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Sorenstam Leads as She Tries to Catch Up

Another win at Bighorn might springboard her past Ochoa for player of the year again.

October 15, 2006|Thomas Bonk | Times Staff Writer

The LPGA season is winding down, but that doesn't mean there's nothing to ring up today in the final round of the $875,000 Samsung World Championship at Bighorn Golf Club, where the stakes are high as they warm up the cash registers here near the checkout line.

First of all, there's the matter of the cash on hand, with $218,750 going to the winner of this 20-player event, led once again by Annika Sorenstam.

Wearing green, the color of money, and on track to win this tournament for the sixth time, Sorenstam shot a six-under-par 66 Saturday at Palm Desert, the best round of the tournament, and owns a three-shot lead over Lorena Ochoa.

Both Sorenstam and Ochoa birdied the last hole, with Sorenstam curling in a left-to-right 10-foot putt to reach 12-under 204. Ochoa's five-birdie, no-bogey round of 67 ended when she sank a 20-foot birdie putt and sent a signal she's serious about taking Sorenstam's place as player of the year.

"She is having a lot of momentum on her side," Sorenstam said. "I'm going to need everything I have. I've got to go out and earn it. We will see what happens. There's a lot at stake and I've been thinking about that."

It has come down to Sorenstam and Ochoa for player of the year, the money title and the Vare Trophy for scoring average. Ochoa leads in each of them (by about $350,000 on the money list), but Sorenstam has a chance to catch up, and will be paired today with Ochoa for the third time this week.

Sorenstam has won at least $2 million the last five years and has won player of the year eight times, the last five years in a row. She also owns the five lowest yearly scoring averages in LPGA history.

"I believe a good finish here and a win at the ADT Championship would do it for me," Sorenstam said. "That's what is foremost on my mind."

Sorenstam's final two opportunities to pass Ochoa are next month when she plays the Mizuno Championship in Japan and the ADT Championship in Florida. Ochoa knows all about Sorenstam's consistency -- five victories at the Samsung, five at the Mizuno and four at the ADT.

"Of course, that's my goal, to beat No. 1," Ochoa said. "She has so much experience, I respect all that, but at the same time, I believe in myself.

"We live for this, these are the moments we are waiting for ... the player of the year, scoring average. I'm really motivated and positive."

If Ochoa wins player of the year, she will be the first player to do it other than Sorenstam, Karrie Webb and Laura Davies since 1994.

Ochoa, Sophie Gustafson and Stacey Prammanasudh are the only players within five shots of Sorenstam, who is 47-21 when holding the third-round lead and trying for her 70th LPGA victory. Sorenstam is also consistent -- she has been either first, second or third in 133 of her 266 professional events.

Gustafson trailed Sorenstam by two shots, but tried to reach the par-five 15th in two and knocked it into the water instead, made bogey, and dropped further behind with a 70.

Paula Creamer, who began the day one shot out of the lead, shot 72 and fell six shots behind, tied for fifth with Sherri Steinhauer and Cristie Kerr.

What's at stake for Michelle Wie isn't as clearly defined. She just turned 17 last week and is already winding up her first year as a professional, following a learning curve that she hopes leads to a victory, which would be her first. Tied for 13th after her third-round 72, Wie will add to her $718,343 won in seven tournaments so far. She considers her best moments of the year tying for third in three majors.

"Playing on Sunday, really being in contention, and just being able to shoot really well under pressure ... and I think that I was able to do that," Wie said.

"I felt like I learned so much this year by competing in majors and playing in the men's tournament and really learning the ups and downs, I feel like I know exactly what I have to work on, and I really analyze my game and next year hopefully will be a lot better."

It hasn't been her week. Wie starts the day 14 shots behind Sorenstam.

It's possible that the novelty of Wie as a precocious teen may wear thin if she doesn't win next year, if for no other reason than Creamer was 18 when she won her first LPGA event.

Sorenstam's mission, at least this year, has been different. She has three victories, a standout year for most players, but her worst since 1999. She said her drives and her putting have been problems, and so has her focus.

At one point in Saturday's round, she caught herself drifting mentally, looking at the lot she used to own on the golf course. Sorenstam said she knows that must change.

"There's a lot on the line."

*

thomas.bonk@latimes.com

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