Friday, May 8, 2009

Michelob Ultra Open Thursday: Ochoa Just Misses Course Record, But 29 Still Within 5 of Her

At the end of last month, in a post that got visited almost 1800 times (a Mostly Harmless record by far), I had this to say about Lorena Ochoa:

These are the 2 stats that matter. Even with her recent struggles, Ochoa has won 3 of her last 12 LPGA events. And yet, the same score that got her an 11-stroke win last season got her a 1-shot victory this one--and 10 golfers finished within 11 shots of her this time around. There's no doubt she's the best--and hottest--female professional golfer on the planet. But she'll need her A-game to stay there.

Nothing all that controversial; she herself had this to say about her win:

"In a golf tournament, where one [stroke] is enough to win, there is no difference. This is a complicated year, there are many players who want to win, you can see that every week," Ochoa added. "This year, it will be very hard to win by 10. That is why I keep practicing, trying to improve--to remain on top of them."

And she picked up on that theme in her pre-tournament interview this week:

I always play to win, every tournament; it doesn't matter where I am. Here, it's been close a couple of years. I'm just hoping this is my time. I don't have a reason to change anything, just play my same golf, and hopefully I think that there are so many good players, and the competition is very tough. So what is important is just to go one day at a time, to get off to a good start tomorrow and just to go from there.

So it should be no surprise that even after closing out her fantastic round with a pair of birdies on the tough finishing holes to pull within 1 shot of the course record, Ochoa was still focusing on the challenges ahead in her post-round interview:

Of course, I am working really hard for the win. I don't need to put pressure on myself. I'm going to do my best. This is only the start. We have three more days. I'm going to do them one at a time, and my goal is to give myself a chance on Sunday.

After all the failed attempts to revive the "Lorena more dominant than Tiger" meme from early 2008 that cropped up after her win at the Corona, it was especially great to see Hank Kurz of the AP focusing so much on the closest golfers to Ochoa among the 29 within 5 shots of the lead after her opening 64 at the Michelob Ultra. Kurz does a great job of pointing out how much closer some of those players could have been:

Other notables making a run at the leaderboard included 2005 winner Cristie Kerr, who got to 4 under but then stumbled to finish at 2 under; rookie Vicky Hurst, who got to 4 under but gave two shots back on her last four holes; and another rookie, Michelle Wie, who got to 3 under after her first 12 holes, but had two bogeys coming in to finish six shots back....

Makable missed putts, on the other hand, can drag a player down, and Seon Hwa Lee said she missed three from about 10 feet, but still came away smiling after her bogey-free 67.

She started her round by hitting her approach on the par-4 10th to inches away for a tap-in birdie, added three more birdies from no further away than 12 feet away and knew she could have gone much lower had she not made par at all three par 5s, typical scoring holes.

"I think tomorrow I’ll be better," she said.

And the list goes on: Ai Miyazato was -3 through her 1st 12 holes of bogey-free golf, but gave it all back over her last 6 holes on the front. Eun-Hee Ji bogeyed 16 and 17 to fall back to E, as well. Hound Dog even nails a great Twitter quote from Jane Park, who combined Miyazato and Ji's way of coming back to earth. These were costly mistakes, as all these players and more (like Ya Ni Tseng, Hee Young Park, and Ji Young Oh) find themselves T46. But others who hit a wall yesterday find themselves in even worse shape. Jee Young Lee made 4 birdies in her 1st 8 holes but went +3 over her last 10 without making a birdie and ended up with a 72 (+1, T67). Moira Dunn birdied her 1st 2 holes and was -2 through 5, but closed badly on each side to drop back to +3 (T101).

So let's take a closer look at the top of the Michelob Ultra leaderboard again. Sure, Lindsey Wright has been playing very well of late, so her bogey-free 65 shouldn't be that much of a surprise, nor should the 67 by Na Yeon Choi, the 68s by Suzann Pettersen and Angela Stanford, or the 69s by Cristie Kerr, Brittany Lang, and Song-Hee Kim. They're among the hottest players on the planet, after all.

No, what is a surprise is how many top players are making comebacks like Seon Hwa Lee did. Hee Won Han's closing 31 helped her to her lowest round since last August, a 66 matched by one of the formerly coldest players on tour, Minea Blomqvist, who did all her damage with a closing 30. Sarah Lee fired 7 birdies on her way to matching them and continuing her comeback from a near-disappearance all of last season (at 268 yards off the tee, she was one of the longest players in the field, as well). Amy Yang eagled the par-5 3rd hole on her way to a bogey-free 67, her lowest round on the LPGA (she's gone much lower on the LET and I'm waiting for her to do it in the States). And Hye Jung Choi would have joined Yang but for a walkoff bogey that still netted her her best round of 2009. On a more modest scale, seeing Shiho Oyama (69, T16) and Shanshan Feng (70, T30) each bounce back from a double bogey to post under-par rounds gives me hope that they're on the comeback trail after frigid starts to their seasons.

When a new cast of characters steps up to challenge Ochoa after stumbles by Pat Hurst and Morgan Pressel (73, T85), Karrie Webb and Inbee Park (74, T101), Mi Hyun Kim and Se Ri Pak (75, T116), Angela Park (76, T126), Stacy Lewis (77, T131), and Christina Kim (78, T138), you know the competition on the LPGA is intense. We'll see how many players can keep up if Ochoa drops another mid-60s round on the field in the next 3 days, but the bottom line is this: this week is a great opportunity for someone to turn their 2009 around.

[Update 1 (10:15 am): Nice chatty piece by Tom Robinson on the Wie-Hurst-Lincicome pairing.]

[Update 2 (10:24 am): Dave Fairbank was impressed with Hurst, as well, while Rich Radford, Vic Dorr, and Dave Johnson focused on Lorena.]

[Update 3 (10:32 am): Nice behind the ropes stuff from the local media!]

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