Ochoa Victory Could Signal LPGA Power Shift

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PALM DESERT, Calif. -- It might be time for Annika Sorenstam to stop looking ahead at Kathy Whitworth, and start looking over her shoulder at Lorena Ochoa.
 
The way Sorenstam had been rolling over opponents and piling up trophies, the 36-year-old Swede quickly was approaching Whitworth's 88 career victories. Sorenstam had averaged nearly nine wins a year since 2001 -- at that pace, she could have broken the record before her 40th birthday.
 
But that sprint has slowed considerably.
 
With two tournaments remaining on her 2006 schedule, Sorenstam has won three times this year, her lowest output since winning twice in 1999. Part of that is the balance she has found in her life, including a golf academy she is opening in Orlando, Fla.
 
And part of that is the competition.
 
Ochoa's victory in the Samsung World Championship was her fifth of the year. It not only denied Sorenstam her 70th career victory, it kept her from setting an LPGA record with six straight years leading the tour in victories.
 
One tournament doesn't make a season. One victory doesn't mean there's a new sheriff in town.
 
Sorenstam is the five-time defending champion at the Mizuno Classic in Japan in two weeks, and the two-time defending champion at the season-ending ADT Championship. She could win them both and capture the money title, maybe even LPGA player of the year.
 
But there was something symbolic about the way Ochoa ran her down in the desert.
 
Starting the final round three shots behind, Ochoa sensed this was her time. She erased the deficit in three holes with two birdies and a 45-foot eagle putt. The pivotal hole was No. 10, and some luck was involved. Ochoa made a birdie putt from across the green that would have gone well past the hole had it not banged into the back of the cup and dropped in the side.
 
Even so, it was as if Ochoa saw this coming.
 
She was asked after the third round whether she could beat Sorenstam.
 
'Yes.'
 
There was a pause, and a slight smile crept across her face.
 
'You want more?' she said, as if to say, 'Isn't that enough?'
 
Then she obliged with a beautiful blend of giving Sorenstam her due and having a quiet confidence in her own game, something not often heard from today's wannabe challengers who grow up talking about wanting to be No. 1.
 
'I know she is tough. I think she is a great player. She knows this course so much better than me and she has so much experience, and I respect all that,' Ochoa said. 'At the same time, I believe in myself. I'm in a good position right now. I know I can do it.'
 
Ochoa had played against Sorenstam two other times in the final group. She blew a four-shot lead in the final three holes and lost to Sorenstam in a playoff in Phoenix last year, and Sorenstam birdied the final hole in Sweden this summer to win by one shot.
 
The young Mexican star has had her share of stumbles.
 
Along with that collapse in Phoenix, she had a chance to win the U.S. Women's Open at Cherry Hills last year when she duck-hooked her tee shot into the water on No. 18 and took a quadruple-bogey 8. And while she made eagle on the 18th hole to get into a playoff this year at the Kraft Nabisco, Ochoa blew a three-shot lead in the final round and lost on the first extra hole.
 
'When you make mistakes your first year or second year, you get them out of your way and then you make good things come,' she said. 'I'm a positive person, and I learn a lot and it's not going to happen again, those bad shots.'
 
Maybe the best is yet to come, especially in the majors, the one gap in her credentials this year.
 
And that won't make it easier for Sorenstam.
 
Motivation has never been an issue with Sorenstam. Even when she failed in her bid to win the Grand Slam, either after the first major or the third, she was a master at redefining her goals and achieving them.
 
What she has lacked over the last five years is serious competition.
 
Ever since Karrie Webb eased into the background after dominating the majors for three years, the closest anyone has come to challenging Sorenstam's supremacy during the last five years was Se Ri Pak, a battle that didn't last long.
 
Just as it is with Tiger Woods, the gap is as big as Sorenstam wants it to be.
 
Ochoa is different. She set an NCAA record by winning eight straight tournaments at Arizona, and she has never finished lower than ninth on the LPGA Tour money list in her four years. Unlike the American youth getting all the hype, Ochoa delivers.
 
Sorenstam's swing has not been up to her standards this year, and she said last week that some mechanical issues have cost her length off the tee, problems that she was trying to fix as the season wound down. Ochoa was driving the ball slightly longer than Sorenstam at Bighorn, and she is a superior putter.
 
Their duel in the desert bore a minor resemblance to Woods and Vijay Singh in Boston two years ago, when Singh beat him head-to-head in the final round to replace Woods at No. 1 in the world. Singh went on to win nine times that year and dominated golf until Woods returned to the top with six victories the next year, including two majors.
 
Singh, however, was 41 and headed toward the twilight of his career.
 
Ochoa is 24 and just getting started.