Monday, April 7, 2008

The 19th Hole: Knowing How to Spot a Lock

There is a look in Tiger Woods’ eye and in his demeanor on important Sundays that seems to clue in to the competition as to the final outcome of a tournament. He lets them know in advance that he is going to win, take the money, and the trophy, and go on his merry way. No one seems to be able to stop him – although there have been some noted exceptions from time to time.

On the LPGA Tour, Lorena Ochoa appears to be evolving into the female model of Woods. In the first major of the LPGA Tour season, the Kraft Nabisco Championship, Ochoa entered the final round with a one shot advantage. From the scoring during the first 54 holes of the event, it appeared that Ochoa would face a strong challenge to become the first player on the LPGA Tour to win consecutive majors since 2005.

The challengers could have come from all angles. Cristie Kerr and Annika Sorenstam lurked as the players that have been in the major fights. Seon Hwa Lee and Hee-Won Han were accomplished players looking to extend their resume into major championships. From this crowd of solid players – and others unmentioned – Ochoa had a very difficult Sunday in store, on paper.

On the course, though, Ochoa made quick work of the fields and of any cynics that doubted her ability to overcome the demons that she has – now had – at this event. With birdies on the first two holes, the Mexican sensation served notice that this championship was hers and dared anyone to challenge her. No one ever did or even got close.

As Ochoa was playing up the final four holes, the only challenges she faced were the ones that she created for herself. Putting herself in trouble off of the tee twice, she still managed fantastic recoveries to make potentially difficult situations look routine. Approaching the last hole, Ochoa had no bogies on the day and was determined to finish out the championship’s final round without a blemish on the card. With a final seven footer, she made sure of that feat on her way to claiming her second major championship by a stunning five shots.

What appeared at the start of the day as an opportunity for an all-time dog fight of a final round devolved (or evolved) into a stomping that is reminiscent of all of Ochoa’s 2008 victories. She has won three of four starts to begin the season. Each win has been incredibly convincing – by margins of 11, 7, and now 5 in a major championship. Her average winning margin is nearly eight shots. It is not as though she is eeking out wins against lousy fields. She is crushing events that have great participation and making it look like it is easy.

As Golf World’s Ron Sirak mentioned earlier in the week, Annika Sorenstam dominated the LPGA Tour with frightening consistency. If she was at the top of the leaderboard, she would almost certainly win. She would not necessarily go for the jugular, though. A win was a win.

For Ochoa, that does not appear to be the mission. Not only does Ochoa want the trophy, but she appears driven by the type of victory that she has. She wanted to get the final round as right as she could make it. It was to prove a point to herself that she could do it, even when she did not have to anymore. Ochoa wanted to finish what she started – trying to go error free in the final round.

The next step for Ochoa, then, seems only to be to try for the single season grand slam. If she wins the next two majors – the McDonald’s LPGA Championship and the US Women’s Open – she will have completed the career grand slam. She will have to pursue those goals because anything short of them would be beneath what she has accomplished so far in 2008.

It may be too soon to coronate her as the second coming of Tiger Woods. It certainly is too early to start floating expectations of a double-digit count in wins this season. But, like with Woods, it is difficult to not turn things that seem preposterous when talking about others into legitimate expectations with Ochoa.

Otherwise, all the talk of winning just gets downright mundane.


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