Ochoa rallies to win Safeway International

Ochoa rallies to win Safeway International

Lorena Ochoa made a crucial birdie putt on the 17th hole during the final round.
Ross D. Franklin/AP

SUPERSTITION MOUNTAIN, ARIZ. – Lorena Ochoa won the Safeway International with the ugliest shot you’ve ever seen, a drop-kicked three-wood that expired in a bunker 70 yards short and right of its target.

That was her second shot on the par-5 13th hole on Sunday, and the feeble effort was indicative of what had been a disastrous round to that point. Ochoa started Sunday with a four-stroke lead, but by the time she got to 13 she was two shots behind a suddenly resurgent Suzann Pettersen, who had torched Superstition Mountain Golf and Country Club with five birdies in the first seven holes.

The reversal of fortune stirred memories of the 2005 Safeway, when Ochoa blew a four-shot lead on the final three holes and then lost a playoff to Annika Sorenstam by dumping her tee shot on the first extra hole into a pond. That self-immolation was part of a string of disappointing finishes that led to questions about Ochoa’s fortitude. Her six-win season in 2006 quieted most of that talk, but another Sunday collapse was the last thing Ochoa needed heading into the first major tournament of the year, this week’s Kraft Nabisco Championship.

But a funny thing happened back on the 13th hole. Ochoa fixed her swing, and her head. “That shot woke me up a little,” she told me Sunday evening, following the round. “I tried to hit that shot too hard. I just told myself to slow down, and the birdies would come. This was my tournament, and I was not going to let anyone take it from me.”

After saving par on 13, all Ochoa did was birdie four of the last five holes to roar to her 10th career victory and first in the state of Arizona, where she starred as an undergad. More importantly, it reaffirmed her standing as the favorite heading into the Kraft Nabisco, where she lost in a playoff last year. “A major is everything for a Tour player,” says Ochoa, 25, who is looking for her first. “Hopefully 2007 is the year of the majors for me.”

There’s no question Ochoa has the game to win golf’s biggest events, but the exacting conditions and suffocating pressure demand a different mindset than a birdie-a-thon like the Safeway. Annika Sorenstam figured that out long ago, and last week her coach Lynn Marriott told me, “I think the difference between Annika and everybody else is her patience. When it comes to the majors, she can wear them down.”

Ochoa is the Tour’s most aggressive player, but she is starting to accept that it’s okay to occasionally take her foot off the gas pedal. During the third round at the Safeway, she parred 13 straight holes before birdying the par-5 18th with a gorgeous three wood from 245 yards to the heart of the green. On Sunday she bogeyed the second hole out of a bad lie in the bunker and made another bogey on number six, but she never lost her composure.

“I think I still should be a little bit more patient, but I’m trying, and I can tell that I’m more balanced, my emotions,” Ochoa said following her closing 68, which pushed her to -18. “When I make a mistake, I don’t take it as hard and just move forward. It really helps at the end of the day or at the end of the tournament.”

Greg Allen, Ochoa’s old coach at the University of Arizona, was among the large, rowdy crowd following Ochoa on Sunday. He was also at the Safeway for the heart-breaking finish in ’05. “Since that tournament she’s become a different Lorena,” says Allen. “She learned the hard way, but since then she’s matured so much. The look on her face now — it’s so calm. You never worry with Lorena, because she has so much belief in herself.”

Ochoa is also edified by the belief that she is playing for more than just herself. Two days before the tournament began, she paid a visit to the grounds crew at Superstition Mountain, telling her fellow Mexicans she would win the tournament for them and that she hoped they would celebrate with her. After the final putt dropped, a large contingent of these men, plus various friends and family members of Ochoa’s, stormed the green, chanting “Si se puede!” This translates to “You can do it.” It is the rallying cry for the Mexican national soccer team.

As Ochoa departed Sunday evening for the long drive to Palm Springs for another crack at winning her first major championship, the chant was surely ringing in her ears. You can do it, Lorena. You can do it.