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Pak Keeps Trying to Wear Down Field

Golf: Second-round 68 gives her three-stroke lead in event where LPGA's quest for sex appeal is clearly evident.

April 07, 2002|PETER YOON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Let's forget about sex and the LPGA Tour for a minute. Granted, that's not exactly easy with scantily clad models parading near the clubhouse, as happened Saturday during the second round of the Office Depot Championship Hosted by Amy Alcott.

But let's try to put aside Commissioner Ty Votaw's plan to attract more fan interest by, among other things, drawing more attention to the physical appearance of players. What the tour really needs more of, it is likely to get today in the final round: compelling competition.

Se Ri Pak, Annika Sorenstam and Laura Diaz, three of the fiercest competitors on the tour, will lock horns in the final group at El Caballero Country Club in Tarzana. Pak, a South Korean who won five times last year, has the lead at eight under par after shooting a second consecutive 68 on Saturday. Sorenstam, an eight-time winner last year and two-time winner already this year, also shot 68 and is three strokes back.

Diaz, a feisty grinder who had three second-place finishes last year before finally breaking through with her first career victory March 24 in Tucson, is four behind Pak at four-under after a 69 Saturday. Sorenstam, Pak and Diaz finished first, second and sixth, respectively, in the 2001 player-of-the-year standings. That gives the final group all the makings of a classic showdown that should test the will of three players who hate losing more than just about anything else.

Its potential for high drama could also draw attention away from players' outfits and the amount of skin they should show, subjects that seem to have surpassed all others as the main topic of discussion on the tour.

"This is what it's all about," said Sorenstam, the defending champion. "I'm right in the heat of it and that's what I love. I'm glad I'm playing in the last group to show Se Ri that I'm here and I'm looking to [put pressure on] her."

Pak won't be easy to catch. She has entered the final round with a lead 11 times in her career and cashed a winner's check after nine of them. Sorenstam, however, has made final-round rallies in 11 of her 32 career victories. Last year, she equaled a tour record by erasing a 10-shot, final-round deficit to win this tournament.

"She's a great player," Pak said. "I'm not going to go out there and push myself too hard. No matter if you're behind or leading you still have to play aggressive. I'm just going to do the best that I can and try to make as many birdies as I can."

Diaz is the wild card. Her career pattern suggests that she is the player most likely to have a breakout season this year and join Sorenstam, Pak and Karrie Webb at the top.

Since joining the tour in 1999, Diaz has been 64th, 33rd and ninth on the money list. She had two top-10 finishes in 1999, four in 2000 and 12 last season. Moreover, she will not be intimidated by playing with the top players in the world.

"I'd like to think I have the privilege of playing with two of the best players in the world," Diaz said. "I'll take that opportunity any time I can get it. I'll just go out there and play my own game and I'd like to have the least number of strokes after 54 holes."

It looked as if Pak would run away with the tournament. She birdied Nos. 3, 7 and 13 to go seven under. At the time, she led by six over Sorenstam and the nearest competitor was Michelle Estill, four shots back. Sorenstam, playing a group behind Pak, birdied Nos. 13-15 and was within two shots after the leader bogeyed the par-three 16th. But Pak parlayed a booming drive on the par-five 17th into an eagle and a four-stroke lead.

Sorenstam, who birdied the same hole to narrow the margin to three, said she likes her position anytime she is in the final group.

"I don't want the lead to be too big but hopefully I can get off to a good start and put some pressure on her," Sorenstam said. "I've always said it's not over until it's over and I think I proved that last year."

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