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Lorena Ochoa seeks elusive first major title

In the sweltering heat of late afternoon, Lorena Ochoa kept a steady stride as she ran briskly along the fairways and pine trees, rarely taking her eyes off the cart path.

Constantly pushing herself to get stronger, fitter and better, Ochoa also is starting to race time.

The Mexican star is only 25, in only her fifth year on the LPGA Tour. But she can no longer escape the question of when the No. 1 player in women's golf will win her first major.

Surely, this would be the year.

"I'm ready," she has said at the start of each major, only to have something go wrong.

At the Kraft Nabisco, it was a quadruple bogey on the 17th hole of the third round. At the LPGA Championship three weeks ago, she never got on track, struggling to string together birdies.

The next chance begins Thursday at Pine Needles in the U.S. Women's Open, the biggest event in women's golf, and one that highlights Ochoa's failure in the majors.

It was two years ago at Cherry Hills when Ochoa, starting the final round an hour before the leaders, was on her way to a 68 that would have given her the clubhouse lead, a score that would have set an intimidating target. But the nerves kicked in on the 18th tee, and her tee shot was combination duck-hook and pop-up, nowhere to go but the water. She finished with a quadruple-bogey 8.

"I think I wasn't ready. That's probably why it didn't happen," Ochoa said. "I'm ready today. I've been learning a lot in the past experiences. I made some big mistakes, but I think I'm ready to get a major. It will be amazing to get the U.S. Open. So now that we're here this week, why not win on Sunday?"

Ochoa arrived in Pine Needles in good spirits.

She is coming off her third victory of the season, winning in a playoff for the first time in her LPGA career.

"It helps a lot coming into this week," Ochoa said. "Instead of being down and upset, I'm really happy and positive about my game."

If history is on her side, it's the fact that Pine Needles has crowned only the best as its champions. Annika Sorenstam won the Women's Open in 1996 by hitting 51 of 56 fairways for a five-shot victory. Six years ago, Karrie Webb won by eight shots at Pine Needles, making her 5-of-8 in the majors.

But this is a daunting task for Ochoa and the rest of the 155 players at Pine Needles.

The course has been stretched some 400 yards, although it will play one stroke higher to a par 71. The fairways are generous. But the greens can be difficult to hold, and they drop off severely at the edges.

Typical of most U.S. Women's Open, this is a mixed crowd.

On one end are the veterans, such as 47-year-old Juli Inkster and Sorenstam, who is 36 and recovering from back and neck injuries that kept her out of competition for two months. Even someone like Webb, 32, is labeled as an old-timer considering the company she keeps. There are two dozen teenagers, a list that does not include 12-year-old Alexis Thompson, the youngest qualifier ever.

"I feel old out here, and I'm 26," said Suzann Pettersen, the dominant player in the majors this year with a runner-up finish at the Kraft Nabisco and a victory at the LPGA Championship.

Ochoa doesn't feel any older than her 25 years, even without a major.

She is eager to get rid of the questions, but not to the point where she is starting to press. Ochoa is comfortable with who she is and what she has accomplished, and she figures a major title is only a matter of time.

"I think she's been the best player," Webb said. "I don't think any of the players question that. I know she's trying very hard to win her first major, and I'm sure that's a milestone for her that she's hoping to achieve as soon as possible."

Ochoa finds support wherever she goes, and for good reason.

She is as humble as any player who has risen to No. 1, stopping during her practice round Tuesday to pose with Mexican maintenance workers for pictures. She is inspired to see the Mexican flag waving in the gallery, a common occurrence in California. She cried while watching Angel Cabrera of Argentina win the U.S. Open at Oakmont.

She has become one of the biggest stars, even if she doesn't act like one.

A month ago at the Ginn Tribute in South Carolina, the founding members of the LPGA Tour were honored at a dinner, and some asked Ochoa for her autograph. She obliged, then realized it should have been the other way around.

"My autograph doesn't mean anything," she said. "I went back and got all of their autographs. The first thing I was taught was to respect the players, especially the players who have been here for a long time. They have their place. For me, forget my place. Just watch and respect."

For someone supposedly under enormous pressure, Ochoa looks as though she's having the time of her life. She hardly spoke English when she arrived at the University of Arizona seven years ago and still takes pride in learning new words each day.

Her cousin, who lives in San Diego, taught her to say "delightful" instead of "good" when anyone asked her about her day. When she sat before a room of reporters Tuesday, the cousin offered the first question.

"How was your day today?" he said.

Ochoa stared at him, then started laughing.

"I forgot the word," she said, half-embarrassed. "Delightful."

What word would she use for winning a major? Ochoa thought about this on the practice green Wednesday, and offered one in Spanish.

"Maravilloso," she said with a smile, and that needed no translation.



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