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Gifted

April 09, 2007
April 09, 2007

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April 9, 2007

SI Bonus Section: Golf Plus
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Gifted

Ultimately it was the penultimate hole that would decide who'd win and who'd lose the LPGA's first major of the year, and Morgan Pressel played it best

Memo to the LPGA:You need to check the 17th hole of the Dinah Shore course. Send a guy out therewith a carpenter's level and a plumb bob. Get somebody in coveralls to searchfor loose floorboards and exposed wiring. Test for radon. Because there'sclearly something wrong with the hole. It tripped up Lorena Ochoa last Saturdayduring the third round of the Kraft Nabisco Championship in Rancho Mirage,Calif., right when she was poised to win her first major championship anddethrone world No. 1 Annika Sorenstam.

This is an article from the April 9, 2007 issue Original Layout

Don't pinchpennies; hire an arborist. It was a big eucalyptus tree, after all, that leanedin and swatted down Ochoa's six-iron tee shot on the 173-yard par-3. That's howsweet Lorena wound up in a sub-basement lie about 30 yards short of theelevated, two-tier green--and if you keep receipts, check 'em, because thegrass down there looks as if it hasn't been mowed since Valentine's Day.

Don't get mewrong; it was a hell of a tournament. The eventual champion, 18-year-old MorganPressel, played bogey-free golf and passed eight players in the final round tobecome the youngest-ever winner of a woman's major, and afterward all she coulddo was fan her face with her hand and choke out one "Oh, my God!" afteranother. And drama! You had Suzann Pettersen, the fiery Norwegian who hadnearly beaten Ochoa the week before at the Safeway International, stepping ontothe 15th tee with a four-stroke lead and walking off the 18th green, less thanan hour later, with a one-third share of woulda'-coulda'-shoulda'.

Even so, you can'tlet one out-of-control hole decide your tournaments for you. Ochoa needed towin a major to validate the widely held perception that she's the newinsuperable campeon de golf, and your bleedin' 17th hole got in her way.

Granted, this wasone of those throw-up-your-hands tournaments in which the leaders swoon downthe stretch and the trophy goes to someone who's been in the clubhouse for anhour answering e-mails and thumbing through the Bulgari catalog. (Pressel, afast talker with more spunk than she can comfortably contain, hung around theMission Hills putting green and practice range while the late finishersstaggered in. She wisely resisted the temptation to whip out her BlackBerry andtext-taunt her rival, 17-year-old Michelle Wie, who missed the tournament dueto a wrist injury.)

This final roundproduced a Who's Who of backpedalers. Third-round leader Se Ri Pak, a five-timemajor champion trying to complete a career Grand Slam, bogeyed five of the lastsix holes. Paula (Pink Panther) Creamer--who at 20 already has three LPGAvictories--shot a six-over 78 and dropped to 15th place. Catriona Matthew, aSolheim Cup veteran with three previous top 10s at the Kraft Nabisco, missed ashort par putt on the last hole that would have forced a playoff. Any of themwould have traded final rounds with Ochoa, who shot 72 and tied with Pak, fourstrokes--I repeat, four--behind Pressel.

O.k., you got me.I wanted Ochoa to win her first major. But so did most of the fans at MissionHills. Ochoa's galleries were the biggest, and her fans were the loudest. She'sjust a tiny thing, this 25-year-old out of the University of Arizona, but shehas one country, Mexico, wrapped around her little finger and another country,the U.S., trying to remember why it wanted to build a wall along the border.She's a guileless sweetheart. She's also the woman who won six tournaments and$2.6 million in 2006, ending Sorenstam's five-year run as player of the year.If Ochoa won the Kraft Nabisco, we were told ad nauseam, she would even takeSorenstam's place at the top of the Rolex Rankings--which Ochoa conceded wouldbe a thrill, but nothing that she was pushing for. "I've been waiting forfive years," she said last Friday. "Two weeks, three weeks, four weeksmore is not a problem."

