Birdie blitz puts Ochoa in position to win first major

Updated: July 2, 2007, 2:43 PM ET
By Bob Harig | Special to ESPN.com

SOUTHERN PINES, N.C. -- The questions keep coming, and Lorena Ochoa understands. The one-time language barrier is no longer a problem, and neither is facing up to the subject. Winning a major championship is an obvious goal, and as long as it remains unaccomplished, it will be a topic of conversation.

If having been so close you could all but taste victory matters, if having tried but failed is part of the process, then the No. 1-ranked player in women's golf is more than ready to capture that first major and fill the only void in a resume that still looks impressive without it.

You only learn [pressure situations] with experience. I do want to say that I'm ready right now. I can't wait to get my first major and hopefully we can go from there.

-- Lorena Ochoa

"I feel prepared to win a major," she said. "[Sunday] is going to be a special day."

Maybe she's feeling fortunate after a scary lightning strike Saturday evening at Pine Needles Golf Club all but caused her to jump out of the golf cart carrying her back to the clubhouse. The weather-plagued U.S. Open saw another storm hit just after play was halted due to darkness. Ochoa was being transported back after completing 11 holes of the third round.

It was a tense moment, but Ochoa soon settled down and was laughing under an umbrella on her way back, undoubtedly looking forward to a 25-hole day that could see her be crowned a major championship.

At age 25, it is far too early for the Mexican star to feel a sense of urgency. And yet, as the newly-minted No. 1 who has far surpassed the accomplishments of any other player over the past year, it is the logical next step.

Ochoa put herself in position by making four birdies through 11 holes to trail unheralded Ji-Yai Shin of South Korea by one stroke. During her second round, Ochoa birdied the final two holes to shoot 71. Ochoa is tied with another major-less star, Cristie Kerr. Angela Park, the second-round leader, is also tied at 4-under, with Morgan Pressel, 19, a stroke back at 3-under.

Perhaps it is better that Ochoa will have to come from behind -- even if it is just a single stroke -- because there will be less expectations and more opportunity to attack rather than protect.

Then again, given the names -- coupled with their lack of experience -- ahead of her on the leaderboard at Pine Needles Golf Club -- Ochoa has another excellent opportunity to get the coveted hardware.

"I am just really happy to be there. It was what I wanted to do, to make sure on Sunday I'm close to the lead, if not in the lead, and have a chance to win the tournament.

"I am really pleased with the way I played and I know my name means something," she said. "That's why I want to make sure I get a good start [Sunday] and hopefully I can put the pressure on the other players."

Ochoa certainly has past mistakes to ponder and use as motivation. At the Kraft Nabisco Championship earlier this year, she appeared in control during the third round. But on the 17th hole, she made a crushing quadruple bogey from which she could never recover. Last year, she lost in a playoff at the same tournament, defeated in a playoff by Karrie Webb, who holed a wedge shot for an eagle to extend the tournament.

She has 12 top-10s in majors, none more excruciating than the tie for sixth at the 2005 U.S. Women's Open at Cherry Hills. Ochoa played well before the leaders during that final round and was poised to post a score that would be tough to beat. Then she stepped to the 18th tee and ... chunked her tee shot into the water. It was an embarrassing stroke that led to an 8, made worse when NBC-TV's Johnny Miller referred to it as a "choke."

To her credit, Ochoa does not hide from the discussion.

"I'm a person who believes that things happen for a reason," Ochoa said. "If I didn't win that U.S. Open, it's probably because I wasn't ready. Maybe not to deal with all the things, the cameras or that with winning a major championship or just pressure on myself. And for sure I didn't know myself as good as I know myself right now.

"When you're under pressure and you have too much adrenaline, your swing gets quick, my hands ... I should probably have taken a little more time and taken a couple of deep breaths. You only learn them with experience. I do want to say that I'm ready right now. I can't wait to get my first major and hopefully we can go from there."

Ochoa has 12 victories in her five-year career -- more than any other player on the leaderboard, except for Se Ri Pak -- including six last year when she won the LPGA title and player of the year honors.

Three of her victories have come this year, including last weekend at the Wegmans LPGA, where for the first time she won in a playoff. But she's had three other second-place finishes this year where she held the 54-hole lead and failed to convert. And she is just 6-for-12 in her career with a 54-hole lead.

The telltale sign that Ochoa is struggling is a dreaded pull-hook. It has cropped up in pressure situations, and her ability to get it under control Sunday could be crucial.

"I know she's trying very hard to win her first major," said seven-time major winner Webb earlier this week. "And I'm sure that's a milestone she is trying to achieve as soon as possible. I think she's been the best player. I don't think any of the players question that."

The best players, however, don't always win the biggest tournaments. Ochoa knows the story and hopes to write a more favorable ending this time.

Bob Harig is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com