Ochoa Rallies Past Sorenstam at Bighorn

Monday, October 16th 2006, 6:54 am
By: News On 6

PALM DESERT, Calif. (AP) _ Lorena Ochoa was kicking herself for making a mistake at a time when she couldn't afford any. Two shots behind the best player in women's golf, with Annika Sorenstam in a bunker on the 10th hole at Bighorn, Ochoa hit an 8-iron some 60 feet left of the flag to seemingly lose her advantage. Only when she started pacing the putt did her attitude change.

``I bet you 100 pesos I make this,'' she told her caddie.

The ball streaked across the green, banged into the back of the hole and hopped out for the briefest second before disappearing for a birdie that changed everything in Samsung World Championship.

Ochoa walked off the green in a tie, birdied the next hole to take her first lead, then pulled away from Sorenstam down the stretch to close with a 7-under 65 and win by two shots Sunday for her fifth victory of the year.

``Luck, it's important to have,'' Ochoa said. ``When you play Annika, you got to do all those things. Make a long putt, good driving, get lucky bounces. And I did that.''

Ochoa said it was her biggest win of the year, a strong statement considering she won in her native Mexico last week, which felt like a major championship with so much pressure playing at home.

This certainly had more riding on the outcome.

Sorenstam is a member at Bighorn, was unbeaten on the desert course, had a three-shot lead going into the final round and was trying to set an LPGA Tour record by winning the same tournament for the sixth time.

``Being three shots back is not an easy thing,'' Ochoa said. ``To overcome and win the tournament, and it's my fifth win in the season, and player-of-the-year points are very important ... for sure, my biggest 18 holes.''

Sorenstam has been the LPGA Player of the Year the last five years, but that could be about to change.

Ochoa now has a comfortable lead in the points-based race, and Sorenstam will have to win her last two tournaments to have any chance. The 24-year-old Mexican also has a big lead on the money list at more than $2.3 million, $434,646 ahead of Sorenstam. The Swede will have to win the season-ending ADT Championship, a new gimmick this year that pays $1 million to the winner.

But the biggest prize for Ochoa was beating Sorenstam in a fascinating duel in the desert.

``I really don't know what to say other than just to congratulate Lorena on a great performance and a great week and a great year,'' Sorenstam said after closing with a 70 that featured three bogeys. ``I'm probably as disappointed as you can be. It just doesn't get any worse than this. I gave it all I had this week. She just played very, very well.''

They had played in the final group only two previous times. Ochoa stumbled badly in losing at Phoenix last year, and Sorenstam got her again when they played this summer in Sweden.

All signs pointed to another victory for Sorenstam at Bighorn, but Ochoa had other ideas.

One of the most dynamic players on the LPGA Tour, a superior putter, Ochoa was a mixture of calm and confidence. She started by making a 25-foot birdie putt on No. 1, then nearly holed a putt from 70 feet on No. 2. Then came the par-5 third, when Ochoa knocked in a 45-foot eagle putt to peck away at the lead.

Ochoa caught her with a two-shot swing on No. 5, making an 18-foot birdie putt as Sorenstam three-putted for bogey from 50 feet. The Swede showed some resiliency with birdies on the seventh and ninth to restore her lead.

Then came the sudden shift at No. 10.

``I was upset with myself,'' Ochoa said of her miss with the 8-iron. ``I was walking and pacing the ball and I thought, 'I can make this one. Just turn it around.' It was a really long putt, and that probably was the biggest turn of the day.''

The final turn came on the 15th.

Both players laid up on the par 5, but Sorenstam's sand wedge from 61 yards came up short below a ridge, and she three-putted for another bogey. Ochoa holed a 15-foot birdie, and suddenly had a three-shot lead with three holes to play.

``I knew it was about time,'' Ochoa said. ``I knew I could do it. We're breaking a barrier today. It's very important to me. It has extra meaning, for sure. I'll go home next week and celebrate it.''

Ochoa and Juli Inkster had the lowest score of the tournament.

Inkster was 10 shots better than her playing partner, 17-year-old Michelle Wie, who closed with a 75 for her worst score on the LPGA Tour this year and her eighth consecutive round against women without breaking par.

Wie finished 17th in the 20-player field.

``Obviously, I'm not feeling as wonderful as I did,'' Wie said. ``Like I said before, sometimes we have to take a step back in order to move forward. This is the time of year you don't play that great, your best, and all of a sudden you play good. I feel that's coming in me.''

Her final event of the year is the Casio World Open on the Japanese tour the week of Thanksgiving.

For Ochoa, it was a huge step forward.

She is in great shape to dethrone Sorenstam as player of the year, with the Vare Trophy for the lowest scoring average, and perhaps with the money title. And it might signal a new era on the LPGA Tour.