For No. 1 Ochoa, there always is \‘next week\’
By BILL HUFFMAN
Lorena Ochoa was agitated yet composed after failing to rally Saturday in her bid for a third straight victory in the J Golf Phoenix LPGA International.
Not that this tournament at Papago Golf Course is over in the eyes of the two-time defending champ. But Ochoa is eight strokes off the pace being set by the latest, greatest Korean sensation, Jiyai Shin.
Ochoa even managed a slight smile despite missing the mark badly on a 10-foot birdie putt on her final hole of the third round. It was one of many lost opportunities on this sunny day that attracted a crowd somewhere in the 15,000 to 20,000 range.
“I’m feeling very good. I’m very happy with my driver,’’ said the Mexican superstar, who ruled this tournament in record-breaking fashion the past two years at Superstition Mountain Golf and Country Club in the far East Valley.
“It’s just I didn’t have anything going this week. I feel like I haven’t played too bad, but the score hasn’t shown anything. It’s very disappointing (but) better this week than next week.’’
Not surprisingly, Ochoa also is the defending champ in the LPGA’s first major of 2009, the Kraft Nabisco Championship, which tees off next week at Mission Hills in the Palm Springs area. And who can blame Ochoa for focusing on a major rather than a three-peat?
“Winning majors, that’s my No. 1 goal for this season,’’ said the No. 1 player in women’s golf earlier in the week.
Once upon a time, Ochoa had trouble bagging those big ones, as she coughed up several major titles coming down the stretch. But a stirring victory in the British Open in 2007 was followed up with another amazing performance in the Kraft Nabisco last spring, where she left the Swedish tandem of Annika Sorenstam and Suzann Pettersen five shots down the road. A brief drought followed in the middle of the summer before Ochoa roared back by winning her 24th career victory in the fall, a feat that landed her in the LPGA Hall of Fame at age 26.
This season opened with yet another win in Thailand. Then came last week’s big letdown in her homeland, where Ochoa couldn’t hold onto the lead in the MasterCard Classic Honoring Alejo Peralta. It hurt, because the one win Ochoa wants as much as a major is winning in her hometown, a trophy that has eluded her for five straight years.
“It doesn’t feel good, but I gave it my best at the end. It just wasn’t to be,’’ the introspective Ochoa said of her birdie-birdie finish that came up one shot shy of a playoff with Pat Hurst.
“There are a lot of great players out here, and (Hurst) is certainly one of them. So you learn and move on and try to win the next one.’’
Not that Ochoa has totally given up on what lies ahead today. Sure, the 20-year-old Shin is probably the hottest player in women’s golf, having won three times last year as a non-member of the LPGA and once this season as a member. And Shin can play, as evidenced by the 27 tournaments she has won since turning pro in 2005, the majority on the Korean LPGA.
Remember, it was Shin who got in the way of Ochoa repeating at the British last summer, although that was once again a change of venue, as Ochoa won at St. Andrews and Shin’s win came at Sunningdale Golf Club.
There are certainly others who also could factor into the final 18 holes at Papago, which has held up nicely through three rounds. That list includes first- and second-leader In-Kyung Kim, yet another 20-year-old Korean who is one shot back along with Hall of Famer Karrie Webb of Australia; Pettersen, who is two shots back; and Yani Tseng, another tenacious 20-year-old Asian who comes from Taiwan and is five shots back and still plenty dangerous.
What’s cool about Ochoa, who has the heart of a lioness and the frame of a lamb, is she has no fear against all this young and relentless talent. She knows who won the driving distance title last year on the LPGA (269.8 yards), how she putted last year (No. 1), who won the most tournaments (seven) and money ($2.76 million). Ochoa has no plans to give up those honors just yet.
In every way imagineable, Ochoa can do it all with her bag of PINGs even if she hasn’t done much this week after opening with rounds of 72-72 en route to 70 on Saturday. But she "loves the desert” dating back to her college days at the University of Arizona, and said she likes Papago "a lot.”
“I think it’s a fun course, (but) it’s not very easy to make putts because they are (from) far away all the time,’’ Ochoa said about the new and rather firm greens. “And I’m frustrated because I feel like I didn’t take advantage of the par 5s (2-under through 54 holes). I’m able to hit almost all of them (in two shots). It’s weird. . . .
“The bunkers, I’ve missed probably all of them (saves). (The bunkers in the) middle of the fairway, next to the green, I just don’t feel comfortable. Those are the things that are stopping me from shooting a low round.’’
She’s right, the sand at Papago is inconsistent, and that’s the way Ochoa has performed this week as her score has yo-yoed up and down from 2- or 3-under back to par. Certainly her home-course advantage at Superstition Mountain was taken away even if she has never complained about it.
So does this mean the three-peat is out of reach?
The hard line says probably so if for no other reason than Shin is getting better and better as the tournament unfolds, including a course record 6-under 66 by Shin on Saturday.
Just don’t tell Lorena Ochoa that it can’t be done. Her positive nature would never allow such a negative thought.
“Of course I’m going to think that anything can happen,’’ Ochoa said when asked about her slim chances. “I remember Annika coming from 10 shots back once.’’
Sorenstam did it at the 2001 Office Depot hosted by Amy Alcott, and it’s been done two other times in LPGA history. Besides, Ochoa is only eight shots back of Shin — not 10!
“I won’t put any pressure on myself and will come out tomorrow and enjoy my day,’’ Ochoa said. “I’m feeling good. I’m not worried about anything.’’
Such is life when you’re on top of the world rankings, a national hero at home and you’ve already accomplished so much in your profession that there always is "next week.”