PALM DESERT, Calif. (AP) — Lorena Ochoa add a stamp to her credentials as the LPGA’s best player last year when she rallied to beat Annika Sorenstam in the Samsung World Championship.
Sorenstam isn’t in the tournament this year, but Ochoa still faces a top field of challengers as she tries to make it two in a row.
“Winning here and playing that last round with Annika and coming from behind, it was something very special and important for my career,” Ochoa said
“It was a lot of fun to finish strong last year and be able to play good so far this year.”
Among the top threats to Ochoa’s hopes of repeating are Norway’s Suzann Pettersen, who birdied the second hole of a playoff to beat her on Sunday in the Longs Drugs Challenge for her third victory of the year; Morgan Pressel, who won the Kraft Nabisco, and U.S. Women’s Open champion Cristie Kerr; Paula Creamer and Mi Hyun Kim.
Ochoa, the 2006 player of the year, has won six times this year — including the Women’s British Open for her first major victory — and earned a tour-record $3,068,421.
“So a lot of positive things, improvement in my game and things we’ve been working on,” she said. “I’m ready to start playing.”
So is Michelle Wie, whose pro debut in the 2005 tournament at Big Horn Golf Club Country was a rousing success until after late in the final day. She was disqualified then for signing an incorrect scorecard after the third round. Otherwise, she would have finished fourth.
“A lot of good things, a lot of bad things happened to me at this event. It’s been pretty traumatic. It’s been pretty epic, actually. It’s my birthday every single year this week, so I always take it as a new beginning,” said Wie, who turns 18 on Thursday, opening day of the tournament.
“I think it’s time for a new beginning. I’m really looking forward to it.”
Wie, a freshman at Stanford, has been hampered by a wrist injury and struggled this year. In seven events, she has made just two cuts and earned a total of $9,899.
She said she’s OK now.
“I am just so grateful for the fact that I am actually feeling really healthy right now,” Wie said. “My wrist is feeling a lot better. I feel like I’m getting stronger. I feel healthy as a person, too, going to college, just having some fun.
“Just really working out and really practicing and just leaving everything behind.”
Ochoa, who came from three shots back on the final day to beat Sorenstam last year, said she’s sorry that Sorenstam isn’t playing. But she supports the Swedish star’s decision not to use an exemption to get into the elite event.
“What happened to her is very understandable, the way she got injured and tried just to slow down and not play as many tournaments,” said Ochoa, who has supplanted Sorenstam as the LPGA Tour’s top player.
“She has been through a lot. For sure I will miss her, not only me, but a lot of players and the sponsors, and everybody would like to have her here. But she will be back.”
Sorenstam, a five-time winner of the event, declined an offer to play this time. After getting off to a slow start this year and missing time because of back and neck problems, she wasn’t eligible for the 20-player field until the organizers changed the eligibility criteria last week.
They eliminated the option to exempt the U.S. Women’s Amateur champion, which they hadn’t exercised in nine years, and changed that spot to an exemption for an active Hall of Fame member.
That would have gone to Sorenstam, with the eight-time player of the year providing another headliner for the tournament.
But Sorenstam didn’t want to take a spot that would have gone to another player, according to Mark Steinberg, her agent and head of the golf division at IMG.
Sarah Lee then got the final spot off the money list.
Ochoa applauded Sorenstam’s decision.
“What Annika decided to do, that’s something that I admire very much, I respect. She thought they were wrong to do it,” Ochoa said. “That just shows how much class she has and how professional she is.”
The field consists of the defending champion, four major champions, the leader on the Ladies European Tour money list, and one special exemption that went to Wie, with the rest coming from the money list.