Prior to this week, Mexicos Lorena Ochoa clearly stood taller than anyone else in womens golf. Now she is head shoulders above the competition.
Sunday at the Kraft Nabisco turned out to be little more than a victory lap for the best female player in the world. Her final round 67 produced a 5-shot victory over runners-up Annika Sorenstam and Suzann Pettersen.
Now much of the forward spin will focus on the years three remaining womens major championships. Next up is the McDonalds LPGA in June at Bulle Rock in Maryland. Ochoa hasnt won there but she did shoot 69-69 on the weekend last year to tie for sixth.
The U.S. Womens Open gets to historic Interlachen later that month. And former Interlachen club president Jim Freeman said Sunday, The strengths of Lorena Ochoas game are exactly what our golf course rewards.
Interlachen, where Bobby Jones won the U.S. Open in his Grand Slam year, will play to a par of 72 with four par 5s. Freeman said Ochoa should be able to reach three of them in two under most conditions.
Finally in early August the women close out their major run at the RICOH Womens British Open at Sunningdale in England. The first two holes there are par 5s. Ochoa will arrive as the defending champion. Enough said.
I think, said Sorenstam when asked if Ochoa has the game to win the Grand Slam, its possible.
Meanwhile back at Mission Hills Country Club, Ochoa was on her game right from the start Sunday playing in the final group with Cristie Kerr and Hee-Won Han.
Ochoa and Kerr had dueled in the final group at last years U.S. Womens Open staged at Pine Needles. That day began with Kerr leading by a shot. It ended with Kerr winning the championship'and her first major'by two over Ochoa and Angela Park, who tied for second.
This time the final threesome was Ochoa, Kerr and South Korean. Ochoas margin at the outset over Han was one and it was two over Kerr, who had fired the same number (66) in the third round here that she did at Pine Needles last June.
Kerr wears her competitiveness on her sleeve more than Ochoa. And there was just a slight chill in the air at the first tee box area Sunday as group waited for the signal to play. Ochoa and Han mostly listened to small talk from Ochoas caddie, Dave Brookman. Kerr stood apart and kept her final pre-round thoughts to herself.
Ochoa quickly stretched her lead over Kerr to four shots when a perfect short iron to a back right pin left a straight-uphill 9-footer that she poured in the hole for a birdie 3. Kerr, meanwhile, dumped her second into a bunker, left her third short of the putting surface and needed a testy 5-footer to save bogey.
Kerr bounced back with a 6-footer for birdie on the par 5 second after a tidy approach. Ochoa outdid her with a drive, a hybrid and two putts.
As starts go, it couldnt have been more perfect for Ochoa and, for that matter, the LPGA. The organization must remain publicly impartial. But youd be hard-pressed to find anyone in the top circles of womens golf who wouldnt welcome a run, by Ochoa, at the never-before-achieved female Grand Slam.
For its part, the sports media has become increasingly fascinated with hot topics. And you can be sure if heavily-favored Tiger Woods beats the field at next weeks Masters, there will be viewer and reader polls and pundit debates on which player'Ochoa or Woods'is more likely to win their respective calendar Slams in 2008. This is a comparison that will only serve to advance the already-rising public visibility of the womens game.
Ochoa insists she is more in the moment. And at Kraft Nabisco this week there was good reason. Two years ago she blazed to an opening 62 but lost Sunday in a playoff to Karrie Webb. Last year she had a piece of the 36-hole lead at this event but melted down late Saturday with a quadruple bogey 7 that included a greenside whiff, on the par 3 17th hole.
Friday she led by three shots early on her final nine only to stumble into a 36-hole tie with Heather Young. Saturday it was dj vu all over again. Again she led by three after birdies on 10, 11 and 12. But three-putts on 15 and 17 allowed Han to draw within one after 54 holes.
I am not one to be upset, Ochoa said before leaving the grounds at Mission Hills late Saturday. I am really positivethat I have a chance to win a major, and thats what I am going to do, get ready for tomorrow.
Let the record show she was ready. Let the record show the separation is officially defined.
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