DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Lorena Ochoa tossed her putter after missing an 8-foot putt on No. 18 that would have won the SBS Open. She finished in a three-way tie and was eliminated on the first playoff hole.
Ochoa falls short, but is still near top of LPGA
If there's anybody ready to challenge Annika Sorenstam for supremacy of the LPGA Tour, Lorena Ochoa is it.
The 24-year-old from Mexico, who played her college golf at the University of Arizona, is the fastest player in tour history to earn $3 million and will likely surpass $4 million sometime later this year.
In 2005, she won for her third time on tour and could have made it four had she not lost to Sorenstam in a playoff at the Safeway International. Ochoa had a chance to make amends yesterday, but let the SBS Open title slip away with missed opportunities down the stretch.
Not only did she miss a makable birdie putt at the first playoff hole with Soo Young Moon and eventual winner Joo Mi Kim, she also could have won it in regulation, but let an 8-footer miss the cup wide left.
Still, after opening with a 74 on Thursday, Ochoa went 12 under Friday and yesterday to show she can go low in a hurry. She won the Wegmans Rochester last year by birdieing six of her last seven holes. She played the back nine yesterday in 2 under, but could have gone even lower with a little more luck.
"I made a really good putt on the 16th," Ochoa said. "At the 14th, the putt went all around the hole. I think that (miss) was a very important one. And then on 18 I had another birdie opportunity, but I missed it on the left side. I did my best, it just didn't happen."
Ochoa still believes she has an opportunity for a breakout year. In college, she won a record 12 times, including eight out of 10 tournaments her sophomore season. In 2004, she finished third on the LPGA money list and was fourth last year. In her mind, it's just a matter of time before she challenges for the top spot.
"I'm very happy with the way I'm playing," Ochoa said. "I trained really hard in the offseason and to start this way, it makes me happy. I'm confident with my game. I am going to Mexico City in a couple of weeks and that is a big tournament for me. It didn't happen this week and I'll try hard next week. I play every week to win. It didn't happen this week, so hopefully the next one."
Practice, practice, practice: Kim didn't have a lot of down time after her second-round 65 put her into contention. Instead of heading back to the room for a change of clothes and an early dinner, caddie Jay Jang decided she needed a little extra work.
"We spent an hour practicing on the 80-yard approach shot," Jang said as Kim explained her late session with the South Korean media. "It's a good thing we did because it was that shot that won the tournament for her."
At the second playoff hole at the par-5 18th, Kim hit her drive down the right side of the fairway. She then took out a 7-wood and knocked it in the rough just in front of the lake at the 18th. It was 80 yards from the hole. Kim hit her wedge to within 2 feet and wound up knocking in the putt to win her first event on the LPGA Tour.
"I was more nervous than she was," Jang said. "But when we knew she only had an 80-yard shot to the green, we were confident. She hit that shot perfect."
A month ago, Loren Roberts walked up to his second shot at the 18th and hit a 4-iron to within 8 feet for an eagle. He made it to win the Turtle Bay Championship in dramatic fashion. He had confidence he could hit his approach and so did Kim as she stood over hers.
"It was about 80 yards, the third shot," Kim said through a translator. "Yesterday, I practiced a lot from 80 yards, so it was very easy for me to make that shot. As soon as I hit the ball and the ball hit the ground, I knew it was going to be close."
Kim held her index fingers about 18 inches apart.
"I was trying to focus on every single shot," Kim said. "Every time I was making a shot I was trying to focus and enjoy it. I was trying to have fun."
Moon on comeback trail: For someone who hasn't played competitive golf in a while, you have to give Moon credit for finishing in a tie for second. Last May, she injured her left wrist, forcing her to return to South Korea to work it back into shape. She spent nearly nine months rehabbing it before returning to the LPGA Tour this week.
Moon shot a final-round 69, including two birdies on the last two holes of regulation and another birdie at the first playoff hole. It just wasn't quite enough to hold off Kim.
"I took a medical extension last year because I had a wrist injury," Moon said. "I had to go back to Korea. I took off for about two months, then worked out really hard with my coach. He helped me a lot. Last year, I tried to work on all my swings. I tried very hard to help with my confidence."
Moon remained under the radar for most of the tournament until she sank a 35-footer for birdie at the 17th and then rolled in a 20-footer at the last to join the playoff. She's hoping this will get her into the flow at this week's Fields Open in Hawaii held at Ko Olina Resort.
"I changed all my swings with my coach," Moon said. "I met him after I went back to Korea and then we worked out together and changed my swing. That's why I've got a good swing now. I have confidence again."
Inside the numbers: The scoring average yesterday was 72.556, up from 71.886 on Friday. The hardest hole was the par-3 fourth with a scoring average of 3.148. There were 10 birdies, 49 pars and 22 bogeys. The easiest hole was the par-5 third with an average of 4.593. There was one eagle by former No. 1 Karrie Webb, 35 birdies, 41 pars and four bogeys.