Garrity: Check the 17th hole

In four starts this season, Morgan Pressel has three top 10s, including her win Sunday at the Kraft Nabisco Championship.
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Memo to the LPGA: You need to check the 17th hole of the Dinah Shore course. Send a guy out there with a carpenter’s level and a plumb bob. Get somebody in coveralls to search for loose floorboards and exposed wiring. Test for radon. Because there’s clearly something wrong with the hole. It tripped
up Lorena Ochoa last Saturday during the third round of the Kraft Nabisco Championship in Rancho Mirage, Calif., right when she was poised to win her first major championship and dethrone world No. 1 Annika Sorenstam.

Don’t pinch pennies; hire an arborist. It was a big eucalyptus tree, after all, that leaned in and swatted down Ochoa’s six-iron tee shot on the 173-yard par-3. That’s how sweet Lorena wound up in a sub-basement lie about 30 yards short of the elevated, two-tier green-and if you keep receipts, check ’em, because the grass down there looks as if it hasn’t been mowed since Valentine’s Day.

Don’t get me wrong; it was a hell of a tournament. The eventual champion, 18-year-old Morgan Pressel, played bogey-free golf and passed eight players in the final round to become the youngest-ever winner of a woman’s major, and afterward all she could do was fan her face with her hand and choke out one “Oh, my God!” after another. And drama! You had Suzann Pettersen, the fiery Norwegian who had nearly beaten Ochoa the week before at the Safeway International, stepping onto the 15th tee with a four-stroke lead and walking off the 18th green, less than an hour later, with a one-third share of woulda’-coulda’-shoulda’.

Even so, you can’t let one out-of-control hole decide your tournaments for you. Ochoa needed to win a major to validate the widely held perception that she’s the new insuperable campeon de golf, and your bleedin’ 17th hole got in her way.

Granted, this was one of those throw-up-your-hands tournaments in which the leaders swoon down the stretch and the trophy goes to someone who’s been in the clubhouse for an hour answering e-mails and thumbing through the Bulgari catalog. (Pressel, a fast talker with more spunk than she can comfortably contain, hung around the Mission Hills putting green and practice range while the late finishers staggered in. She wisely resisted the temptation to whip out her BlackBerry and text-taunt her rival, 17-year-old Michelle Wie, who missed the tournament due to a wrist injury.)

This final round produced a Who’s Who of backpedalers. Third-round leader Se Ri Pak, a five-time major champion trying to complete a career Grand Slam, bogeyed five of the last six holes. Paula (Pink Panther) Creamer-who at 20 already has three LPGA victories-shot a six-over 78 and dropped to 15th place. Catriona Matthew, a Solheim Cup veteran with three previous top 10s at the Kraft Nabisco, missed a short par putt on the last hole that would have forced a playoff. Any of them would have traded final rounds with Ochoa, who shot 72 and tied with Pak, four strokes-I repeat, four-behind Pressel.

O.K., you got me. I wanted Ochoa to win her first major. But so did most of the fans at Mission Hills.

Ochoa’s galleries were the biggest, and her fans were the loudest. She’s just a tiny thing, this 25-year-old out of the University of Arizona, but she has one country, Mexico, wrapped around her little finger and another country, the U.S., trying to remember why it wanted to build a wall along the border.

She’s a guileless sweetheart. She’s also the woman who won six tournaments and $2.6 million in 2006, ending Sorenstam’s five-year run as player of the year. If Ochoa won the Kraft Nabisco, we were told ad nauseam, she would even take Sorenstam’s place at the top of the Rolex Rankings-which Ochoa conceded would be a thrill, but nothing that she was pushing for.

“I’ve been waiting for five years,” she said last Friday. “Two weeks, three weeks, four weeks more is not a problem.”

The threat of being deposed should have stirred up Sorenstam, whose 2006 output was a relatively meager three wins and five seconds-one of the wins being her third U.S. Women’s Open title.

Instead, she hit it crooked and opened with rounds of 75-76. That barely got her past the 36-hole cut and landed her in the bracket of pros who start their weekend rounds on the 10th tee.

“I just can’t get the spark to glow,” the 36-year-old Sorenstam told the Los Angeles Times. “I’m as puzzled as I can be.”

The stage was set, then, for Ochoa to take over. She shot 69-71 to share the halfway lead with Creamer, and through 16 holes of round three she was barreling along at three under, one off the lead. That’s when-and I don’t say this lightly-some knucklehead let her play the 17th, a hole that should be condemned.

First there was the interference by the tree, and then Ochoa hit a lob from the rough that landed on a green that probably hadn’t gotten any moisture since Sergio Garcia’s last visit. Her ball bounded into more rough behind the green, and from there she needed two swings to extract it, the clubhead sliding right under the ball on her first effort. Unfortunately, that fourth shot nudged Ochoa’s ball past the flagstick and back down the slope to the green’s lower tier. From there she three-putted for a quadruple-bogey 7.

I don’t know if church bells tolled in Mexico, but up at the 18th green the sight of Ochoa’s name being taken off the leader board triggered a collective groan. “Well, yes, I’m human,” she said later, “and a lot of things happened.”

And a lot of things were said. Creamer, who trailed only Pak and Pettersen through three rounds, dismissed Ochoa’s meltdown as a lapse of discipline. “You can’t be too greedy,” she said, operating under the assumption that Ochoa had been aiming at 17’s sucker pin. “There’s a time to do that, and that’s Sunday, down the stretch.”

Creamer was right, but that didn’t make it any easier for Ochoa’s fans, who rose from their grandstand seats and cheered on Saturday when their favorite arrived at the 18th green.

Pressel, I should add, got a different kind of cheer the next day, when she holed a 10-footer for birdie, a 69 and a three-under 285. It was a sharp, enthusiastic burst-accompaniment for her fist pump-that dwindled to polite applause. Nobody had an inkling that she was going to win.

So it goes down as one of those nutty outcomes that leaves you scratching your head-an echo of the 2005 U.S. Women’s Open in Denver, where an unsung pro, Birdie Kim, holed a bunker shot on the final hole to snatch victory away from a can’t-miss 17-year-old by the name of Pressel.

This time Pressel played the spoiler, but it was a stealth victory; she hung back for three days and didn’t raise a goose bump until Sunday afternoon, when she got to the 17th hole.

That’s right, the 17th.

A bunch of us walked out there in the heat, expecting to be turned back by orange cones and barricades. Instead we found pretty much the same par-3 as on Saturday, only the pin was set back right instead of back left. Pressel went out on the tee, which was roped off for safety, and smacked a solid shot pin high. From there she parred the hole, the second putt being a five-foot knee-knocker that she would later call “more important than the putt on 18.”

Pettersen? She got to 17 in a more rattled state, having squandered her big lead on the previous two holes. “Perfect club,” she said of her tee shot on the par-3. “Hit it a little too hard, hit it left. The chip shot was pretty good. I thought I had the putt; it was so close…. ” But there was no roar for Pettersen, who would par the final hole to tie for second with Matthew and Brittany Lincicome.

The final hole-that’s where majors should be decided. Not on the 17th.