Sorenstam finally seizes control

Saturday, October 14th 2006, 6:06 pm
By: News On 6

PALM DESERT, Calif. (AP) _ The birdie putt found the heart of the cup to give Annika Sorenstam a three-shot lead at Bighorn, a course where she has never lost, and it all looked so routine.

Sorenstam sure didn't feel that way.

Walking off the 10th green after her 12-foot putt Saturday in the Samsung World Championship, she offered a few polite waves to the gallery, turned and privately pumped her fist two times.

Going for her record sixth title in this elite tournament, and the 70th of her LPGA Tour career, Sorenstam shows no quit. She was mildly angry at herself for letting her attention waver in the third round, a fault that has kept her from being her best this year.

``I was trying to get myself going a little bit,'' Sorenstam said after a 6-under 66, the best score of the week to build a three-shot lead over Lorena Ochoa. ``My mind was wandering. I can't focus long enough. I'm playing in a superb tournament, and all of a sudden I'm having a tough time concentration. I made that putt and I was like, 'C'mon, you can do it. Stay focused.'''

She held it together with consecutive birdies early in the third round to quickly build a lead. And this time, she made it last.

Sorenstam finished off her round with a 12-foot birdie on the 18th and was at 12-under 204, reviving her hopes of winning LPGA Player of the Year for the sixth straight season.

Leading the points-based race for player of the year is Ochoa, and she still holds all the cards.

The Mexican star rattled in a 20-foot birdie putt on the final hole for a 67 to finish at 207, giving her a spot in the final group with Sorenstam on Sunday.

``I'm going to need everything I have tomorrow,'' Sorenstam said. ``Lorena is having a fantastic year, a lot of momentum on her side. I know tomorrow I have to earn it, I have to post a low score.''

Sophie Gustafson got within one shot of the lead with an eagle on No. 12, but her momentum stalled and she shot 70 to finish at 208.

Michelle Wie waited until the 18th hole to get her first ruling of the day. Her tee shot came within a foot of going out of bounds, but she got free relief from a large scoreboard in her line of sight, hit her approach up to 25 feet and made the birdie putt for an even-par 72 that left her 14 shots behind at 2-over 218.

It was the seventh straight round on the LPGA Tour that the 17-year-old from Hawaii has failed to break par, her longest drought since she went 10 straight rounds at par or worse in 2003 at age 13.

``I'm not playing my 'A' game,'' Wie said. ``I'm really grinding out there.''

Sorenstam, as usual, is playing on another level altogether.

In a three-way tie for the lead to start the third round, she set the tone early by hammering a drive so far on the 395-yard second hole she had only a sand wedge remaining to a pin cut far to the right. She made a 20-foot birdie putt, then got up-and-down from behind the green on the par-5 third for birdie to build a two-shot lead.

She didn't run away, but she never lost control. Her only mistake was a three-putt at No. 9, but Sorenstam answered that with a wedge into 12 feet for birdie on the 10th, and a private reminder to keep her head in the game.

What was going through her mind?

``I was looking at my old lot on the Mountain course,'' Sorenstam said. ``Normally, I'm good when it's my turn. All my thoughts are on that shot. This year, it's been on and off. The lines are not as clear. Sometimes, I'm wishy-washy out there.''

She will need all her mental faculties against Ochoa, who has four victories and five runner-up finishes this year, and has virtually locked up the Vare Trophy for the lowest scoring average.

Even a three-shot deficit to the No. 1 player in women's golf does not seem impossible.

``I know she's tough,'' Ochoa said. ``I think she's a great player, she knows the course better than me, she has so much experience. I respect all that, I admire all that, but I believe in myself. I know I can do it.''

Ochoa stayed in the game early with three birdies in a four-hole stretch. The exception was at No. 5, where she missed a birdie putt from about 6 feet, and there were four other putts inside 10 feet for birdie that she missed.

Even so, she made a 15-footer on the 15th for birdie, and her putt on the final hole had a lot of steam on it before it banged into the back of the cup to put her in the final group.

Wie will end her fourth year playing the LPGA Tour without a victory, although she has never played more than eight events and started when she was 13. Her driving has been erratic, and she had to work far too hard to make par on a calm, mild afternoon in the foothills of the Santa Rosa Mountains. She played the par 5s in 2 over in the third round, and one of her birdies came on the 14th, when she hit off the cart path for the third time this week, went into a bunker and holed out.

``It was a really hard three days, a day in the bushes and the trees, but I think I'm having fun,'' Wie said. ``It's interesting. Golf is a messed-up game.''