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Stone Closer

April 14, 2008
April 14, 2008

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April 14, 2008

SI Bonus Section: Golf Plus
SI Players: LIFE ON AND OFF THE FIELD
2008 NCAA TOURNAMENT
NFL DRAFT
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  • The Denver Nuggets, the league's latest offensive juggernaut, are trying to shoot their way into the Western Conference's final playoff spot by putting up points at a breakneck pace

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Stone Closer

Resolving once and for all any lingering questions about the reliability of her game, Lorena Ochoa finished with a flourish to turn a tight Kraft Nabisco Championship into a runaway

FOR SOMEONE who had won 10 tournaments in the preceding 13 months, Lorena Ochoa had a little something to prove during Sunday's final round of the Kraft Nabisco Championship, the first LPGA major of the year. As Ochoa increases her domination of her peers it has become trendy to compare her with Tiger Woods, but until recently she was more akin to Phil Mickelson: an extravagant talent whose game had just enough uncertainty to add suspense to the proceedings. It was at last year's Kraft that Ochoa stirred the ghosts of Winged Foot, making a messy quadruple bogey on the 17th hole on Saturday to kick away what could have been her first career major. Four months later she broke through at the Women's British Open with an overpowering victory on the Old Course, the perfect canvas for one of the game's preeminent feel players. Although Ochoa had long ago proved that she's close to unstoppable when her game is clicking, one question remained: whether she had the guts to grind out a major championship victory on an exacting course when she was not at her sharpest. On Sunday at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, Calif., she offered an emphatic yes, summoning one of the most commanding rounds of her career to blow away the field, not least Annika Sorenstam, who tied for second, a million strokes back. (O.K., it was actually five.)

This is an article from the April 14, 2008 issue

During Ochoa's bogeyless five-under 67 she hit 16 greens in regulation and repeatedly willed three- and four-foot par putts into the hole on the baked-out greens. She had held the lead after every round but had also given the field hope with messy finishes, bogeying two back-nine holes last Friday and then three-putting twice on the final four holes of the third round. On Sunday, Ochoa's fierce determination was as palpable as the desert heat, and even as she pulled away in the middle of the round she refused to let up, going so far as to grind on a five-foot par putt on the 72nd hole.

"She wanted to put together a really flawless round," said Ochoa's caddie, Dave Brooker. "It wasn't flawless tee to green, but it was on the scorecard. She had to work hard for it."

For the 26-year-old Ochoa, the victory was her third of the year—by a combined and whopping 23 strokes—and the 20th of her career. (At the same age Sorenstam had only eight W's.) Under the LPGA's points system Ochoa's next win will qualify her for the Hall of Fame, though induction will have to wait until 2012, when she has played 10 years on tour. This victory was particularly freighted because the Kraft was threatening to become to Ochoa what the U.S. Open is to Mickelson: a source of never-ending misery. Ochoa had finished in the top 10 in five of the last six years, including a heartbreaker in 2006, when she blew a three-stroke 54-hole lead, then lost in a playoff to Karrie Webb. Having now exorcised those demons, she can set her sights on something grander: the Grand Slam.

Asked on Sunday if she can sweep the remaining three majors, Ochoa channeled Woods with an unblinking answer. "Yes," she said, not feeling the need to elaborate. Her lifelong coach, Rafael Alarcon, was more expansive. "Of course she can do it," he said. "Why not? We talk about winning every tournament. This one was always going to be the hardest to win because of all the memories."

The previous meltdowns in the desert had been the main reason for the whispers that Ochoa's swing was too loose and her nerves too unsteady to hold up in the crucible of major championships. Her double dip at the Women's British and now the Kraft has quieted that talk. "For sure, I'm a better player right now, and I have more control over things," Ochoa said in her champion's press conference, which she conducted turned out in a terry cloth robe after taking the victor's traditional plunge into the pond next to the 18th green. "I like the way I feel right now when I'm playing the last round and the last nine holes. I have really changed and improved that way."

It is more than just experience that has helped Ochoa become the LPGA's most ruthless closer. She simply has way more game than anybody else. Last year she was third in driving distance (270.6 yards), but Alarcon says that during the off-season his prize pupil added another 10 yards thanks to rigorous conditioning and a more efficient swing that continues to become tighter and more compact at the top. Two weeks ago the 5'6", 130-pound Ochoa wowed with her pyrotechnics en route to a seven-shot laugher at the Safeway International, including a one-hop bomb onto the putting surface of the 310-yard 14th hole during the final round. At the Kraft, Ochoa was second in the field in driving distance (276.3 yards), and her physical strength was evident during the final round when she missed seven fairways but repeatedly muscled approach shots onto the greens.

Her long game may be more powerful, but Ochoa's primary off-season project was making her putting stroke technically sound. She has always had a tendency to take the putter back outside the target line and then cut across the ball. She spent countless hours over the winter toiling to square her alignment and move the putter on a purer path. Even as she has been dusting the competition this year, Ochoa has been struggling to lock in the changes, and her discomfort was evident last Saturday when she took 34 putts. Following the round she repaired to the practice green, confronting howling winds that her caddie later estimated at 40 miles an hour. She left the green with renewed confidence, and her stroke held up when it really mattered, during the final round.

