing a 21-footer to limit the damage. She won the Vic Open in February in Australia for her first LPGA Tour title.
Liu, in her first U.S. Women's Open, made six birdies in a 13-hole stretch to move up after starting four shots off the lead. She's winless on the tour. Thompson powered her way into contention, going eagle-birdie on the 15th and 16th holes for a 68.
Green shot 68, her second sub-70 showing this week after entering with just one round in the 60s in five Open appearances. Higa had an up-and-down round of three birdies and three bogeys to lose the lead she's held much of the week. She finished with her second straight 71.
Boutier had a 25-foot birdie try on the final hole, but went a foot or so past and finished with par to close a long day on course. Boutier was among 45 players who couldn't finish the second round Friday because of a weather delay and had to return before sun up to complete four holes before turning her focus to the third round.
She was a stroke behind Higa at the start and the two were in the final threesome. Higa opened things up early with birdies on the third and fourth holes to take a three-shot lead on Boutier. But Boutier stayed patient — and pounced when her opportunities came. She had a 10-foot birdie on the ninth to tie Higa, then moved ahead with a 12-footer for another birdie on the 13th.
Boutier's bobble came one of the holes playing the easiest, the par-4 16th when her approach went over the green and she advanced her third about two feet before sending the next one some 20 feet beyond the flag. Boutier rallied once more with a solid, confident stroke for bogey and hold on to a share of first.
The 23-year-old Liu had few expectations playing her first U.S. Women's Open and fell five shots off the lead with a bogey on No. 3. But Liu had six birdies the rest of the way and will play the final group with one of her best friends on tour.
"We probably won't talk much," she said with a laugh. Thompson, who tied for fifth in this event last year, looked like she was fading with consecutive bogeys on the 10th and 11th holes to fall five shots behind. She rallied by reaching the par-5 15th in two and making a 30-foot putt for eagle. Her approach on the next hole landed five feet away for a birdie that left her a stroke in back.
Thompson has 11 top 10s in majors since her lone victory in the 2014 Kraft Nabisco Championship, now called the ANA Inspiration. She said staying calm after the back-nine bogeys helped her stay in contention. "It's tough not to let it get to you, but at a tournament like this, you can't," she said.
Higa was the tournament's stunning storyline early after shooting a 65 Thursday — the lowest debut ever in the U.S. Women's Open — then notching three birdies in six holes after a two-hour storm delay to keep her lead.
But bogeys on the seventh, 10th and 12th holes knocked her back. Higa recovered with a birdie on the 14th and parred home to stay in contention. She said she had a difficult time bouncing back after the opening bogey. "It wasn't a difficult hole," she said through an interpreter. "So that was a turning point (where) I got bad rhythm."
Jessica Korda was a shot off the lead when the round began, but fell three shots back after a 72. NCAA individual women's champion Maria Fassi of Mexico had a 68 after just making the cut in her first professional tournament. Jennifer Kupcho, the Augusta National Women's Amateur champ, struggled to a 76. This is also her first pro event.
The course was far from quiet overnight. Workers removed a large tree between the 18th fairway and 11th green that was struck by lightning during Friday's weather delay. Crews were cutting and grinding late Friday. By the start of play Saturday, only a pile of decorative wood chips remained.
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