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As Sorenstam Struggles, Song Calls the Tune

Favorite shoots 71, and 17-year-old Korean is surprise Nabisco leader after a bogey-free 66.

March 26, 2004|Thomas Bonk | Times Staff Writer

It took only one round at the Kraft Nabisco Championship, and a couple of puzzles were spilled right out of the box.

First, even though she's playing with a wedge Tiger Woods gave her, Annika Sorenstam isn't leading, and that always qualifies as a surprise these days.

Second, a teenager is out in front and it isn't Michelle Wie.

So while it wasn't such a great day for Sorenstam, who was five shots off the lead after a one-under 71, or the 14-year-old Wie, who was three shots behind after her 69, it was a perfectly choice afternoon for Aree Song, a 17-year-old who travels on both Thai and Korean passports and toured Mission Hills in only 66 shots to take a one-stroke lead.

On a warm and sunny Thursday, Rosie Jones, Lorena Ochoa and Catriona Matthew opened with 67s and were closest to Song. Jones, who had said she wouldn't have any trouble separating her golf from her announcement Sunday that she was gay, proved herself correct.

"This was kind of a big day for me," Jones said. "Sure, there was some attention on me, but I'm a golf pro and that's my job. I think people will feel more comfortable with it once they get used to the idea."

Former champions Karrie Webb and Dottie Pepper were at 68, two shots behind the leader.

Even though she's only 17, Song has been around long enough to have some history at this place. She showed up on a sponsor's exemption when she was 13, shot a 68 in the third round and played in the last group, eventually tying for 10th when Webb won.

After a six-birdie round Thursday that featured two birdies in the last four holes, Song said she was happy with the timing.

"Well, I guess it's about time I outdo my performance of four years ago now," she said. "Obviously, this is a first round. We've got a long ways to go, but it's a good start."

Wie's start was not as harmonic as Song's, but she finished in style with birdies at the 16th and 18th, closing with a birdie putt after knocking a wedge to seven feet.

Wie said she spent most of the day grinding it out, but she was proud of herself for making a mid-course correction of a problem with the plane of her swing.

Last year, in her debut in major championship golf as a 13-year-old, Wie opened with a 72 here. This time out, she believes she is a much different person and player.

"I feel more mature out there," she said.

Wie was 10 when she watched on television and saw Song, then Aree Song Wongluekiet, play for the first time at Mission Hills. She remembers what she had thought about it at the time.

"Oh, so awesome," Wie recalled. "She's playing out there and she's so young and so good. And her last name is W. Tiger Woods is a W. Hey, I'm a W too, so I can be like them."

Song changed her name in December, dropping Wongluekiet. She was born in Bangkok, Thailand, and her mother is Thai. But her father is Korean.

She decided to keep her Korean nationality, which could be good not only for headline writers, but also for her marketability, because Korean players have such a large presence on the LPGA Tour.

Of course, no one on the tour can match Sorenstam's presence. But standing on the first tee, Sorenstam said, she was a little nervous, although not that much. Because her goal is to win all four majors this year and this was the start of the first, she knew it was important to keep a perspective on the first tee.

"If I'm nervous on the first one, with 16 rounds to play, it's going to be a long year," she said.

Sorenstam's run for the grand slam had a wobbly beginning, although she birdied the last hole to get to one under par. From there, the real race was to the driving range, where she wanted to teach her swing a thing or two.

Clearly, Sorenstam wasn't entirely comfortable with what was going on during her round. She stopped from time to time to practice her swing motion without a club.

She said she had been patient on the course, and that was a good thing. Plus, the 60-degree wedge that Woods gave her a couple of weeks ago helped, so it wasn't all bad, Sorenstam said.

"I hit some good shots once in a while," she said. "I didn't hurt myself too much. Hopefully I can shoot lower the next three days."

Ochoa, who played in the same group with Sorenstam, was eighth here two years ago and third last year. She bogeyed the third hole but that was the only blemish on a six-birdie round that also featured a steely two-putt par at the 18th.

She said she got a lot out of having Sorenstam as a partner.

"She obviously didn't have her best day," Ochoa said. "She started having a hard time. I just tried to forget that she was there."

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Leaderboard

First-round scores at the $1.6-million LPGA Nabisco Championship at Rancho Mirage. Par -- 72 (36-36)

*--* Aree Song...33-33--66 -6 Lorena Ochoa...34-33--67 -5 Catriona Matthew...32-35--67 -5 Rosie Jones...33-34--67 -5 Karrie Webb...34-34--68 -4 Dottie Pepper...33-35--68 -4 Kelly Robbins...34-35--69 -3 Candie Kung...33-36--69 -3 Jung Yeon Lee...34-35--69 -3 Michelle Wie...35-34--69 -3

Others Annika Sorenstam...36-35--71 -1 Se Ri Pak...34-38--72 E Grace Park...38-34--72 E Juli Inkster...38-36--74 +2 Amy Alcott...39-35--74 +2 Helen Alfredsson...39-36--75 +3 Nancy Lopez...36-40--76 +4

*--*

COMPLETE SCORES D16

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