On the 1st hole Ochoa slashed a nine-iron out of the rough to 10 feet and buried the birdie putt. After reaching the 517-yard par-5 2nd with a five-wood, she produced a deft two-putt from 25 feet straight downhill on one of the fastest greens on the property. The opening birdies no doubt put a scare into the field, but for Alarcon the most important putt of the round came on the 3rd hole, after Ochoa had lagged a 70-foot birdie try four feet short. She poured the ensuing putt into the cup, chasing it with a little fist pump. "I knew then she was connected with her game," said Alarcon.

The par-4 7th hole was the key momentum changer. Ochoa's playing partner, Hee-Won Han, had just made a birdie to close to within a stroke and at 7 had a 25-foot uphill birdie putt, while Ochoa was over the green facing a delicate downhill chip. But Han three-putted, and Ochoa got up and down, pushing the lead back to two. Sensing her opening, Ochoa responded with a trademark burst of birdies, rattling off three in a row to push her lead to a commanding five strokes.

Moments later Sorenstam birdied the 11th to cut the deficit to four strokes, but she was unable to creep any closer. That Annika was even in the picture was testament to her heart, though certainly not her tummy. During the third round a stomach virus had nearly knocked her out of the tournament, and she was weakened to the point of occasionally having to lie flat on her back in the shade between shots. She somehow gutted out a 73 that included four birdies on the back nine. Feeling better on Sunday, she shot a 68, a score topped only by Ochoa. Sorenstam can betray the slightest irritation at having to answer so many questions about the woman who has supplanted her atop the world ranking, but she was gracious at the Kraft. Asked if she wished she had had one more round of good health to try to chase down Ochoa, Annika said, "I'm not really sure if that's enough. Lorena is playing really solid. She's moving forward every round, and she's not giving any back."

Before Ochoa, Sorenstam was the last woman to win back-to-back majors, and on Sunday she did nothing to quiet talk of a Grand Slam. "I think it's possible," said Sorenstam, who in 2005 won the Kraft and then the LPGA Championship but finished 23rd at the ensuing U.S. Women's Open. "Lorena is playing great golf—obviously you need to peak at a certain time and you need a little luck, but I certainly do think it's possible."

It may have been richly symbolic for Sorenstam to finish as runner-up, but because of injuries, Annika has not been a bona fide rival to Ochoa since 2006. Ochoa has carefully studied Sorenstam's reign and already figured out that she needs more in her life than golf. "I think for sure the most important thing is to have time for yourself and to be happy," says Ochoa. "That's the only way you can play good golf."

As has become her custom in recent years, Ochoa didn't touch a club in December, spending time with her close-knit family at her beach house in the tiny fishing village of San Juan de Alima. Though such hiatuses are much-needed, "she doesn't exactly lie around," says Ochoa's brother and manager, Alejandro. "Every morning she runs and works out, and then she water-skis and fishes." Ochoa has also found time for a burgeoning romance with AeroMexico CEO Andres Conesa, a dapper man several years her senior. "It is good she is dating," says Alarcon. "It is an important part of having balance in her life. Lorena's golf career exploded the last couple of years, and I think she felt a little overwhelmed by everything that came with it. Now she has things more under control and is more relaxed. Her mind is clear, and she is more able to enjoy her success."

It's hard to imagine any victory being celebrated more lustily than Ochoa's at the Kraft. She said at the start of the week that she had requested 100 tickets for the many friends and family who had road-tripped from Mexico. It sounded like an exaggeration, but on Saturday, Alejandro lamented that they needed 100 more. The boosters were part of a wild scene in the moments after Ochoa tidied up her victory. As she loitered on the 18th green for the trophy ceremony, a mariachi band provided accompaniment while the packed bleachers serenaded her in Spanish. Moments later it was time for a dip. Usually the champion is accompanied by only her caddie, but more than a dozen intimates joined Ochoa in what had to be the unruliest but most joyous leap in tournament history. "I woke up this morning, and I couldn't stop thinking of that jump in the lake," she said. "It was something that I've been waiting for for a long time." But even after her most satisfying victory Ochoa was already looking beyond the celebration, because she still has so much more to accomplish. "All of the Mexicans, they will drink a lot of tequila tonight," she said. "Not me. I need to be ready for next week."

Follow Lorena Ochoa's triumphant return to Mexico for the Corona Championship at GOLF.com.

Asked if she can sweep the remaining majors, Ochoa CHANNELED WOODS with an unblinking answer. "Yes," she said, not feeling the need to elaborate.
PHOTOPhotograph by Robert BeckPHOTOPhotograph by Robert BeckLONG HALL With her next win, Ochoa will qualify for the Hall of Fame, though induction will have to wait until 2012.PHOTOPhotograph by Robert BeckGUTS AND GLORY Ochoa fought off Sorenstam (below), who toughed out a third-round 73 despite a stomach virus.PHOTOPhotograph by Robert Beck[See caption above]