Ochoa bearing down on Sorenstam

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Annika Sorenstam isn’t going to lose her World No 1 ranking any time soon, but she must be looking over her shoulder at Lorena Ochoa.

Annika Sorenstam isn’t going to lose her World No 1 ranking any time soon. Not with a five point lead. But she must be looking over her muscular shoulder right now and starting to worry just a little about the growing threat posed by Lorena Ochoa.
Until recently Ochoa, 5ft 6 and pencil slim, wasn’t even mentioned in the same hushed breath as America’s teenaged young guns Michelle Wie, Paul Creamer and Morgan Pressel or even Japan’s Ai Miyazato when the press talked about the LPGA stars of the future, possibly because Mexico is not really renowned for unearthing women’s golf stars.
It certainly wasn’t because she came into professional golf short of amateur credentials.
Ochoa didn’t win the US Amateur as Pressel did or even reach the semi-finals as Creamer did, but she had a distinguished amateur career before moving on to LPGA rookie of the year in 2003.
While at the University of Arizona, she won 12 collegiate titles, her eight in a row in the 2001-2002 season setting an NCAA record that still stands.
She won both the NCAA Player and Freshman of the Year Awards in 2001 and was again Player of the Year in 2002.
And this after winning a string of junior titles in a number of countries, including the US where she triumphed in the World Championship for girls 8-12 more than once, and in Japan, Colombia and her native Mexico where she was an eight-time national amateur champion.
It was an impressive enough amateur CV, yet for some strange reason it failed to earn her anything like the publicity and respect afforded the Wie’s, Creamers and Pressels.
But here she is now, at just 24, on top of the pile of money winners in women’s golf in 2006 with $2,342,872 in prize money after a second victory in successive weeks and her fifth win of the season on the LPGA Tour.
Remarkably her latest triumph was created in the intimidating company of Sorenstam in the final round of Sunday’s Samsung World Championship, a tournament Sorenstam has won five times and looked set for a record sixth victory when she teed off with a three-stroke cushion on Sunday morning.
Nobody really thought Ochoa would have enough iron in her soul to catch the Swedish super star, let alone win the battle of nerves, but she did just that with a second successive bogey free round that was full of dazzling putts and was described by her afterwards as “probably the finest of my career”.
If anything, that was an understatement.
It was more like one of the finest rounds ever shot by any women golfer.
It’s not too often that a Sorenstam adversary looks her in the eye and starts a critical closing round by draining an 18-foot putt for birdie at the opening hole, rolls home a 30-foot eagle putt on the third and then nails a 15-foot birdie on the fifth to take the Swede’s breath away and draw level with her at 13-under-par.
And if that wasn’t enough, Ochoa, her Latin temperament under perfect control, then stepped up and sent a 60 footer at the 10th on a track that found the hole, ran around it and then jumped in for the putt that would ultimately take the game away from Sorenstam.
Ochoa admitted that luck had played it’s part in that monster putt, saying: “It was a surprise. It kind of changed everything on my side. You know, luck, it’s important to have it, get a couple of good breaks, good bounces, and I got that. When you play against Annika you got to do all of those, make a long par, good driving, get lucky bounces.”
She could have added but resisted the urge to quote Gary Player’s often spoken comment that, “the harder I practice the luckier I get.”
In short, it was an amazing performance that, coupled with her outstanding consistency this season – to date she has finished in the top 10 in 18 of her 23 LPGA tournaments – further foretold of an outstanding future that is earmarking her as the princess in waiting for Sorenstam’s crown.
And somehow, I don’t think that wait will be too long.
A year, perhaps? Two at the most – if (and I add this if because golf is that kind of game with nothing ever certain) she doesn’t derail and keeps the momentum going in a journey that is currently taking her nearer and nearer to the top.
Comment by Neville Leck, Golf365 Editor