BETHESDA -- For Jenny Lidback, the past 18 months hav been unproductive and painful.
A back injury hampered her most of last season, forcing her to play several tournaments in a brace. Her earnings were so
meager ($26,065) that she didn't make the top 90 on last year's money list and entered this year as a non-exempt player.
That's non-exempt as in unqualified. The $1 million Mazda LPGA Championship at Bethesda Country Club this weekend is only her fifth tournament of the year, and she is making the most of it.
Lidback, 30, who has dual citizenship in Peru and Sweden, shot a 68 yesterday for a three-round, 9-under-par 204 and a two-shot lead.
Hall of Famer Patty Sheehan and Cathy Johnston-Forbes were at 206, and Barb Bunkowsky was alone at 207. Cindy Rarick, the second-round leader, had two bogeys and a double bogey and finished with a 2-over 73 and in a group of three at 208.
Noting Rarick's blowup, Lidback said sympathetically, "That's what this game can do to you."
If she can hold the lead through today's final round, Lidback will win $150,000, almost as much as her winnings ($195,358) in four-plus years on the tour. Her best finish in eight previous majors was a tie for 64th in the LPGA Championship here two years ago. She missed the cut in six majors.
"This is a new experience," Lidback said, referring to the pressure of leading a tournament. "I hope I handle it well. I'm sure I'll be nervous. I'm going to try to enjoy it and smile a lot."
In fashioning the 68, Lidback missed only one green and had three birdies and no bogeys.
"I was pretty consistent," she said. "I tried to mind my own business and stay focused."
She maintained she kept her eyes off the leader board and had no idea how she stood until a reporter told her coming off the 18th green that she had a two-stroke lead.
"Wow," she said. "I've got to be surprised, especially since it's a major."
Until a few weeks ago, it had been a slow year for her. Because of her non-exempt status, she slipped into a tournament only when officials were trying to complete a field. Her first was in Hawaii in February, her second last month in Hershey, Pa. Good finishes in Hershey's Lady Keystone (tie for 21st, $4,015) and the LPGA Corning Classic (tie for seventh, $13,250) put her high enough on the money list to qualify for this event.
"It's a bummer, being non-exempt," Lidback said. "It's hard not ,, playing in tournaments. I practiced a lot. But I went crazy because I had too much time to think."
If Lidback was surprised to be atop the leader board, her chief competitors were not surprised to see her there.
"Years ago, only 30 or 40 players could win," said Sheehan, who qualified for the Hall of Fame this year with her 30th victory. "Now the depth is so great that anyone's good enough to win. Jenny held together quite well today. It remains to be seen what happens tomorrow, but the pressure doesn't seem to bother her."
Sheehan paused and said, "This is anybody's ballgame. But Jenny has the upper hand."
Lidback was born in Peru, lived briefly in Brazil and moved with her family to the United States when she was 12.
She speaks Spanish, Portuguese and Italian as well as English. She got her Sweden citizenship because her father is Swedish.
She was a member of Texas Christian University's NCAA championship team in 1983 and transferred to Louisiana State, because her family was living in Baton Rouge at the time. At LSU in 1986, she was NCAA Player of the Year.
Sheehan had a relatively trouble-free round of 70 yesterday, expressing annoyance only about the two-foot putt she missed on No. 16. It is a relaxed Sheehan who plays the tour these days now that the Hall of Fame chase is over.
"I've accomplished some things the last few years," she said. "I'm confident, relaxed, calmer."
Johnston-Forbes, who also had a 70, is delighted by her play the past three weeks since she married Foster Forbes, who is her caddie for the tournament.
"I'll have the same approach in the final round as I've had all along," Johnston-Forbes said. "I have confidence in my irons, but I have to work on keeping my drives out of the trees."
The leader . . .
Jenny Lidback ... 69-67-68-204
. . . and followers
Cathy Johnston-Forbes ... 68-68-70-206
Patty Sheehan ... 68-68-70-206
Barb Bunkowsky ... 68-70-69-207
Cindy Figg-Currier ... 74-67-67-208
Patti Rizzo ... 72-69-67-208
Cindy Rarick ... 68-67-73-208
Lauri Merten ... 73-70-66-209
Michelle McGann ... 73-68-68-209
Tammie Green ... 71-69-69-209
Maggie Will ... 70-68-71-209
Complete scores: 14D