RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. (AP) — Lorena Ochoa finds inspiration just about everywhere she turns in the California desert.
She never came closer to winning a major than one year ago in the Kraft Nabisco Championship. The Mexican star tied an LPGA major record with a 62 in the opening round, only to carelessly throw away shots over the weekend. And despite a birdie-par-eagle finish to force a playoff, she left Mission Hills empty after losing to Karrie Webb in a playoff.
“I didn’t like the feeling of losing, kind of giving the tournament away after a great first round,” she said.
But the Coachella Valley is filled with positive vibes, too, for it was only five months ago at Bighorn that Ochoa produced perhaps her most significant victory to date.
She trailed Annika Sorenstam by three shots going into the final round of the Samsung World Championship on a course where Sorenstam had never lost and was going after a record sixth victory. Despite such daunting odds, the fearless Ochoa fired at flags and closed with a 7-under 65 to win by two.
It sent Ochoa on her way to winning LPGA player of the year and the money title, which had belonged to Sorenstam the last five years. And it allowed her to truly believe that being No. 1 in the world was only a matter of time.
Perhaps the time is now.
Ochoa can move to No. 1 in the women’s world ranking and fill the only hole in her credentials with a victory in the Kraft Nabisco Championship, which starts Thursday at Mission Hills.
There is little to suggest she is not the favorite.
She is coming off a six-victory season that allowed her to sweep all the major awards. And she is coming off a victory last week against a strong field outside Phoenix, where she birdied four of the last five holes.
“I would say Lorena is playing very, very well,” Sorenstam said. “Of course, I’m looking at the rankings the LPGA official money list. And so far, and right now, she’s playing some superb golf. So I’m not surprised that the gap is smaller and smaller.”
The Kraft Nabisco is played on the same course every year, and the 101 players make it the smallest field among LPGA majors. It does not include Hawaii teenager Michelle Wie, who is recovering from a wrist injury.
In her fifth year on tour, about the only thing the 25-year-old Ochoa has not achieved is winning a major.
Her first decent chance came two years ago at Cherry Hills, a grueling test for the 2005 U.S. Women’s Open. Ochoa was among the early starters and was poised to post a score of 3 over par – the winning score that day – until she hooked her tee shot on the 18th hole into the water and stumbled to a quadruple bogey.
Then came last year.
After opening with a 62, Ochoa led by at least three shots the rest of the week until her lead slipped away, first to Wie, then to Webb, who holed a pitching wedge from 116 yards on the final hole for eagle.
Unwilling to go down without a fight, Ochoa made birdie on the 16th, then hit 5-wood over the pond fronting the 18th green to 6 feet for an eagle to force a playoff. Webb won on the first extra hole.
“I was playing in the last group, a lot of pressure going on,” Ochoa said. “And especially with Michelle Wie playing so good, the crowd was cheering so hard for her. And all of a sudden, Karrie made an eagle. There are things you cannot control.”
Ochoa was more discouraged by how she played in the third round, when she had a chance to put it away.
But the week wasn’t a total loss.
“They made me a better player,” she said. “I know how much to trust yourself and to be good under pressure, manage the lead, a lot of emotions going on. It really taught me and helped me to be a more consistent player throughout the 2006 season.”
What would winning a major mean? For starters, a big party in Mexico.
It was a return for Webb, who dominated the LPGA seven years ago until losing confidence as she rebuilt her swing. Webb lost in a playoff at the LPGA Championship to Se Ri Pak and she wound up with four victories and second on the money list.
Webb, with seven majors, believes it won’t be long before Ochoa picks up her first.
“What did she shoot, 10 under the first round? Really, it was her tournament to win after that and she didn’t get the job done,” Webb said. “I think she really learned from that because later in the year, she had a couple of tournaments where she had leads and won. And then at Samsung, she beat Annika down the stretch.”
Sorenstam, however, is still No. 1 in the world ranking. But instead of talk about a Grand Slam, the questions focus on how much longer the Swede can stay on top.
She is 36, branching out into business, thinking more about starting a family.
And yet a part of Sorenstam isn’t willing to let go that easily. She hasn’t been seriously challenged by anyone since Pak won the ’02 LPGA Championship, and Sorenstam blew her away the rest of the season, then left everyone else in her wake the next three years.
But she won only three times last year, and in her first tournament this season, she lost a two-shot lead with three holes to play against unheralded Meghan Francella in Mexico.
“I’m happy to be back this year with a better swing, and just feeling that I have the game again,” Sorenstam said. “I think if I just perform, things will fall into place, the right place. And there’s nothing really I can control other than that.”