RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. (AP) – Brash and candid since her rookie season, Paula Creamer singled out Annika Sorenstam as the player standing in her way of becoming No. 1 in the world.
Creamer is in her third year on the LPGA Tour, with three victories and a starring role in the Solheim Cup. She is still searching for that first major, and the 20-year-old American gave herself a good chance this week at the Kraft Nabisco Championship with a 5-under 67 on Friday that left her tied for the lead with Lorena Ochoa.
Creamer shot the best score of this tournament while playing with Sorenstam, who is struggling.
But as she tees off in the final group – her first experience of that in a major – she will be paired with the next person who might be blocking her path to the top of women’s golf.
Sorenstam is still No. 1 in the ranking. All eyes in women’s golf, however, are on Ochoa. (LPGA.com: Leaderboard.)
“Annika right now is the world’s No. 1 player,” Creamer said. “Lorena is playing unbelievable. When you play with Lorena and she gets on a hot streak, you just want to keep going with her.”
And so the stage is set for the weekend of the LPGA Tour’s first major of the year.
Ochoa, the 25-year-old Mexican who might be her country’s biggest sports star, overcame a nasty patch early in her round when she took bogey on the 13th, then took five shots to reach the green on the par-4 15th and was happy to escape with double bogey.
She answered with a tee shot into 18 inches for birdie on the par-3 17th, a difficult hole because of the firm greens and front hole location, then boldly went for the green with a 5-wood on the 485-yard 18th. The shot barely cleared the water, Ochoa chipped to 8 feet for birdie and was on her way to a hard-earned 71.
Creamer played in the afternoon and joined her with a flawless round.
The longest of her five birdie putts was 12 feet. The only time she came remotely close to making a bogey was on the first hole, when her birdie putt went some 4 feet past the cup and she made it for par. And she had four birdie putts inside 12 feet that she missed, including two inside 6 feet on the final two holes.
She remains brash as ever.
After opening with a 73 on Thursday, someone mentioned to Creamer that Mission Hills wouldn’t allow a round like Ochoa had last year, when the Mexican opened with a 62 to tie an LPGA record for majors.
“It’s out there,” Creamer said. “You just have to be patient.”
She must have believed that the way she played Friday, missing so many chances but being smart enough to realize that major championships on courses as tough as this is more about chances, not necessarily making them all.
“We’ll take it,” she said.
Ochoa and Creamer were at 4-under 140, with only seven other players remaining under par.
Suzann Pettersen of Norway, a runner-up to Ochoa last week outside Phoenix, shot 69 and joined Shi Hyun Ahn (73) at 141.
Another shot behind was Se Ri Pak, who needs a victory this week to become the seventh woman to complete the career Grand Slam. She made 14 pars on her way to a 70 that finally gave her a decent chance at a Mission Hills course that has tormented her.
The group at 143 featured Brittany Lincicome, Catriona Matthew, Lindsey Wright and Maria Hjorth.
Missing from the mix, by a mile, was Sorenstam.
The world’s No. 1 player – not for long if Ochoa wins this week – was coming off her worst start at a major in seven years when she opened with a 75. She added another dubious footnote to her record Friday with only one birdie in a round of 76, making it her highest 36-hole start at a major since she went 76-75 at Oakmont in the 1992 U.S. Women’s Open. She was an amateur then.
“It’s just not happening at all,” Sorenstam said. “I’m very disappointed with the outcome, obviously. I’m doing the best I can.”
Winning a major has become a priority for Ochoa and Creamer, both with limited experience in majors.
Ochoa had a chance at Cherry Hills in the ’05 U.S. Women’s Open until duck-hooking her tee shot into the water on the final hole of the final round and taking quadruple bogey. Ultimately, a par would have gotten her into a playoff. Last year at the Kraft Nabisco, Ochoa went wire-to-wire until the final round, when she gave up the lead, rallied with an eagle on the final hole and lost to Karrie Webb in a playoff.
“I play every week to win, and when you’re playing a major … like I said, we only have four chances a year,” Ochoa said. “We really try to put everything together, all of the best game, and just be patient and play smart. I feel more prepared than years before. I’m going to give it a good try.”
Creamer was one shot out of the lead and in the second-to-last group at Cherry Hills until she stumbled to two double bogeys and a triple bogey on her way to a 79.
“I think I put so much emphasis on majors my first two years,” she said. “This is my third year. I’m still winning a lot. A win is a win wherever you go. Obviously, the majors are the biggest tournaments in golf. But I think if I just come in with the mind-set of playing the game that I have, playing the golf course, that can help me a lot. My patience is the biggest thing for me.”