Ochoa shot an opening round of 4-under 68.
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Friday, April 04, 2008

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. (AP) — First came her best shot of the day, even if it was only from 70 yards. Then, as Lorena Ochoa walked across the putting green to the next tee, she noticed a poster hanging from the back of the grandstand behind the first tee that had been signed by Mexican workers at the Kraft Nabisco Championship.

"Mission Hills Golf Course Staff Supports Lorena."

That was all the inspiration Ochoa needed Thursday to get right into the mix at the first major of the year.

Ochoa ran off four straight birdies around the turn, three of them from inside 6 feet as she finally cashed in on her power, and settled for a solid start of 4-under 68 to finish one shot behind Karen Stupples.

"Just be patient and wait for the right time," Ochoa said.

Stupples was first out in a gentle breeze and played bogey-free for a 67, getting back into the swing of major golf nearly a year after she gave birth to her first child. But it wasn't long before she had company.

Ochoa, trying to become the first woman since Annika Sorenstam in 2005 to win consecutive majors, found the perfect distance with a sand wedge from 70 yards and a breeze at her back, spinning the ball back to 2 feet on the 18th hole for a birdie. She birdied the first three holes on the front nine to tie for the lead, and only a three-putt bogey from the fringe and over severe humps on the par-3 eighth kept her from a share of the lead.

"I will take that, for sure, three more days," Ochoa said.

Ai Miyazato hit a wedge into tap-in range for birdie on her final hole to join Ochoa at 68, while Natalie Gulbis and Heather Young were another shot behind. UCLA freshman Maria Jose Uribe was the low amateur and in a group at 70 that included Liselotte Neumann.

Annika Sorenstam tried to stay with the leaders, but missed too many putts inside 10 feet and settled for a 71. It was her 15th consecutive round under par this year, but she wound up trailing Ochoa, the game's most dynamic player.

"It's a long way to go," Sorenstam said. "You just have to go out and battle it day by day, stroke by stroke, and take it as it comes."

Laura Davies lost her battle on one hole.

Needing only this major to complete the career Grand Slam and qualify for the World Golf Hall of Fame, the big hitter from England took a 10 on the 18th hole as she was making the turn.

Davies hit her third shot into the water. After taking a penalty drop and hitting her fifth over the green, she chipped through the green and back into the water. Her eighth shot spun back off the green and nearly into the water, and she got up-and-down to spare herself an even higher number. Davies wound up with a 76.

"I walk off with a 10 and the tournament is over for me," she said. "It's sickening."

Under bright sunshine and wind that grew stronger throughout the day, Stupples found her confidence early by finding the fairways, and saving par the one time she strayed. She picked up easy birdies on two of the par 5s, then capped off her round with a 6-iron on the par-3 17th to 6 feet.

It was a good sign that her strength is back nearly a year after her son, Logan, was born.

"Up until about a month ago, I hadn't really regained my full strength," Stupples said. "All of a sudden, it came back almost overnight. And that was really good to see, that I was able to get through the ball."

No one gets through the ball quite like Ochoa.

She worked hard on her putting during the offseason, but it's her power off the tee that has left everyone talking, and some of her competitors feeling even more out of their league.

Ochoa played with defending champion Morgan Pressel, who scrambled for a 71, but was constantly 40 yards behind.

"I'd like to be a little longer," Pressel said. "It's tough to compete when you're hitting 3-wood into the greens."

One such case happened on the 13th, when Pressel hit a fairway metal through the green that led to her first bogey in 27 holes at Mission Hills, dating to the third round last year. Ochoa hit 9-iron to 5 feet for her first birdie.

"They give me a hard time about that," Ochoa said of her peers. "How can I be so little and hit it so far?"

But the traditional jump into the lake is still a long way off, and Ochoa has plenty of company. Stupples won the 2004 Women's British Open with an eagle-double eagle start in the final round at Sunningdale. Gulbis missed a playoff by one shot at the Nabisco two years ago.

And even though Ochoa is the player to beat, she has not forgotten about Sorenstam. She was asked if she ever looks for Sorenstam's name on the leaderboard.

"All the time," Ochoa said. "She is a player to watch. She is so good and so consistent and she likes to win. That always keeps me alert and motivated and know where I stand."

Divots: University of Kentucky junior Mallory Blackwelder shot a 71. Her mother, Myra, recently became the Wildcats' women's golf coach. Her father, Worth, is the caddie for Juli Inkster. ... Dorothy Delasin was disqualified for taking an incorrect penalty drop on the 18th hole, which could not be rectified after she teed off on the next hole. ... Nicole Perot was not allowed to play for missing her pro-am on Wednesday. There are two pro-ams at the LPGA's first major.

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