The threat ofbeing deposed should have stirred up Sorenstam, whose 2006 output was arelatively meager three wins and five seconds--one of the wins being her thirdU.S. Women's Open title. Instead, she hit it crooked and opened with rounds of75--76. That barely got her past the 36-hole cut and landed her in the bracketof pros who start their weekend rounds on the 10th tee. "I just can't getthe spark to glow," the 36-year-old Sorenstam told the Los Angeles Times."I'm as puzzled as I can be."

The stage was set,then, for Ochoa to take over. She shot 69--71 to share the halfway lead withCreamer, and through 16 holes of round three she was barreling along at threeunder, one off the lead. That's when--and I don't say this lightly--someknucklehead let her play the 17th, a hole that should be condemned. First therewas the interference by the tree, and then Ochoa hit a lob from the rough thatlanded on a green that probably hadn't gotten any moisture since SergioGarcía's last visit. Her ball bounded into more rough behind the green, andfrom there she needed two swings to extract it, the clubhead sliding rightunder the ball on her first effort. Unfortunately, that fourth shot nudgedOchoa's ball past the flagstick and back down the slope to the green's lowertier. From there she three-putted for a quadruple-bogey 7.

I don't know ifchurch bells tolled in Mexico, but up at the 18th green the sight of Ochoa'sname being taken off the leader board triggered a collective groan. "Well,yes, I'm human," she said later, "and a lot of thingshappened."

And a lot ofthings were said. Creamer, who trailed only Pak and Pettersen through threerounds, dismissed Ochoa's meltdown as a lapse of discipline. "You can't betoo greedy," she said, operating under the assumption that Ochoa had beenaiming at 17's sucker pin. "There's a time to do that, and that's Sunday,down the stretch."

Creamer was right,but that didn't make it any easier for Ochoa's fans, who rose from theirgrandstand seats and cheered on Saturday when their favorite arrived at the18th green. Pressel, I should add, got a different kind of cheer the next day,when she holed a 10-footer for birdie, a 69 and a three-under 285. It was asharp, enthusiastic burst--accompaniment for her fist pump--that dwindled topolite applause. Nobody had an inkling that she was going to win.

So it goes down asone of those nutty outcomes that leaves you scratching your head--an echo ofthe 2005 U.S. Women's Open in Denver, where an unsung pro, Birdie Kim, holed abunker shot on the final hole to snatch victory away from a can't-miss17-year-old by the name of Pressel. This time Pressel played the spoiler, butit was a stealth victory; she hung back for three days and didn't raise a goosebump until Sunday afternoon, when she got to the 17th hole.

That's right, the17th. A bunch of us walked out there in the heat, expecting to be turned backby orange cones and barricades. Instead we found pretty much the same par-3 ason Saturday, only the pin was set back right instead of back left. Pressel wentout on the tee, which was roped off for safety, and smacked a solid shot pinhigh. From there she parred the hole, the second putt being a five-footknee-knocker that she would later call "more important than the putt on18."

Pettersen? She gotto 17 in a more rattled state, having squandered her big lead on the previoustwo holes. "Perfect club," she said of her tee shot on the par-3."Hit it a little too hard, hit it left. The chip shot was pretty good. Ithought I had the putt; it was so close.... " But there was no roar forPettersen, who would par the final hole to tie for second with Matthew andBrittany Lincicome.

The finalhole--that's where majors should be decided. Not on the 17th.

• Read AlanShipnuck's Hot List at GOLF.com.

"I've been waiting for five years," Ochoa said."Two weeks, three weeks, four weeks more IS NOT A PROBLEM."
It was one of those nutty outcomes--an echo of the 2005U.S. Women's Open, where an unsung pro snatched victory away from a can't-miss17-year-old BY THE NAME OF PRESSEL.
PHOTOPhotograph by Danny Moloshok/APHOLDING STEADY Pressel posted a number (three under), then watched Pettersen (right) implode. PHOTOTODD BIGELOW/AURORAPHOTOTODD BIGELOW/AURORAUNLUCKY SEVEN Ochoa was in position to pass Sorenstam in the rankings but couldn't overcome a quadruple bogey.