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Ochoa set to return as history lies within her grasp

6/4/2008 - Golf

HAVRE DE GRACE, Md. -- Several years back, Karrie Webb pondered the LPGA schedule and said, "If you get hot at the right time you can win three majors and all the money." That "right time" she referred to began last week at the $2.6 million Ginn Tribute and continues this week at the McDonald's LPGA Championship -- and Lorena Ochoa stands poised to cash in.

Ochoa goes into the second major of the year, beginning Thursday at Bulle Rock GC near Baltimore, with a chance not only to accomplish the goals to which Webb referred, but also to make LPGA history. With six wins and a major already in the bank, Mickey Wright's record of 13 wins in a season is in play for Ochoa, as is the chance for the first Grand Slam in professional golf.

And since the nine-tournament stretch that begins this week includes three major championships and seven purses of at least $2 million, including the $3.1 million U.S. Women's Open and the $3 million Evian Masters, Ochoa could make a run at breaking the record $4.4 million single-season earnings mark she set last year.

The 26-year-old Mexican star, who withdrew from last week's Ginn Tribute to visit her ailing uncle in Mexico (who died last Thursday), has already won $1.8 million this year. Bulle Rock, with wide fairways, is a long-hitter's course, which fits perfectly with Ochoa's game.

Ochoa got her first major title in the Ricoh Women's British Open at St. Andrews in August 2007. She followed that by capturing the Kraft Nabisco Championship in April. A victory at the McDonald's would move her within one major of a feat accomplished only by Tiger Woods and Wright: holding all four professional major trophies at the same time.

Woods turned the trick with the last three majors of 2000 and the first of 2001. Wright captured the U.S. Women's Open and the LPGA Championship in 1961 and then picked off the 1962 Titleholders Championship and the Western Open before Murle Lindstrom stopped her streak by winning the U.S. Women's Open.

The only two players to sweep all the LPGA majors in a year were Babe Zaharias (1950, when there were only three) and Sandra Haynie (1974, one of 10 years in which there were only two majors). Pat Bradley is the last player to win three LPGA majors in a single season (1986).

Ochoa has the potential to achieve that kind of domination. Her idiosyncratic swing is tighter, her putting is more consistent and her mental discipline continues to grow.

Even back when she was having trouble closing out majors -- as recently as last year's U.S. Women's Open, when she helped Cristie Kerr prevail by missing her final five fairways -- Ochoa was giving herself opportunities to win. She has finished in the top 10 in 13 of her past 17 major championships.

It's not clear how the emotional stress of her uncle's death will affect her play, but Ochoa seems to know how to turn negatives into positives. You get the feeling she might be playing for a higher cause this week. Look for Ochoa to be focused, rested (two weeks off after playing nine of the previous 11 LPGA events) and ready to go at Bulle Rock.

She'll have plenty of competition. Webb, who lost a playoff at the Ginn Tribute when she missed a 30-inch putt on the first extra hole, is once again raising her game at the right time of the year.

Annika Sorenstam has only three majors left before her retirement at the end of the season. She's won at Bulle Rock, and she'll be motivated. So will defending McDonald's champion Suzann Pettersen, who won in Europe two weeks ago and finished T-9 at the Ginn Tribute.

Paula Creamer, with six career victories at the age of 21, says her primary goal this year is winning her first career major, although this may not be the week: Creamer's biggest asset -- her extreme accuracy off the tee -- is not rewarded at spacious Bulle Rock. Kerr and Se Ri Pak, who also won a McDonald's at Bulle Rock, need to be factored into the equation.

For dark horses, consider impressive rookies Na Yeon Choi and Yani Tseng.

But the story line at the McDonald's begins and ends with Ochoa. If she wins, it will set up the most dramatic U.S. Women's Open since Sorenstam went for three majors in a row at Cherry Hills in 2005 -- the year Ochoa blew a great chance to win when she made quadruple-bogey 8 on the 72nd hole.

Should Ochoa get to the final tee here or at Interlachen in the U.S. Open with a chance to win, don't expect a repeat performance of that Cherry Hills disaster. If Ochoa has figured out one thing since then, it's how to close out tournaments.

Ron Sirak is the executive editor of Golf World magazine and author of the best-selling book "Every Shot Must Have a Purpose: How GOLF54 Can Make you a Better Player" and the recently released "The Game Before the Game: The Perfect 30-Minute Practice."