Handicapping the Field at Pine Needles

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2007 U.S. WomenSOUTHERN PINES, N.C. -- At least one of the beautiful aspects of this U.S. Womens Open'the venue, Pine Needles, is certainly another'is the number of players in the field that are in with a legitimate chance to win this thing.
 
Its like a Kentucky Derby with a large handful of entrants ranging in betting range from 3-1 to 5-1. There is no clear favorite.
 
I know I can win, yes, says Lorena Ochoa, the No. 1 ranked female player in the world. I think Im ready to get a major. It will be amazing to get the U.S. Open. So now that were here this week, why not win on Sunday?
 
One reason why not is the fact that Ochoa has yet to win her first major championship. Worse, shes had a couple of major meltdowns. Ochoa won in a playoff last week at the Wegmans LPGA in New York. It was her third victory of the year.
 
But ...
 
Put it this way, if Ochoa had won before in a major, she would be the clear cut favorite in this field on a course where the longer hitters will have a big advantage. The reason for the advantage: Designer Donald Ross put a lot of saddles (ridges that cross the fairways) in his landing areas. The bombers will clear the saddles and find themselves with wedges into a lot of the par-4s. The shorter hitters will watch their tee balls get repelled by the saddles and be left with a lot of blind, long iron shots.
 
The sneaky favorite here is Annika Sorenstam. Sneaky because she is recovering from back and neck injuries and has played just twice since late March. She is, however, the defending champion in this event. And she won the U.S. Womens Open in 1996 right here at Pine Needles.
 
I have confidence to go ahead and play again, Sorenstam said earlier this week. Just knowing that Im healthy and knowing that my game is coming all around.
 
In her two starts since returning, Sorenstam has finished T36 and T15, respectively. In horse racing, thats called running into form.
 
The last time they played a U.S. Womens Open here was 2001 and the winner was Australian Karrie Webb. Webb recently passed Sorenstam on the womens world rankings and sits at the No. 2 spot behind Ochoa.
 
Webb finished second to Suzann Pettersen at the McDonalds LPGA Championship earlier this month. And she has the requisite length to take on Pine Needles, which is playing 400 yards longer than it did in 2001.
 
Theres a premium on good ball-striking obviously, Webb said, sizing up Pine Needles. And good ball-striking will be rewarded with where you dont have to try to get up-and-down from some difficult areas.
 
Webb does not need to remind anybody that she remains one of the best half-dozen ball-strikers in womens golf.
 
Pettersen, meanwhile, is arguably the hottest player in golf. She basically gave away the Kraft Nabisco after blowing up on the final nine holes. Then she got with Lynn Marriott and Pia Nilsson (who helped develop Sorenstams on-course mental strength) and repaired the emotional damage in world record time. Before anybody knew she was marching resolutely up the 72nd hole at Bulle Rock on her way to the McDonalds LPGA.
 
When shes on, Pettersen is a birdie machine.
 
And when Morgan Pressel is putting well, get out of the way.
 
Others?
 
If Brittany Lincicome wins, nobody will be surprised.
 
If Natalie Gulbis, recovering from a bad back, wins, it will be a great story. On Tuesday a source said Gulbis was 50-50 to make her tee time Thursday. But she played 18 holes Wednesday with Sorenstam and was, according to the source, pain free.
 
The same source said this about Sorenstams final tune-up. Its crazy how good she hit the ball. I dont think she missed a shot all day.
 
If Michelle Wie wins, it will be a surprise.
 
And if 12-year-old Alexis Thompson makes the cut, it will be the biggest thing since Tadd Fujikawa.
 
Finally, if you want a real dark horse, consider Maria Kostina. Kostina, 24 and a recent academic all-American at Washington State, is the first Russian national to play in a U.S. Womens Open.
 
Wednesday she did a phone interview with Russia Today. According to her sister and caddie, Anastasia, there are only two-and-a-half golf courses in their homeland. Both sisters aspire to play on the LPGA Tour.
 
And maybe some day a Solheim Cup. Heres the kicker on that: Only Americans and Europeans can play in the Solheim Cup. Part of Russia is in Asia. Part of Russia is in Europe.
 
We come from the part thats in Europe, Ana said.
 
Case closed.
 
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