SYLVANIA, Ohio — The Marathon Classic isn’t a match-play tournament.
Except for maybe this year.
Beatriz Recari birdied the two closing par 5s to catch Paula Creamer atop the leaderboard through 54 holes Saturday, setting up a head-to-head battle between players who are three shots clear of the field.
Recari, a 26-year-old Spaniard who has won twice on the LPGA Tour, conceded that it’s hard not to get caught up in a two-person competition.
“Definitely, it’s easier because you’re playing with the player closest to you in score,” she said. “You still have to do your best. You can’t control what she does, so you always have to stay focused on what you’re doing.”
They were at 12-under 201 after each shooting 4-under 67.
The showdown could be a preview. Recari is expected to make the European team for the Solheim Cup next month — where match play rules — and Creamer is one of the mainstays of the American side.
Creamer, who won in 2008 when the tournament was known as the Jamie Farr Toledo Classic, led throughout the round by as many as two shots before Recari’s late surge at Highland Meadows.
She was pleased to find herself being the hunted instead of the hunter.
“I love this feeling,” said Creamer, who has nine wins but none since the 2010 U.S. Women’s Open. “I haven’t felt it for a while. I’ve normally been chasing the leaders, but this is great. This is right where I wanted to be.”
The last time she played in the same group with Recari, it was Recari who had the edge. In the third round of the Kia Classic in March in California, Recari shot a 69 when paired in the last grouping with Creamer, who had a 71. Recari, who had won the CVS last year, ended up winning in a playoff with I.K. Kim. Creamer faded to a tie for 17th.
“She’s a great player,” Recari said. “It’s always great to play with her.”
Creamer, who set the tournament record with a first-round 60 in her victory lap five years ago, is expecting a battle.
“She’s steady. She hits a lot of fairways and greens and gives herself a lot of opportunities to make birdies,” she said about Recari. “At the same time, there are so many players out there that you have to kind of be aware of. But she’s definitely going to be fighting until the end.”
There are plenty of potential challengers, even though several of the biggest names — including world No. 1 Inbee Park, defending champ So Yeon Ryu and top amateur Lydia Ko all fell back into the pack.
Rising American teen Lexi Thompson had a 67 and, along with Jacqui Concolino and Japan’s Chie Arimura, was three shots back.
“I’ve been working on trusting my targets — picking out a target and just visualizing my shot,” Thompson said. “That’s what I’ve been doing every shot. I’ve committed pretty good to them.”
Concolino, whose career-best tie for 11th came at the event last year, had a 69. She has revived her desire to play since taking time off from competitive golf after graduating from Vanderbilt in 2009.
“I just got a little burnt out in college and needed some time to myself,” she said of her lengthy hiatus. “Ever since I was 13, I’ve been doing everything for golf, golf, golf. I never really had time to enjoy friends and family how you would want to. So that’s what I did for a year and a half, two years, and started to get back on track.”
Arimura, fourth in the LPGA’s rookie standings, three-putted the final hole for bogey and a 68.
Jennifer Johnson (66), Chella Choi (66) and Jodi Ewart Shadoff (68) were at 205.
Park has been the talk of the tour this year, with six victories including wins in all three of the major championships. She’ll go for four in a row when the tour returns to action in two weeks at the Women’s British Open at St. Andrew’s.
But after winning three in a row and with a solid finish last week, she sagged to a 73 that left her tied for 23rd. She double-bogeyed the first hole after hitting her drive into a fairway bunker and never recovered.
That wasn’t the worst of it.
“I just putted really bad today,” she said, after dropping from sole possession of fifth place through 36 holes. “Outside of that, everything else was really similar (to earlier rounds of 67 and 69), but nothing seems to be going in.”
Ryu, who shot a 62 in the final round to win a year ago by seven strokes, shot a 70 and was six shots back of the leaders. Ko became the youngest LPGA winner ever when she took the Canadian Women’s Open last year at 15, but she had a 71 and was tied with Ryu at 207.
Alison Walshe, tied with Recari and Creamer after the second round, fell back with a 73.
Creamer said that she’ll try not to concentrate only on her version of match play with Ricari.
“You can get hot out here and shoot a low number, so I can’t worry too much about what she’s doing,” she said. “I’ve got to go out and play my own game because there are going to be a lot of players that can fire at pins and post a low score. I’ll just have to make as many birdies as I can.”