Just when it looked as though Ochoa would seize control of the first major of the year, she three-putted for bogey on two of the final four holes and settled for a 1-under 71 on Saturday, with only one shot separating her from Hee-Won Han.
The Mexican star must know by now that this major wont come easily.
Despite opening the back nine with three straight birdies to build a two-shot lead and loads of momentum, Ochoa gave it away with an aggressive three-putt on the 15th, and by chopping her way up the 18th in the rough and the sand.
Han had a 70 and will play in the final group of a major for the first time.
It was an up and down day, Ochoa said. Today was difficult golf. It was hard from tee to green.
U.S. Womens Open champion Cristie Kerr was all but forgotten until finishing a 66 before the leaders made the turn, leaving her in the group only two shots behind.
Annika Sorenstam suffered stomach cramps so severe that she nearly walked off the course after 10 holes, but tried to gut it out and is glad she did. Sorenstam had four birdies on the back nine for a 73, and was only four shots behind.
Going into the final round, where the pressure and desert heat is rising, 14 players were separated by five shots.
Seven of those players are major champions.
Ochoa looked disgusted as she stood on the edge of the 18th green, staring up at the blazing sky with her hands on hips. She has twice felt jilted at Mission Hills, blowing a three-shot lead in the final round in 2006, and squandering another good chance last year when she whiffed a chip shot and made a quadruple bogey on the 17th hole of the third round.
There was no meltdown Saturday, just a a slow retreat to a suddenly packed leaderboard.
Im OK, she said. Im in the last group and I have a chance to win a major.
Kerr was joined at 212 by Seon Hwa Lee (68) and Maria Hjorth, who bogeyed the 18th hole for a 72. Another shot back was a group that included Swedish pioneer Liselotte Neumann (71) and Heather Young, who was tied with Ochoa to start the third round and was in the lead by herself at the turn until she stumbled to a 74.
Sorenstam turned in the most inspiring round.
She seemingly took herself out of the tournament with a 40 on the back nine, and was sick enough to quit. She told her caddie, Terry McNamara, that she did not want to walk off the course, but she felt that was her only option. Even after a birdie on No. 10, she laid on her back, feeling nausea.
A few birdies kept me going, she said.
One of those came from a bunker shot on No. 15, but she finished weakly, missing a 3-foot birdie putt on the 18th that ended her streak of 16 consecutive rounds under par.
Even so, she was at 214 along with Suzann Pettersen, who got the fireworks going on a dynamic day in the desert.
Pettersen, who captured her first major last year at the LPGA Championship, made the cut on the number Friday and was 10 shots behind. Among the first to play Saturday morning when the wind was tame, she holed out with a 6-iron for eagle on the tough seventh hole and shot a 65, the best score of the tournament.
I played myself into the tournament again, Pettersen said. Seven under is pretty good on a Saturday in a major. Im right there.
Then came Kerr, who apparently picked the right fortune cookie after dinner Friday night in a Chinese restaurant.
I went for the fortune cookie on the left and it said, A great day ahead in capital letters. So go figure, Kerr said.
Even though she watched five birdie putts catch the lip, she fired a 66 that she thought would get her back into the tournament, not knowing when she left Mission Hills just how close she would be.
I played beautiful golf today, Kerr said. I mean, it was really beautiful to watch, if I do say so myself.
Also entertaining a small measure of hope was Karrie Webb, who came from seven shots behind in the last round two years ago to win on the strength of a pitching wedge she holed for eagle on the 72nd hole, followed by a birdie in the playoff.
He highlight Saturday was a 6-iron that one-hopped into the hole for an ace on the difficult par-3 eighth, and keeping mistakes to a minimum on the back nine when the wind picked up and blew across every fairway, the toughest conditions of all.
She settled for a 69 and was in the group at 1-under 215 that included Se Ri Pak (73), who needs this major to become the seventh woman to capture the career Grand Slam.
Despite so many players in contention, they still are chasing the No. 1 player.
Ochoa won the Womens British Open last summer at St. Andrews, so she now is equipped with the experience of winning a major. She found it far more important to have won twice this year in three starts, by a combined 18 shots.
Someone asked if this would be her most meaningful win, considering the trouble she has faced, and the additional pressure of playing before so many Mexican flags in the gallery.
Hopefully, I win and jump in the lake, Ochoa said. Then Ill let you know how it ranks.