That is to say on the eve of the 2008 Kraft Nabisco Championship the question is not WHO the favorite to win the first big womens event of the year. The question is FROM WHOM will come the sternest challenge to Lorena Ochoa, the overwhelming favorite to capture her second major and her third victory in four tries so far this season.
Used to be Annika Sorenstam was the player to beat on the LPGA. But she got injured last year and Ochoa got hot, winning eight times. So in the heavy favorite category Mexicos Ochoa is the now the Tiger Woods of womens golf.
But it is impossible to ignore the fact that she hasnt won this event. Yet.
Last year she was tied for the lead after 36 holes and saw her hopes dashed on the 17th hole of the third round when she made a quadruple bogey 7--that included a whiff in thick greenside rough--that effectively dashed her hopes.
No, Ochoa said this week, I dont even think on that. I already erased them. I only feel good things about this course. And good vibes. And good memories.
One of those good vibes was an opening 62 to set the course record in the first round here in 2006. Alas for Ochoa, she lost in a playoff to Karrie Webb.
Sorenstam showed up at Mission Hills Country Club last year and announced she felt good about her swing. Then she went out and fired a 75-76 and barely made the cut. Only later did we find out she was nursing back and neck injuries.
Sorenstam, now ranked No. 2 in the world behind Ochoa, is, according to her people, almost all the way back to full physical strength. She won the season-opening SBS Open at Turtle Bay and in four 2008 events she has not finished out of the top 10
Perhaps the least-known, of the best challengers is Korean Jee Young Lee who finished second to Ochoa last week in Arizona at the Safeway International. The long-hitting Lee started slowly this season with no top 20s in her first four tournaments.
But it is impossible to ignore her record in the four majors last year'T-13 at Kraft Nabisco; T-10 at the LPGA Championship; seventh at the U.S. Womens Open and T-2 at the Womens British Open. Lee wound up second in driving distance on the LPGA last year, Ochoa third.
Suzann Pettersen (McDonalds LPGA) and Cristie Kerr (U.S. Womens Open) both won majors last year. Pettersen was also one of several players who melted down Sunday here last year. Both are on the short list of players with realistic hopes of challenging Ochoa.
World No. 4 Paula Creamer probably now holds the dubious distinction of being the best player never to have won a major. Creamer won the Fields Open in Hawaii last month and arrived in California fresh from practice sessions at her home course'Isleworth near Orlando'the same track Tiger Woods is currently using to spruce up his game for next weeks Masters.
Creamer was perfectly poised Sunday at last years Kraft Nabisco until she skied to a final round 78 and a T-15. My patience, and I think it was more my maturity, got in the way on Sunday last year trying to force things when, in reality, I didnt need to, she said.
Creamer, it should be pointed out, is still just 21 years old. But the games of many of the best players seem to grow up faster than they used to on the LPGA. When Morgan Pressel won here last year she was, at 18, the youngest female major winner ever.
Last week at Safeway Pressel got under the weather and missed the cut. Meanwhile she sounds more like a veteran every day. Its scary to think there are girls out here who are looking up to me, she said Tuesday.
But the fact is, everybody in womens golf is looking up to Ochoa these days. And Ochoa, in her spare time, looks up to Woods, who she met briefly at last years Masters.
He said, like, good playing, hi, congratulations, Ochoa said. And he just gave me a big smile, said good luck in the tournament and goodbye. So, no, I havent had a chance to talk to him.
But clearly she endeavors to emulate him. Thats what Im trying to do, Ochoa said. .Im there to win.
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