Sunday, June 8, 2008

LPGA Championship Saturday: The Plot Thickens

As Hound Dog covers in depth, Doug Ferguson with broad strokes, and in detail, we would finally have that Clash of the Titans in the LPGA Championship that we all have been waiting for all season, except that Lorena Ochoa (72) and Annika Sorenstam (68) at -10 were passed by 65-shooters Jee Young Lee (-12) and Maria Hjorth (-11) and have let a host of players into the tournament.

17 players broke 70 Saturday and Ochoa wasn't one of them. 40 players went under par and Ochoa wasn't one of them. I belabor the point b/c of its rarity over the past year. Her 34 on the back was her 3rd-highest 9 of the tournament, but it saved her from her opening 38, which was her worst of the season except for the 39 in the 3rd round's back 9 at the Michelob Ultra that dropped her out of contention for good that week (she's had 3 other 38s in 2008). Not only is Ochoa fighting to win her 3rd straight major, she's also trying to win her 8th consecutive tournament when holding the lead after 36 holes. If she does it, this will easily be her toughest win of the season. The quality of players ahead of or even with her heading into Sunday is the best of the year.

Sorenstam got to -9 by the 6th hole but couldn't get to -10 until the 15th; in the midst of a run of missed birdie putts down the stretch, she made one of the tougher opportunities and missed many shorter ones. Lee's 65 was bogey-free, but she erased 2 early birdies with a double on the diabolical 5th hole, then went -3 over her final 4 holes on the front and -4 over her final 4 holes on the back. Hound Dog's highlight reel features her finish prominently. Hjorth's 65 was not only bogey-free but blemish-free, as well. She concentrated her 7 birdies on the middle 12 holes.

This trio will be playing together in the final pairing Sunday. Hjorth will be looking to catch rival Sophie Gustafson in total wins, beat her to their first major, and catch her in career winnings--plus avoid Gustafson's troubles exactly a week ago. Lee will be looking to become only the 5th South Korean to win a major as well as to make up ground on her Junior Mint rival, Seon Hwa Lee, who won last week. And Sorenstam is looking to tie a record by winning this event for the 4th time.

Ochoa will be playing with Ya Ni Tseng (65) and Laura Diaz (69), who played the best rounds among that host of players I mentioned who moved themselves into contention on moving day. Tseng's first-hole bogey that broke her 23-hole streak without one must have woken her up; where she only made 3 birdies in that stretch, she made 8 in her next 17 holes of bogey-free golf. She'll be looking to continue that kind of run Sunday and in the process become the 2nd winner in her class and the first to win a major, not to mention to make up some serious ground on her rookie of the year race rival, Na Yeon Choi (69, -5, T19). Diaz is looking for her 1st win since her 2nd career victory in 2002 and to return to the form that put her in the top 10 on the money list that year and the year before. She could easily be going for her 2nd win of the season Sunday except that Sorenstam birdied 2 of her final 3 holes to avoid a playoff in the SBS Open.

Also at -8 are Brittany Lang and Lindsey Wright, but they'll have to put moving day stumbles behind them. Lang's 33 on the front got her to -10 quickly, but she gave back 3 shots in the next 4 holes and only salvaged a 38 with a birdie on the 18th. Wright did worse, making 4 bogeys in her final 10 holes after getting to -11 with a birdie on the par-5 8th. As unheralded a player as Super Soph in waiting Irene Cho (69) caught them and will join them in the next-to-next-to-last group.

At least they're still in the hunt, though. The list of players who moved out of contention or missed a chance to get in it is quite long: Rachel Hetherington (75) and Lorie Kane (76) fell back to T27 at -4, Hee-Won Han (73) squandered a hole-in-one and actually fell to T35 with Suzann Pettersen (74) and Michelle Redman (73) at -3, Jin Joo Hong and Michelle Ellis shot matching 76s to fall back to T43 at -2, and Sandra Gal (75) and Se Ri Pak (73) fell back to T54 at -1. Meanwhile, Karrie Webb (69, -5, T15), Paula Creamer (71, -4, T27), Jeong Jang (68, -4, T27), Cristie Kerr (71, -4, T27), and Morgan Pressel (70, -4, T27) couldn't go low enough to get into contention.

That is, unless everyone at -7 or better has a hard time with the rapidly firming-up course, or if officials decide enough is enough of lift, clean, and place and only the leaders end up repeatedly in old divots.... Nah, the winner will definitely come from someone in the top 11 today! I'm just hoping the competition will be fierce and that Hjorth and Lee account well for themselves in it. I'll be at Deer Park in Jamestown, PA, all day with the family, meeting friends from Japan who have been living in PA this past academic idea and getting our girls together, so I'll be relying on Hound Dog and the rest for a sense of how the action played out!

[Update 1 (6:51 am): Daniel Wexler sends the LPGA an appreciative note for their style of play and interesting TV viewing experience based on the 1st 2 days of the tournament--wonder what he'll be saying about the weekend?]

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