RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. (AP) — Lorena Ochoa was in the rough on the left, under the trees on the right and not always sure where the next shot was headed. When a demanding day ended at the Kraft Nabisco Championship, she was right where she wanted to be.
Ochoa bounced back from a double bogey with two birdies that sent her to a 1-under 71 on Friday, leaving her atop the leaderboard in the first LPGA Tour major of the year and on track to replace Annika Sorenstam at No. 1 in the world.
“Being able to finish under par makes me feel good,” Ochoa said.
She was at 4-under 140 and two shots clear of Se Ri Pak among the early starters. Pak, who needs this major to complete the career Grand Slam, played a much more tidy round with one bad hole on her way to a 70.
Brittany Lincicome shot a 71 and was at 143, the only other player among early starters to finish two rounds under par.
Shi Hyun Ahn, the first-round leader at 4-under 68, was in the final group of the afternoon. Also playing in the afternoon was Sorenstam, whose 75 was her worst start at a major in seven years.
Mission Hills played even tougher than the first round, even on another day of sunshine in the Coachella Valley with barely a breeze. The greens were firm as ever, but what cost Ochoa in the early going was the thick grass framing the fairways.
She went from the left rough to the right rough on the par-4 13th and had to two-putt down a slippery slope from 25 feet to escape with bogey. And if there is such a thing as a good double bogey, the 25-year-old Mexican star got that on the 15th.
Her tee shot sailed right into rough under the trees, and Ochoa tried to scoot a 4-iron up the fairway. But she topped it slightly, the ball never got much air under it and traveled a mere 15 yards, still in the rough, still slightly blocked by trees. Her third shot hung up on a steep, grassy lip of the bunker, and her chip ran through the green into more rough.
Ochoa chipped to 4 feet and holed the putt to limit the damage. And while she lost two shots, she kept her perspective.
“I saw myself under par,” said Ochoa, who at that point was 1 under. “And under par is always a good score in a major.”
She steadied herself with a tee shot into 18 inches on the par-3 17th, a tough hole with a front pin and hard green. And her round turned on the par-5 18th, which played 485 yards to give players a chance to reach the peninsula green in two. Ochoa was in the first cut to the left, but her only doubt was club selection.
She wanted a 7-wood from 192 yards, but caddie Dave Brooker suggested a 5-wood to be on the safe side. Ochoa agreed, which was a good thing, for the ball descended with a slight fade and cleared the edge of the pond by 5 feet, hanging on the bank. She chipped to 8 feet and made the birdie putt, sending her to her back nine with positive vibes.
Even then, it was hard work.
From the right rough, she punched out over a cardboard trash can and just onto the green, but then knocked her 40-foot birdie attempt about 10 feet by and caught the lip for a three-putt bogey. She came up well short with a wedge on the par-5 second, and left herself a testy 6-footer for par. She made that to avoid consecutive three-putts, then spent the next two holes standing over 4-foot par putts that she made to keep momentum on her side.
Ochoa finished with a 12-foot birdie on the par-3 eighth, putting her in control of this major.
Karrie Webb wasn’t so fortunate. She struggled with her irons and didn’t see too many putts ball into the cup except for a 30-footer for birdie on the second that put her at 1 under for the tournament, very much in the hunt.
But it began to unravel, and so did the Hall of Famer.
After a poor pitch into the third, she buried the head of her club into the fairway turf. She banged her sand wedge into the bag after a pedestrian bunker shot on the fourth, and Webb ran off two more bogeys on her way to a 77.
Webb won the Nabisco last year in a playoff over Ochoa, and she nearly made it two straight majors at the LPGA Championship until Pak’s memorable hybrid 4-iron into 2 inches on the first playoff hole at Bulle Rock.
That might not have been a fluke. Pak again looks like the force she was when she burst onto the LPGA scene in 1998 with two majors as a rookie. She will be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame later this year, and she would love to be part of the Grand Slam club when she gets there.
Maybe the best indicator of her game is that she’s even in contention at this major. Mission Hills has never been kind to the gregarious South Korean, with her best finish a tie for ninth in 2002.
“I feel more comfortable now. That’s the difference,” she said.
Pak’s only bogey came on the 12th when she missed the fairway and came up short of the green. She made two birdies, including one from 25 feet on the first hole, and gladly took 15 pars to get her into weekend contention.
“I’m ready all the time,” she said. “And my swing is close to where I want it.”