MORELIA, Mexico (AP) — Lorena Ochoa closed in on the last point she needs to qualify for the LPGA Tour Hall of Fame, shooting her third straight 7-under 66 on Saturday to take a seven-stroke lead in the Corona Championship.
If Ochoa wins Sunday, the 26-year-old Mexican star will become the youngest player to qualify for the Hall of Fame. Se Ri Pak was 26 years and a few months older than Ochoa when she qualified by winning the 2004 Michelob Ultra Open.
She said she wasn’t thinking about the Hall of Fame as she prepared for Sunday. And she didn’t have big celebration plans.
“I’m going to jump in the car with my sister and her husband and drive back home,” she said.
The LPGA Tour awards one point for every victory and major award and two points for a major victory. Ochoa still must play 10 years on the LPGA Tour before she becomes eligible for the Hall of Fame, a goal she would reach in the 2012 season.
Ochoa also is in position for her third straight victory and fourth in five starts this season. She entered the week with 20 LPGA Tour titles.
South Korea’s Inbee Park (72) was second at 14 under, and compatriot Song-Hee Kim (71) followed at 13 under.
Park said she it would be difficult to catch Ochoa on Sunday.
“She plays good every day, and it is hard to keep up,” Park said. “It’s a pretty big gap to catch up.”
Ochoa, a stroke ahead of Park at the start of play Saturday, pulled away from the pack with seven birdies – on Nos. 5, 8, 9, 10, 11, 13 and 16.
A victory Sunday would be her second at the rugged Tres Marias course, a 4-year-old layout in western Mexico that jumps sunscorched mountain gullies and climbs hills so steep that even the players used carts to get around in some places.
Ochoa won the 2006 Corona event, her only tournament win on Mexican soil.
With or without a victory Sunday, Ochoa has won over the hearts of most Mexicans. Her face is on billboards around the country, and her success is celebrated as among the greatest achievements in Mexican sports history.
A huge crowd gathered at the first hole Saturday and greeted the Mexican hero with thundering applause, Mexican flags and shouts of “Come on, champ!” As she moved along the course, people constantly lined the fairways, cheering her every move.
“Every time I hit the ball, they cheer and scream, and it’s just great,” Ochoa said before heading out to sign autographs.
Many of her fans were young girls who obviously followed the game with some expertise.
As Ochoa prepared to hit a long approach iron over water onto the eighth green amid strong wind, two young sisters in matching dresses pulled loose some grass and threw the blades into the air, testing the direction of the gusts. Farther away, in the shade of several willow trees, a small girl hit a plastic golf ball with a plastic club, glancing up at Ochoa to see if she was getting it right.
Ochoa has made golf popular in a developing country where the game used to be only for the super rich and vacationing foreigners.
Alicia Bustamante, a 41-year-old from Irapuato, said Ochoa’s rise to the top convinced her to take up a club and try her luck.
“It is an honor to come see her play,” she said, noting it was her second year at the Corona Championship. “It really impressed me that she could become No. 1 in the world.”