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Ochoa Is at the Top of Her Game

Outplaying Sorenstam head to head, she shoots 65 to win Samsung event and signal changing of guard in women's golf.

October 16, 2006|Thomas Bonk | Times Staff Writer

There was no band playing, no one on horseback and no formal ceremony, but make no mistake, there was a changing of the guard Sunday afternoon at Bighorn Golf Club in Palm Desert, where Lorena Ochoa showed not only that she has arrived, but that she might be here to stay.

"My goal is to be the No. 1 player," Ochoa said. "I think it's going to happen. I think they know too."

Ochoa took on Annika Sorenstam, the LPGA's best player and dominant performer over the last decade, and the matchup was simply no contest. Ochoa rode a nearly flawless, bogey-free, closing round of 65 to a convincing two-shot victory at the Samsung World Championship.

"Amazing," said Ochoa, second to Sorenstam in the women's pro rankings. "It was one of those days you see the hole bigger, probably the best round of golf in my professional career. This is really a special week."

Clearly it was a full day for Ochoa, a 24-year-old from Guadalajara in her fourth year as a professional. She won her fifth tournament this year, claimed the $218,750 winner's check and virtually guaranteed herself the LPGA's money title, player-of-the-year award and the Vare Trophy for lowest scoring average.

Sorenstam's defeat wasn't exactly a costly one -- her two-under 70 was good for second place and a $136,718 payout -- but it may reflect the tenuous grip she holds as the 36-year-old queen of the women's game. It was not a comfortable feeling.

"It just doesn't get any worse than this," Sorenstam said.

Playing in the last group alongside a Hall of Famer with 69 tournament wins and 10 major championships, Ochoa never flinched during her face-to-face moment with Sorenstam. Ochoa matched the best round of the tournament, and did it under final-round pressure, in addition to playing her last 36 holes without a bogey.

"Here I am talking about how important the player of the year and the money list and all of that [are], but I'm sure ... she says the same things," Sorenstam said. "You know, that's a really strong will. A great performance, a great week, a great year."

There wasn't much Sorenstam could do. Starting the round with a three-shot lead, she withstood Ochoa's beginning salvo -- four under through five holes -- and still led by two at the turn.

But everything changed at the 397-yard, par-four 10th, where Sorenstam's approach shot landed in a greenside bunker and she failed to get up and down to save par. Ochoa covered half the green with her putt, a 60-footer that fell in for a birdie and pulled her even with Sorenstam.

Once that ball disappeared into the hole, whatever momentum Sorenstam had went with it.

Ochoa's six-foot birdie putt at the 11th gave her a one-shot lead, and that's where it stayed until they reached the 538-yard, par-five 15th. Sorenstam hit a poor chip and three-putted for a bogey. Ochoa, remaining unshakable on the greens, stood over a 15-foot putt and calmly rolled it straight into the hole for her fifth birdie.

With three holes to go, Ochoa's lead was three shots, and all that remained was for her to roll in a short par putt at the 18th, raise her arms in triumph, then be rushed by some of her fans, including her boyfriend, cousin and aunt, who wrapped her in a Mexican flag and sprayed her with champagne and beer before they were escorted away.

Sophie Gustafson shot a 69 and was third, but the day's biggest mover besides Ochoa was 46-year-old Juli Inkster, who played alongside 17-year-old Michelle Wie. Inkster's 65 moved her from a tie for 13th into a tie for sixth. Wie was not as fortunate, finishing her eighth and final LPGA event of the year with a three-over 75 that left her 17th in the 20-player field, 21 shots behind Ochoa.

It was the eighth consecutive round in women's events that Wie has played without breaking par. But as early as Tuesday, there are more pressing items on her agenda, namely her senior year at Punahou School in Honolulu.

"Economics, calculus, European history, all in a row, whoopty-doo, and then I'm done," she said.

Wie says she sees improvement in her drives as she works on the tempo of her swing, but that's not what she is thinking about now.

"Right now I'm really excited for the Halloween dance."

Sorenstam wasn't nearly as thrilled with her third consecutive runner-up finish. Sorenstam, who trails Ochoa by more than $400,000 in the money race, will play only two more LPGA events this year, the Mizuno Classic in Japan and the ADT Championship. After being closed out by Ochoa on Sunday, she had to admit her chance to win the LPGA's major awards has all but disappeared.

"I kind of feel a little deflated at the moment," Sorenstam said. "I gave it a run. This was an important week, it just didn't turn out."

*

thomas.bonk@latimes.com

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