- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 8, 2006

HAVRE DE GRACE, Md. — Golf’s flowering First Lady is named Lorena.

While fans and media have been fixated on Phil Mickelson’s quest for a major threepeat, Tiger Woods’ personal trauma, Michelle Wie’s gender-bending antics, Karrie Webb’s resurgence and Annika Sorenstam’s slump, Lorena Ochoa is quietly putting together the best season in the sport.

In 11 LPGA starts this season, Ochoa has two victories (Takefuji Classic and Sybase Classic), five runner-up finishes and one outrageous streak. From March 30 to May 21, the 24-year-old native of Guadalajara made six LPGA starts, finishing first or second every time she teed it up. Over the last decade, only Sorenstam and Woods can boast similar dominance.

Ochoa ranks first on the LPGA’s money rankings ($1,121,280) and heads the Vare Trophy list at season’s midpoint with a scoring average of 69.24. That’s a better number than Sorenstam ‘s 69.33 last season, when the Swede maintained her stranglehold on the women’s game by collecting 10 victories and sweeping the tour’s coveted trifecta (money list, Vare Trophy, Player of the Year) for a fifth consecutive season.

And yet, as Ochoa prepares to compete in this week’s second women’s major of the season, the LPGA Championship at Bulle Rock, most of the pre-tournament buzz is focused on Wie, fellow teenage sensations Morgan Pressel and Paula Creamer, Sorenstam and Webb.

“I like that — I think it helps me in a way,” Ochoa said yesterday, speaking to a basically empty interview room that a day earlier had been crammed for Wie’s press conference. “When the LPGA is in Mexico [twice this season], I’m the center of attention.

“One tournament in Mexico is like 10 events for me in America. Here it’s players like Michelle and Morgan and Natalie Gulbis who are the top draws — Americans. That’s natural. It’s nice not to be the focus.”

Ochoa isn’t even the focus among her peers. In spite of her bid to become the first player since 1994 other than Sorenstam or Webb to capture the tour’s money title. Ochoa’s name wasn’t mentioned once by either of those veterans during lengthy interviews Monday.

Apparently, ultimate respect requires more than just a stunning streak or a game without a single technical weakness. Apparently, elite-level respect on the LPGA is doled out according to the same career-defining prerequisite that rules the men’s game: the number of major victories on one’s resume.

Ochoa has not yet proven herself in that category; her defining moment to date was a complete major meltdown at the U.S. Open. Needing just a 72nd-hole par to force a playoff with Birdie Kim last year at Cherry Hills, Ochoa closed with a Van de Veldian quadruple bogey after snap-hooking a 3-wood off the tee into the water.

“That morning I told my mom I had the chance to make history, to win the Open being a Mexican. I talked to my parents after the round, and they are like, ‘You made history. Nobody is going to forget that,’ ” recalled Ochoa, joking about what must be one of the most painful and humiliating moments in her life. “I tried to take it the best way. It was just making a bad decision to hit that 3-wood, trying to swing easy. When you’re under pressure, you have to hit a different club just to make sure that you make a full and aggressive swing. I can tell you, that’s not going to happen again.”

Indeed. After blowing a three-shot, 54-hole lead in this season’s first major (Kraft Nabisco Championship), Ochoa rebounded to eagle the 18th and force a playoff with Webb. It was won by Webb, who seemed fated to win after she holed out from the fairway for an eagle of her own on the 72nd hole. But there was solace for Ochoa in her own resilience.

“That third shot [Webb] hit on 18 — sometimes that’s just the proof that it’s meant to be,” Ochoa said. “You know, it was her time. And now I’m just waiting for mine.”

Perhaps that major breakthrough will come this week at Bulle Rock, a 6,596-yard, par-72 course designed by Pete Dye that seems to fit perfectly Ochoa’s all-around mastery. A big hitter’s paradise with severe greens, Bulle Rock is somewhat forgiving off the tee, de-emphasizing Ochoa’s lone tendency for the occasional errant tee shot while favoring her length and putting prowess. Ochoa ranks sixth on the tour in driving distance (272.6 yards) and is tied for sixth in putting (1.75). She tied for fifth there last year, and her form this season is unequaled.


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