Lorena Ochoa won the Safeway International on Sunday with the ugliest shot she hit all week, a drop-kicked three-wood that expired in a bunker 70 yards short and right of its target. That was her second stroke on the par-5 13th hole, and the feeble effort was indicative of what to that point had been a disastrous round.
Ochoa started the day with a four-stroke lead, but by the time she was playing the 13th hole, she was two shots behind a red-hot Suzann Pettersen, who torched Superstition Mountain Golf and Country Club, outside Phoenix, with five birdies in the first seven holes. The reversal of fortune stirred memories of the 2005 Safeway, during which Ochoa blew a four-shot lead on the final three holes and then lost a playoff to Annika Sorenstam by dumping her tee shot into a lake on the first extra hole. That disaster was part of a string of disappointing finishes that had led to questions about Ochoa’s fortitude. Her six-win season in ’06 quieted most of that talk, but another Sunday collapse was the last thing Ochoa needed heading into the first major of the year, this week’s Kraft Nabisco Championship.
But a funny thing happened at 13. Ochoa fixed her swing, and her head. “That shot woke me up a little,” she said. “I tried to hit that shot too hard. I 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, Ochoa birdied four of the last five holes to finish at 18-under 270, two shots clear of Pettersen, and roar to her 10th career victory and first in Arizona, where she starred as an undergrad. More important, it reaffirmed her standing as the favorite heading into the Kraft Nabisco, where last year she lost in a playoff to Karrie Webb.
“A major is everything for a tour player,” says Ochoa, 25, who is looking for her first such win. “Hopefully 2007 is the year of the majors for me.”
There’s no question that Ochoa has the game to win golf’s biggest events, but the exacting conditions and suffocating pressure demand a different mind-set than a birdie-a-thon like the Safeway. Sorenstam figured that out long ago, and last week her coach, Lynn Marriott, said, “I think the difference between Annika and everybody else is her patience. When it comes to the majors, she can wear them down.”
Last year Sorenstam won the U.S. Women’s Open to push her career total to 10 majors, but 2006 was otherwise a down year for the 36-year-old superstar. Much of her attention was focused on building a golf academy, which opens next month in Orlando, and her swing suffered from the neglect. Following her third-round 69, Sorenstam was asked to compare the state of her game now with a year ago. “I have a clue where it’s going,” she said, joking. Actually, she struck the ball beautifully at the Safeway but got little love on the greens, dooming her to a tie for eighth. Regardless, “Annika’s superexcited about the majors,” says Marriott. “They mean everything to her.”
Ochoa is beginning to develop that Sorenstamian grit. During the third round she parred 13 straight holes before birdieing the par-5 18th with a gorgeous three-wood from 245 yards to the heart of the green. On Sunday she bogeyed the 2nd hole out of a bunker and took another bogey on 6 with a three-putt, but she never lost her composure. “I think I still should be a little bit more patient, but I’m trying,” Ochoa said following her closing 68. “When I make a mistake, I don’t take it as hard.”
Ochoa is also inspired by the idea that she is playing for more than herself. Two days before the tournament she visited the largely Mexican grounds crew at Superstition Mountain; she said she would win 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 18th green, chanting, !Si se puede! Translation: “You can do it.” As Ochoa departed on Sunday evening for the long drive to the Kraft Nabisco, in Rancho Mirage, Calif., and another crack at winning her first major, the chant was surely ringing in her ears.