- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 4, 2008

HAVRE DE GRACE, Md. | A year ago, Lorena Ochoa had not yet won a major. Now, perhaps the most compelling question in women’s golf is whether anyone can stop the 26-year-old from winning the Grand Slam.

Starting with her major breakthrough at last year’s Women’s British Open at St. Andrews, Ochoa has collected 11 victories in her last 18 starts with a scoring average of 68.88. She followed her coup at the Old Course in the final major of 2007 with a five-stroke victory cruise in this season’s first major, the Kraft Nabisco Championship. And she arrives at Bulle Rock for this week’s LPGA Championship acknowledging her Grand Slam ambitions.

“I have many motivations,” Ochoa said. “I think for sure the Grand Slam. It’s more important now for my family. I’d love to give them some joy. … Of course, I think [winning the Grand Slam] is possible.”

Of course, there are 149 other players and one icon standing between Ochoa and the second leg of the slam.

Late last month, Annika Sorenstam announced her decision to retire at the end of the season. The 37-year-old made the announcement a week after recording back-to-back victories at the SemGroup Championship and Michelob Ultra Open, erasing any lingering doubts remaining from an injury that hampered her in 2007.

Given Sorenstam’s superb play of late, maybe there might be some wiggle room in her farewell time table. But Sorenstam ended the speculation yesterday at Bulle Rock. After decades devoted singularly to golf, Sorenstam is excited about her upcoming nuptials in January and the prospect of starting a family with fiancee and former sports agent Mike McGee.

“I want to change my priorities to getting married and starting a family,” said Sorenstam, who boasts 10 major wins and 72 LPGA Tour titles. “I know this is the right thing. This wasn’t a decision that I just made over a cup of coffee. … I have achieved so much more [than I ever thought possible] on the golf course. And I’m happy. I don’t need to do this anymore.”

Sorenstam’s career has been a boon to the LPGA and a provided a blueprint of class and commitment for all who follow. Ochoa idolized Sorenstam as a teen growing up in Guadalajara, Mexico.

“I will miss her a lot,” Ochoa said. “She was my motivation for many years, and I learned so much from her. I think we have had great times together playing, and at the same time I wish she would stay a little longer.”

As a sophomore at Arizona, Ochoa finished as the low-amateur at the 2001 Kraft Nabisco Championship and asked Sorenstam, the winner and a former Wildcats player, to pose for a picture with her family after the presentation ceremony.

“When I was in college, I always saw her records and the way she played and the way she practiced, and I used to ask her everything,” Ochoa said. “I wanted to be like her. I wanted to follow in her steps.”

Sorenstam spent hours on and off the course with Ochoa. She helped her find an agent, introduced her to her first caddie and shared many of her practice and travel routines. A decade earlier, Sorenstam had been the prodigy who landed on the LPGA Tour with far better command of her game than the English language. She understood. And perhaps even seven years ago, Sorenstam could see Ochoa’s destiny from the peak of her own dominance.

Ochoa supplanted Sorenstam at the top of the rankings in April 2007, but the transition probably occurred the previous October, when Ochoa bested Sorenstam for the first time in a head-to-head situation at the Samsung World Championship in Palm Desert, Calif. Sorenstam’s confidence in Ochoa’s ability to dominate the sport was one of the final factors in her decision to retire.

“I do feel a special bond with [Ochoa],” Sorenstam said. “I respect her tremendously, and it’s been a lot of fun to see her grow. She has developed a lot as a person and a player, and she’s a great asset to the tour. It’s just fun to see. That’s another reason why I felt like my timing of stepping away is good. The tour is in great hands.”

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