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Long Day's Journey Into Lead for Sorenstam

With wind a factor, favorite takes a two-shot edge at Mission Hills with a 68. Wie, 13, shoots 72.

March 28, 2003|Thomas Bonk | Times Staff Writer

On cue, the Annika Sorenstam bandwagon rolled into Mission Hills Country Club, the location of her last two major championships, and not so unexpectedly, where she's on the right road to do it again.

An early-morning wind might have slowed the pace to a crawl, if that's what you call 5-hour 45-minute rounds in the afternoon, but there wasn't anything out there capable of slowing down Sorenstam on Thursday in the first round of the Kraft Nabisco Championship.

The two-time defending champion of the LPGA's first major of the year, Sorenstam's opening 68 enabled her to spring out of the pack and take a two-shot lead over Laura Davies, Karrie Webb, Patricia Meunier-Lebouc and Michele Redman.

"You know, I thought it was going to be a really long day," said Sorenstam, who thought the first fairway looked about as wide as a ribbon with the wind blowing hard from right to left as it buffeted Rancho Mirage.

She was right about the long day part. The last group finished at 6:10 p.m., seven minutes past sunset.

Some were better than others at using their time wisely. Meunier-Lebouc, Redman and Webb started early and got on the scoreboard with matching scores of two-under 70.

Then there was Davies, who started just before 11 a.m. and finished after 4:30 p.m., when she birdied the 18th. It was a confidence-builder for Davies, if only because she was two over through seven holes and already losing ground to Sorenstam.

Davies said it's perfectly understandable to see Sorenstam in the lead.

"You expect Annika to do that," Davies said. "It would be a little bit more worrying if she wasn't on the leaderboard. You would think something had gone wrong if she wasn't there. You know she's going to be there and you know you've got to play well.

"Yeah, it's a challenge. Annika might well win, but I don't consider she's won it already."

It's a legitimate assumption on the part of Davies, because with 54 more holes left, there's plenty of wiggle room.

Davies can only hope she has the right moves, with time running out for her to win in her 18th year at Mission Hills. She turns 40 in October and the best way to celebrate would be with a victory this week, thus completing a career grand slam and ensuring her place in the Hall of Fame.

Not that she's worried.

"I don't feel any extra pressure," Davies said. "I really want to win it. That's not pressure. It's what you want to do."

If that's what makes you feel better, then go with it. Meanwhile, near the other end of the age spectrum, 13-year-old prodigy Michelle Wie, followed by one of the largest galleries of the day, shot a par 72.

Wie drew gasps from the crowd with her drives, launching a 307-yarder at the 13th and another one that was close to 300 yards at the 10th. But she also missed a four-foot birdie putt at the 16th and a six-footer at the 17th.

"It's OK," she said. "I can take it."

Her goal is to play even par or a couple of shots under but Wie doesn't want to wind up in the top 10.

"It puts too much pressure on myself," she said.

Her father, Byung-Wook Wie, or simply B.J., had a different view, saying he wants Michelle to finish as much under par as possible in her first major tournament. The elder Wie was also heartened by the fans' applause for his daughter as she walked past the grandstand toward the 18th green.

"It's a great experience for an eighth-grader," he said. "No other 13-year-old girl can get that experience."

Meunier-Lebouc, the 30-year-old from Dijon, France, won the State Farm Classic last year but is gaining a reputation for something else. She is also known for a third-place finish last week at Phoenix and needing exactly 850 words to answer a question as to whether she was having as much fun on the course as she appeared to be.

Webb's answer would have been a lot shorter if asked that same question early in her day. She was two over through 11 holes but was four under the rest of the way and rescued her round.

Webb birdied the 17th when she made a three-foot putt, then finished by knocking it to two feet and rolling in another birdie putt. Webb's victory at Mission Hills in 2000 was the second of her six major championships.

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