Sorenstam aiming for Ochoa at Kraft Nabisco

Sorenstam aiming for Ochoa at Kraft Nabisco

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. (AP) — Annika Sorenstam once showed up at Mission Hills wearing red shoes in the final round of the Kraft Nabisco Championship, a bold commentary on her confidence more than any kind of fashion statement.

That was in 2002, and when she defended her title that day with a one-shot victory, there was no doubt who ruled women’s golf.

Just like there’s no’s question now.

Those red shoes are now in a trophy case at her golf academy in Florida, and Sorenstam might want to slip them on, click her heels and wish she were home, which for her would be back at No. 1 in the world.

But she is seemingly miles away from Lorena Ochoa, evident not only in the world ranking but in conversation. During a 20-minute interview, Ochoa was asked four questions about Tiger Woods, none about Sorenstam.

It’s almost as if Sorenstam no longer exists.

“I’ve come to the back nine of my career,” Sorenstam said Wednesday on the eve of the LPGA Tour’s first major.

What she could use is a Sunday charge.

Sorenstam won the season-opener at Turtle Bay in Hawaii. She has broken par in all 14 rounds she has played this year. She feels good, looks fit and believes she can become the first four-time winner of the Kraft Nabisco.

But she hasn’t made up any ground.

Ochoa waited until Singapore to make her ’08 debut, then won by 11 shots. In what might be the strongest field of the year on the LPGA Tour last week outside Phoenix, Ochoa missed a half-dozen putts inside 10 feet and still won by seven.

“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.”

It all starts with a splash, the symbol of a major championship that has become among the most exciting in golf, and not just because the winner traditionally jumps into the lake surrounding the 18th green at Mission Hills.

A year ago, Morgan Pressel played the final 24 holes without a bogey and at 18 became the youngest major champion in LPGA history. Even more stunning was 2006, when Karrie Webb holed out for eagle with a pitching wedge on the 18th fairway, then defeated Ochoa on the first playoff hole with a birdie.

That was as close as Ochoa has come to winning what must feel like her home major.

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.

Tournament 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.

Ochoa was asked at the start of the year what came to mind when she heard Sorenstam’s name.

“That she’s coming after me,” Ochoa said. “I know Annika. I know she likes to win. She’s very strong and she’s ready to play good. But I’m prepared. I know I can be here. It’s going to be a good year.”

Ochoa has never jumped into the water that surrounds the 18th green, a tradition that began 20 years ago when Amy Alcott won.

The Kraft Nabisco has the smallest field among LPGA majors, with only 109 players, including select amateur. But it is opportunity for young and old, as Pressel showed last year, and as Laura Davies and Meg Mallon would love to experience for the first time.

Davies is 44, and a victory this week would give her the career Grand Slam and make her eligible for the World Golf Hall of Fame. Mallon turns 45 next week, and lacks only the Nabisco for the Grand Slam.

Even so, the focus is squarely on Ochoa, who captured her first major last summer at the Women’s British Open and is heavily favored at Mission Hills, mainly because she has won twice this year by a combined 18 shots.

She likes being No. 1 and has no plans to leave, all of which makes Sorenstam’s chase even more difficult.

Her decline began at this tournament last year. Sorenstam tied for 30th, and a month later, learned she had disk problems in her back and neck and forced her out of golf for two months. She failed to win on the LPGA Tour for the first time as Ochoa got farther and farther away from her in the world ranking.

“It’s different to chase somebody than being chased,” Sorenstam said. “I was disappointed to lose the No. 1 spot that I had for a while, and I enjoyed being up there. With the injury, that was a huge setback for me. I’m in a different situation today. It’s not just me trying to chase Lorena. It’s about me trying to play the golf I know how.

“I know I have it in me, and I’m just going to let it happen,” she said. “I’m hitting the ball well. I won this year. I have all the ingredients I need.”

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