The Immovable Obstacle

April 02, 2008

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. -– There must be something about this that feels familiar to Annika Sorenstam, only from the other side of the fence. Once upon a time, Se Ri Pak and Karrie Webb were the best in the world in women's golf, and in the most methodical way imaginable Sorenstam picked them off with precision play, finally sending them into demoralized, downward spirals. Now, in Lorena Ochoa, Sorenstam is finding an opponent who is as much of an immovable obstacle as the Swede was.

When Sorenstam was establishing her dominance in the women's game--winning 43 LPGA events in 104 starts from 2001 through 2005--there was the same sense of déjà vu that now hangs over an Ochoa tournament. Oh, Lorena shot 68 in today's first round of the Kraft Nabisco Championship. Haven't we seen that before? Oh yeah, how about that 66 she posted in the final round at the Safeway International last week to win by seven strokes?

When Sorenstam began her climb to the pinnacle of the game, she had to first reach the level of Pak and Webb. When the Swede did achieve equal footing with them a strange thing happened: Without getting any worse, Webb and Pak slipped back. They played good golf. They played great golf. And it was not good enough.

In 2001, Webb won three times and Pak picked off five titles. Pretty good years. The problem was that Sorenstam took home eight trophies. The next year, Pak again won five times and Webb added two more; but Sorenstam was victorious in 11 LPGA events. That's when demoralization became a factor.

In 2003, Pak won three times and Webb once while Sorenstam captured six events, played in the Colonial Invitational on the PGA Tour, completed the career Grand Slam at the Women's British Open and was inducted into the LPGA and World Golf Halls of Fame. Webb and Pak each won a single tournament in 2004 while Sorenstam won eight times, and the next year the duo was shut out while Sorenstam won 10 times.

It seemed as if Sorenstam had crushed the spirits of Webb and Pak, so completely frustrating them with her stellar play that their own games started to develop flaws. Ochoa is putting that kind of pressure on her opponents now. She is making birdies in unworldly numbers and has greatly reduced the number of mistakes she makes.

Throw out the 76 Ochoa shot in the first round of the MasterCard tournament in Mexico and here's what her rounds in 2008 look like: 65 twice, 66 twice, 67 once, 68 four times, 69 and 70 once each for a stroke-average of 67.27. Sorenstam, meanwhile, has played all 15 of her rounds this year under par and with her one-under-par 71 on Thursday has a season average of 69.13. That's very good, but Ochoa has been better than very good.

This is nowhere near Sorenstam's first rodeo and she clearly has the mental toughness not to let Ochoa's excellence frustrate her. Still, it's demoralizing to play under par round after round only to watch someone else go even lower.

There is that wonderful line about what it was like to go up against Jack Nicklaus when he was in contention on Sunday: "Jack knew he was going to beat you. You knew Jack was going to beat you. And Jack knew that you knew he was going to beat you." That's the way it was for Sorenstam for five years beginning in 2001, and that's the way it is for Ochoa now.

Golf is an incredibly mental game. Confidence is the glue that holds together success, and that confidence can disappear as rapidly as it arrives. Last year, when Ochoa missed the fairway with her final five drives in losing a last-round U.S. Women's Open duel to Cristie Kerr there was still ample reason to doubt her ability to hold up under the pressure on Sunday.

But Ochoa found something that magical week at St. Andrews last August when she won the British Open. She walked away from the home of golf with a new confidence and serene calm.

Like her shots, Ochoa chooses her words carefully. Asked if she would take three more 68s in the fist major of the year, she smiles: "Yes." Asked if she felt sorry for Morgan Pressel, who she outdrove by 60 yards all day, she smiled: "No." And asked if she looks for Sorenstam's name on the leader board, she said with no trace of a smile: "All the time," and on this occasion she amplified her thoughts.

"She likes to win," Ochoa said about Sorenstam. "To see her name [on the leader board] means something. You have to watch out."

That's pretty much how everyone in the field feels about Ochoa now. She has elevated her game to full intimidation mode, just as Sorenstam did when she was No. 1 in the world. Ochoa's intimidation, however, is much different than Sorenstam, who overwhelmed opponents with ruthless consistency. It wasn't so much her good shots that were memorable, but her bad ones because they were so few and far between. Ochoa intimidates with power and aggressive play.

As with Tiger Woods, the level of play by Ochoa leaves us hoping for a final-round shootout with one of the other big names--Sorenstam, or Cristie Kerr or Paula Creamer. But really, the most fitting finish here is for Ochoa and Sorenstam to go head-to-head on Sunday. It's rare that two players this special come along this closely together, and if the torch is truly being passed let's make it a special occasion.