GREAT TOURNAMENT.Paula Creamer won. ¬∂ Now that we've got that out of the way, here's theheadline from last week's SemGroup Championship: VICTORY ELUDES OCHOA. Or howabout this: BROKEN STREAK IN BROKEN ARROW. ¬∂ Anything but OCHOA LOSES. Youdon't call golf's hottest player a loser. ¬∂ Admittedly, it was not LorenaOchoa's week. Oh, sure, TIME magazine named her one of the 100 most influentialpeople in the world. And Hall of Famer Nancy Lopez praised her in the magazinefor "her remarkable warmth and modesty," adding that Ochoa, at age 26,has already left an "indelible mark" as a humanitarian. And LPGAcommissioner Carolyn Bivens gilded the lily, saying, "Lorena is a wonderfulambassador for our tour, a true icon in Mexico and a role model for womenacross the globe."
But Ochoa didn'ttravel to the Tulsa suburb of Broken Arrow, Okla., to build a school or start agolf program for children. She was trying to tie the LPGA record of fiveconsecutive wins, set by Lopez in 1978 and matched by Annika Sorenstam in2004--05. She was also trying to win her sixth tournament in seven starts andsew up her third straight Rolex Player of the Year Award while the tulips werestill in bloom. And for those of us who scribble in notebooks while she talks,Ochoa was trying to fill the void created by Tiger Woods's injury layoff. (DougFerguson, the AP's golf writer, bailed out on the PGA Tour's WachoviaChampionship to cover the SemGroup. That's like having Wolf Blitzer snub theIndiana primary to bring you poll data on the Taos, N.Mex., light-railinitiative.)
So you'll have toexcuse us for shouting "Down in front!" at Creamer, the self-styledPink Panther of women's golf, who beat Juli Inkster in a two-hole playoff towin her second tournament of 2008 and the sixth of her short career. (Note toPaula: You may need a stronger gimmick than pink outfits to get out of Lorena'sshadow. Have you considered a photo shoot for Vanity Fair?) Call itLorenamania, call it Ochoa Fever, whatever—she currently is, to paraphrase yetanother magazine, one of the women we love.
Alas, thingsdon't always go according to expectations. In December, for example, an icestorm descended on Tulsa, turning its urban forest into apick-your-own-firewood festival. Cedar Ridge Country Club lost 300 trees andsustained major damage to 2,000 more—a statewide calamity that robbed theformer U.S. Women's Open venue of its usual luster. Then, just when the galsgot to Oklahoma, spring happened. Last Thursday's first round, played insoutherly winds of up to 36 mph, produced an average score of nearly six overpar. Ochoa shot a two-over 73.
The next day'swind, more westerly but nearly as stiff, induced six players to withdraw andkept scores soaring. The cut line of 10 over par was the highest for the LPGAsince the 2003 Kraft Nabisco Championship, and Creamer, with rounds of 70--71,was the only player under par for 36 holes. Ochoa? For the first time in twoyears she played a birdie-free round, shooting 74, and for the first time sincethe 2006 Women's British Open she had two over-par rounds in a singletournament. That left Ochoa, who trailed Creamer by six strokes, in a tie withOprah Winfrey, Tony Blair, Mia Farrow and Sheik Mohammed al-Maktoum in theHeroes and Icons bracket.
Oops, sorry.Those are the TIME results. Ochoa learned of her selection to the Top 100 liston, of all places, the LPGA's website. "It was a great surprise," shesaid of the honor. "I'm glad they pay attention to golf and what weaccomplish out here."
Saturday broughta gradual diminishing of wind, and that had Creamer looking over her shoulderat Ochoa, who is a birdie machine when conditions are right. Lorena dunked along birdie putt on the 8th hole and a short birdie putt on the 9th, andsuddenly she was only three behind. But Creamer, trying to bounce right backfrom a playoff loss to Sorenstam in Miami, promptly made a birdie of her own.The gap was never that narrow again, and when the third round ended, Creamer'sclosest pursuer was not Ochoa but a 47-year-old hero-icon with a propensity foron-the-course theatrics. That set up an interesting Sunday duel betweenCreamer, who holds the record for youngest winner of an LPGA event (18 years,11 months, 18 days), and Inkster, who if she had won, would have overtaken BethDaniel (46 years, eight months, 29 days) as the oldest.
Ochoa? "I'mstill positive," she said after her round of 71. "There's not too manyplayers in front of me, and this is a tough course. Anything canhappen."
It sure can.Sunday dawned sunny and warm with just enough breeze to rustle the emergingleaves on Cedar Ridge's misshaped trees. Ochoa, starting eight shots behind,failed to mount an early charge. The leaders, meanwhile, were tied at two underafter an Inkster-friendly two-shot swing on the 7th, a dry run, apparently, forthe really dramatic two-shot swing that sent the tournament into overtime. Thatcame on 18 when Creamer—behind the green in two but enjoying a two-stroke leadover her friend and former Solheim Cup partner—chipped 12 feet past the hole.Inkster then stunned her pink protégé by holing an 18-footer for birdie.
The old lady—didwe mention that she's 47?—threw up her arms and reeled like a wobbling top.That left Creamer, who had sobbed in the ladies' room after her Miami loss,needing to make her par putt to avoid a playoff.
You already knowthere was a playoff, so let's cut to the quick: Paula won on the second playoffhole. Seven-iron to eight feet, made the putt, hugs all around.
Ochoa? Well, shefinished like a winner, hitting a splendid approach to about five feet on 18and making the putt for birdie. Her final-round 69 was three better thanCreamer's score and lifted her into a fifth-place tie at 287. And Ochoa wasO.K. with that. "I'm not disappointed," she said behind the grandstand,"because I gave myself a chance and tried really hard. I'm leaving with asmile on my face."
Was she smiling?Yes, she was.
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"I'm not disappointed," Ochoa said,"because I gave myself a chance and tried really hard. I'M LEAVING WITH ASMILE ON MY FACE."
Photograph by David Walberg
O.K. IN OT After losing a playoff the week before, Creamer (above) defeated Inkster on the second extra hole.
Photograph by David Walberg
BLOW OUT Ochoa (top) struggled in tempestuous Oklahoma, but the redoubtable Inkster stood her ground.
Photograph by David Walberg
[See caption above]