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Sorenstam's perch starts to show cracks

The golfer's longtime No. 1 ranking is in jeopardy, with challenger Ochoa saying her time is coming.

March 29, 2007|Thomas Bonk | Times Staff Writer

Wearing a lime-colored jacket and a relaxed smile, Annika Sorenstam did not seem the least bit affected by the cold wind and rain that were bearing down on Mission Hills Country Club the other day. But today, on the Dinah Shore tournament course, where the year's first major on the LPGA Tour begins, storm clouds are gathering again, this time in bright sunshine.

Whipped up by Lorena Ochoa, they are increasing in size, gaining momentum and threatening to loosen Sorenstam's previously unshakable grip on the No. 1 ranking.

Is there a change at the top in the works?

Maybe by Sunday night. Ochoa would bump Sorenstam from her perch as the No. 1 player if she were to win her first major at the $2-million Kraft Nabisco Championship.

Sorenstam remains positive and avoids discussion of any negative subjects such as her slipping rankings, especially on the eve of a major championship.

"I would say Lorena is playing very, very well," she said. "Of course, I look at the rankings and the money list ... and right now, she's playing some superb golf.

"So I'm not surprised that the gap is smaller and smaller. But that's not something that I think about when I'm out there."

The challenger is certain her time is coming.

"One more week, if I win or don't win, it doesn't mean anything," Ochoa said. "We need to be patient, and I think it could happen this year, but I don't want to say next week.

"It's not something I can say, it's something that shows with the results. Annika's been the best for so long and she dominates the game for so long."

But she hasn't been dominating recently. Last year, Sorenstam won her third U.S. Open and two other LPGA tournaments and was far from satisfied. In fact, she said 2006 was a disappointment, especially after winning 10 times the year before.

And her advantage in the ranking has been shrinking at the same time. When the LPGA's ranking system made its debut last year, Sorenstam's lead over No. 2 Paula Creamer was 18.47-9.65. This week, she's leading Ochoa just barely, 12.38-11.63.

Last year did not end all that well for Sorenstam, mostly because of Ochoa.

Sorenstam had a three-shot lead to start the final round at the Samsung and wound up losing by three shots when Ochoa closed with a 65.

Meanwhile, Ochoa, 25, claimed the major awards that have usually belonged to Sorenstam -- player of the year, the Vare Trophy for lowest scoring average, and the money title, with more than $2.59 million earned.

Sorenstam has been player of the year eight times, the Vare Trophy winner six times and was at the top of the money list eight times. Those are head-turning numbers, but so is this one: she turns 37 in October.

Last year, Sorenstam's scoring average was second only to Ochoa's, but it was her worst average in seven years, and her LPGA earnings of $1.9 million also reached a seven-year low.

It was all because of poor mechanics, she said. Sorenstam said she fought her swing most of last year and needed to play her best just to hit fairways. Determined to revive her swing, she spent five weeks in the off-season working with her coach, Henry Reis. Their task was to try to square the club at the top of Sorenstam's backswing and then to come into the ball more consistently. She said she is on the right track again.

"It's fun to be out and trying to play again and not feel like you're standing on the tee and you're really fighting something," she said.

Sorenstam has already qualified for the LPGA Hall of Fame, and if she wins a major this year, she will have won at least one major title in seven consecutive years, a standard reached only once before, by Kathy Whitworth.

But so far, regardless of her improved outlook and swing, Sorenstam has seen her advantage in the rankings grow even smaller. At her first event of the year in Mexico, Sorenstam, a 69-time LPGA tournament winner, lost in a playoff to Meaghan Francella, who was playing in only her sixth LPGA tournament. Last week at the Safeway, Sorenstam tied for eighth, but she was 11 shots behind the winner, Ochoa, who had four rounds in the 60s.

Karrie Webb inexplicably missed the cut last week, but she's the defending champion at Mission Hills after beating Ochoa in a playoff, and she seems to have rejuvenated her career at 32. Webb believes she is ready to rumble with Sorenstam again.

"Lorena certainly is," Webb said. "I'd like to be in that mix as well."

It could be a combustible mixture, starting today at Mission Hills, where the missions are varied. Sorenstam is trying to increase her lead in the rankings and Ochoa is trying to whittle it down even further. This could be a season-long exercise in numerology, a little game that breaks down to this, regardless of ranking points:

Sorenstam 69 LPGA victories, Ochoa 10; Sorenstam 10 major titles, Ochoa none.

"I believe in myself to be the No. 1 player in the world, but it's just time," Ochoa said. "I'm trying to be patient."

The rankings will let us know soon enough how sound that plan may be.

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thomas.bonk@latimes.com

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