Sandra Gal leads by 3 and has 700,000 reasons to play her best at Titleholders

The hard part for Sandra Gal was keeping her ball down in the wind at Tiburon Golf Club. She managed that just fine, picked up a late birdie after a dreadful tee shot and walked off the 18th green with a three-shot lead in the LPGA Titleholders.

Her next challenge is keeping her eyes off the prize.

The season-ending Titleholders does not have richest purse on the LPGA Tour, it just pays the best. To put more intrigue into its final event, the winner gets $700,000. To put that in context, it would be double what Gal has made this year, and it would amount to about one-third of her career earnings.

All because of one week.

So when she was asked Friday noon about ignoring such a big prize at stake this weekend, Gal smiled.

"It's easier for people to say, 'I don't care about the money, I only want to play well.' But they don't mean it, right?" she said. "I'm still going to say it. I'm not out here to play for money. I'm out here to play with heart and to inspire others. It's a huge purse. But at the end of the day, when you win a tournament, you're happy about fighting and overcoming fear."

Gal made three birdies on the back nine — bringing her total to nine birdies on the inward half of Tiburon for the week — for a 3-under 69. That put the 28-year-old German at 11-under 133, three shots clear of former Kraft Nabisco champion Sun Young Yoo at the halfway point of this tournament.

Gal stayed in the lead most of the day, and one last birdie stretched her lead. She would expect to make birdie on the 17th, the shortest of the par 5s. Just not this way. She hooked her tee shot into the trees and wasn't sure she could find it.

"Happy to find my ball," she said. "Had a swing — very happy. Had an 8-iron and thought, 'Let's go for the pin,' and almost holed it out. Made the putt (from 15 feet). All very simple Never in doubt."

Gal has spent much of the year working on a shorter swing and hitting a variety of shapes and trajectories, and that was put to good use in the blustery conditions. And the fact she opened with a 64 didn't hurt.

"My advantage was yesterday," she said. "Shooting 8-under was big. Today it was hard for everybody to catch up. That's what gave me that three-shot lead."

The degree of difficulty was best measured by what Yoo considered her best shot of the round — a 6-iron on the 18th hole that didn't even hit the green.

"I'm very pleased with how I played," Yoo said. "I recovered very well."

Lydia Ko, the 16-year-old from New Zealand making her pro debut, played her final 10 holes without a birdie and finished at 71, leaving her nine shots behind.

"I thought I played much better today than yesterday, but the score was the same," Ko said. "I left a couple of my putts short just in front of the hole. Then when I got my speed right, the direction was wrong, so that was kind of frustrating."

Cristie Kerr had to fight plenty hard to get another 69 and lead the group at 6-under 138, five shots behind. Kerr thought she took take a 6-iron through a gap in the trees on the par-5 opening hole, and instead knocked it into the water. She had to drop in pine straw, and sent her fifth shot over the green. Her chip hit the pin, allowing her to tap in for a double bogey. What followed was a "horrendous" shot at the third (bogey) and a "horrible" shot on the fifth into a bunker.

But she saved par, and that changed her thinking.

"I wasn't going to let this tournament go down the toilet," she said.

Kerr then ran off three straight birdies, knocked in a 15-foot birdie putt on the 12th, and then holed an 80-foot putt for eagle on the 17th that put her back in the mix.

"On 17, I mean I was just due. I don't know how to describe it any other way than that," she said.

Morgan Pressel had a 67, the low score of the second round. Four players failed to break 80.

Inbee Park was within a shot of the lead early in the round, reaching 7 under, until she fell back to a 72 and was seven shots behind. Park headed off to rehearse her speech one last time before accepting LPGA player of the year at the awards dinner Friday night. Most players are nervous to stand before a big room for such a big moment.

"I've had a lot more pressure," Park said with a smile, a reference to going after a fourth straight major earlier this year at St. Andrews.

Stacey Lewis (73) and Suzann Pettersen (72) were in the group at even-par 144, significant only as it relates to the Vare Trophy for the lowest scoring average. Pettersen would have to finish nine shots higher than the American to win the award.