Sorenstam had three birdies and playing partner Rickie Fowler added an eagle – all in the first eight holes – before Cristie Kerr and Hunter Mahan rallied with six birdies on the back nine for a 10-under 62 and a two-shot victory at Notah Begay’s NB3 Challenge.
“It all comes down to the back nine because everybody plays well in a format like this,” Kerr said. “It just comes down to who’s gonna make a couple more putts coming in. We were fortunate enough today to do that. We gave ourselves a good look at birdies.”
Kerr and Mahan trailed Sorenstam and Fowler by two shots at the turn before pulling away in the closing holes to win the $100,000 top prize in the best-ball competition at Atunyote Golf Club.
Sorenstam and Fowler (64) were second, followed by Vijay Singh and Suzann Pettersen (66), Camilo Villegas and Anna Rawson (67), Anthony Kim and Morgan Pressel (68), and Begay and Lorena Ochoa (69).
The event is the chief fundraiser for Begay’s foundation, which is dedicated to helping fight obesity and diabetes in the Native American community. He was presented a check for $1.25 million afterward.
“We feel we can make an impact on their lives,” Begay said.
The field was grouped into six mixed teams, with the ladies hitting from the shorter tee boxes.
The 39-year-old Sorenstam, who retired after the 2008 season, apologized to Fowler before they teed off.
“I haven’t played. Sorry, Rickie,” said Sorenstam, who also was preparing for her daughter’s birthday on Wednesday.
There wasn’t much to apologize for.
Shortly after a fan shouted “great to see you back,” Sorenstam hit inside 3 feet at the 198-yard, par-3 third hole for an easy birdie. Not to be outdone, Ochoa matched her with a birdie putt from just inside 10 feet.
At the 185-yard, par-3 sixth hole, Sorenstam and Ochoa both drove into the right rough beside the green. This time, Sorenstam reached back into her glorious past with a beautiful chip that bounced on the green and rolled in the cup for another birdie.
Sorenstam raised both hands in appreciation of the roar of the crowd, which hovered around 3,000 on a hot, hazy day with temperatures in the high 80s, then tossed her ball to a fan and headed for the next tee.
Something happened to Sorenstam’s second shot at the par-4 eighth hole as it landed well short of the green. It didn’t matter when Fowler rattled home a 40-foot uphill eagle putt that put them at 6 under and gave them a two-shot lead over Mahan and Kerr and Begay and Ochoa heading to the back nine.
“I made four birdies, chipped in twice. I’m not complaining, its my best finish all year,” Sorenstam said with a smile. “I love it. It’s always fun to see my friends, but I’m tired. My feet hurt. I’m not used to it. I’m a little rusty.”
Begay and Ochoa made bogey and double-bogey in the first three holes on the back to fall out of contention. Kerr had three birdies on the front nine and five on the back as she and Mahan surged into the lead.
“We gave ourselves a good look at birdies. We leaned on each other all the time,” Kerr said. “We were just having a lot of fun helping each other read putts. I think that’s what this event is all about, teamwork.”
Fowler, who is part Navajo, missed short birdies putt at Nos. 15 and 16 before making birdie at 18 as he and Sorenstam fell just short.
Just being part of the fundraiser was all that mattered to every player.
“I was pumped to be part of it, especially to have Annika as a partner,” Fowler said. “It’s pretty special to be here.”
Ochoa, who retired four months ago at the height of her game, said the transition to private life had been “way easier than I thought.”
“I made the right decision,” she said. “I’m still very competitive. I think I did my job inside the ropes. Now it’s time to work outside the ropes.”