Thursday, April 03, 2008

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. (AP) — A collapse like this should have left scars.

Suzann Pettersen looked like a runaway winner at the Kraft Nabisco Championship without four holes to play. Then came a bogey from the right rough on the 15th. She clipped a tree branch trying to escape the rough on the 16th, leading to double bogey. Another bogey on the 17th. And just like that, she was in tears, blowing a chance to win her first major.

It might have been the best thing to happen to her.

A month later, she won her first LPGA Tour event in Virginia. And a month after that, she was flawless on the back nine of Bulle Rock to capture her first major at the LPGA Championship.

No wonder she arrived at Mission Hills and had such warm memories.

"Last year was a very good tournament and began my turnaround for the year, and turned out to be something positive," Pettersen said on the eve of the LPGA's first major of the year. "I have so many good memories seeing the course again."

She also has a sense of humor.

Walking down the 16th fairway Wednesday during the pro-am, she noticed the tree that had caused her so much trouble last year had been trimmed.

"Why not just move it?" she said. "But they halved it, so maybe I have a chance this year."

Pettersen is among those who have an excellent chance to win the Nabisco and take a plunge into the lake surrounding the 18th green, a tradition that Amy Alcott started 20 years ago this week.

The focus is squarely on Lorena Ochoa, the No. 1 player who also has some mixed memories.

She began playing Mission Hills as a teenager when she dominated college golf at Arizona. The support she feels in the Coachella Valley is second only to what she gets in her native Mexico, with so many family and friends in the gallery, along with fans from the area who make their presence known by waving the Mexican flag.

Tournaments typically give players tickets for their family. Ochoa asked for 100.

"We'll see how many I can get, and I'll just pay the rest," she said with a laugh.

But she has failed to deliver the performance everyone expects. Two years ago, she had a three-shot lead until crumbling on the back nine. Ochoa recovered with a brave fairway metal to 6 feet for eagle on the final hole that got her into a playoff with Karrie Webb, who beat her with a birdie on the first extra hole.

Last year was particularly painful. Ochoa looked smooth as can be until taking a quadruple bogey on the par-3 17th in the third round, whiffing a chip off the green and three-putting, and essentially knocking herself out of the tournament.

"I already erased them," she insisted. "I only feel good things about this course, and good vibes and good memories. Of course, you're going to make mistakes and have a few bad holes, like what happened on 17 last year. I struggled on holes 13, 14 and 15. They were holes that I played over par, and I'm going to work on those this year and make sure I play that stretch in a positive way.

"And I think that will really help get a good result on Sunday."

She also learned from her mistakes. Ochoa wasted another chance at a major in the U.S. Women's Open when she couldn't find a fairway on the back nine of Pine Needles, losing to Cristie Kerr. But she finally broke through at St. Andrews, winning the Women's British Open for her first major.

Ten women have won the past 10 majors, and Ochoa is trying to become the first player to win consecutive majors since Annika Sorenstam won the first two legs of the Grand Slam in 2005.

Sorenstam's dominance now seems like a distant memory.

She had an injury she didn't know about last year at Mission Hills, when she tied for 30th. She soon discovered back and neck injuries that kept her out two months, and 2007 ended without an LPGA victory for Sorenstam for the first time since her rookie season in 1994. Now, she has fallen so far behind Ochoa in the world ranking that no one talks about the once formidable Swede.

She once reached the top and found new mountains to climb. Now, Sorenstam faces something akin to Mount Shasta as she tries to regain her No. 1 ranking.

"She's playing some spectacular golf right now," Sorenstam said. "I'm just focusing on the things I can control, and that's my own game, things I want to achieve. If I achieve my goals, I think things will fall into place. A good season for me would be several wins, a few majors and just being the best player out here.

"I have high expectations of myself, and I believe I can do it."

Morgan Pressel was evidence that anything can happen. She was an afterthought a year ago, steadily playing tough-minded golf and finishing the final 24 holes without a bogey. That proved to be enough when Pettersen collapsed, and at 18, Pressel became the youngest major champion in LPGA history.

She was at Mission Hills two weeks ago, soaking up nothing but positive memories. Then she came to the 18th and saw the wall of champions, her name part of that list.

"It was pretty cool to see my name on the wall," Pressel. "It's been a whirlwind week so far."

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