April 3, 2008

The Atmospheric Pressure Is Rising

It's a major, it's the weekend, the air is getting thick with tension and everybody's play, including Lorena's, is reflecting it

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. -- One of the best things about major championships is that the course gets more difficult as the week goes on, many times without the course getting more difficult.

There wasn't more wind Friday at the Kraft Nabisco Championship than in Thursday's first round at Mission Hills Country Club. The rough didn't grow magically over night, nor did the greens get mysteriously firmer or faster, but the scores were higher. What happens at a major is this: The pressure grows with each round.

Someone not on the pre-tournament radar screen always goes low in the first round. At the Kraft Nabisco it was a 67 that gave Karen Stupples the first-round lead. The 2004 Women's British Open champion managed only a 75 on Friday. Ai Miyazato, who has struggled since the second half of last year, followed her opening 68 with a 74. On Friday, only Moira Dunn shot as low as 68 in the second round.

And then there are the ones who've shown they can stand taller as the week gets more difficult. Lorena Ochoa followed her opening-round 68 with a 71 on Friday and was tied for the lead at five-under-par with Heather Young. And Annika Sorentam, a 10-time major winner and three-time Kraft Nabisco champion, backed up a 71 with a 70 to trail the leaders by two strokes despite stomach problem that required medical attention after her round.

What that sets the stage for is a weekend that promises much drama -- and not many birdies. Weekend's at a major are when pars are at a premium.

"You know, it's just the beginning.," Ochoa explained. "We play a major a little bit different. There are going to be some low score the first two days, and then anything around par is good, trying to make as many pars as possible."

Last year, Morgan Pressel won here with a three-under-par 285, closing with a 69 on Sunday. But she posted that number by finishing about an hour before the third-round leaders Suzann Pettersen and Se Ri Pak, then watched from a giant TV screen on the practice range as they -- and others -- faltered down the stretch.

Ochoa was done in here last year by a quadruple bogey 7 on the 17th hole in Saturday's third round. Pettersen let her opportunity slip through her hands by playing No. 15 through 17 four over par on Sunday to finish one stroke behind Pressel and tied with Catriona Matthew, who three-putted the last hole, and long-hitting Brittany Lincicome, who played the last seven holes one over par, failing to find the birdie she needed to get into the playoff despite No. 18 being a reachable-in-two par 5.

That's what happens on the weekend at the majors. The conditions don't necessarily get more difficult, but the pressure intensifies. If there is one thing anyone who has been following the LPGA the last couple of years would most want to see this weekend it's a shoot out between Ochoa and Sorenstam. Almost no question marks remain about Ochoa but this one: Can she hold off one of the best head-to-head on a Sunday at a major?

There is no doubt who the No. 1 player is in women's golf right now, but there is also no doubt that when Ochoa won eight times with a major last year she did it while Sorenstam was far from 100 percent because of her neck injury. But if there is one thing Ochoa has been brilliant at the last couple of years it is removing doubts.

First, there were doubts about her being able to close out tournaments. No more. She's won 16 times in the last 24 months. Then there were doubts about her inability to win a major, doubts fueled by several squandered opportunities. No more. She won the Ricoh Women's British Open at St. Andrews last August.

Ochoa's two victories in three starts this year came by a combined total of 18 strokes. Not exactly squeakers. So in this what-have-you-done-lately world in which we live the cynics throw out the challenge for Ochoa to win a big one in a nail-biter.

The way Ochoa is playing right now there is no reason to think she can't. But there is also a hunger in Sorenstam right now built on a desire to not become old news quite yet that has motivated her to a start to this season in which she has played all 16 of her rounds under par. The idea of Ochoa and Sorenstam going at each other under final-round major championship pressure is the most compelling scenario for anyone -- probably even for them.

There are a couple of other Sunday pairings that might be fun.

• How about Morgan Pressel and Yani Tseng, two 19-year-olds who can talk about how they both beat Michelle Wie in match play as amateurs?

• How about Mallory Blackwelder and Juli Inkster? That way Mallory, who plays for her mother, the coach of the University of Kentucky golf team, can spend the day with her father, Worth, who caddies for Inkster.

• Or how about Angela Stanford and Heather Young? That way Jeremy Young, who caddies for Stanford, can spend the day with his wife, Heather.

• How about Liselotte Neumann, who started the Swedish invasion with her victory in the 1988 U.S. Women's Open, and Helen Aldredsson, who won this tournament in 1993?

Weekends at major championships are something special. They are the time in golf when birdies are rare and Old Man Par is a friend indeed. If you listen to Ochoa, the winning score at the Kraft Nabisco Championship will not be lower than the five-under-par mark it is at after 36 holes.

Yes, someone will shoot low on Saturday to move up the leader board. And yes, someone will shoot low on Sunday to sneak into a backdoor top-five finish. It always happens. But Saturday and especially Sunday will be a battle of pars among those at the top of the leader board. That's what happens at majors, when the course gets tougher not because the grass got higher but because the collar got tighter.