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Annika Sorenstam heads towards home stretch

Annika Sorenstam is headed into the stretch run of her final LPGA Tour season still exuding the same competitive drive that has carried her this far.

“I’m not a social golfer,” she said matter-of-factly Wednesday when asked about what she’ll do once through on tour.

Getting married, motherhood and some down time without clubs in hand will be more her style soon. Maybe a trip back here to relax and use the spa in the luxe Ritz-Carlton resort. Enjoy a little high-class food and wine.

But not just yet.

“I try not to think about it,” she said. “I am still so competitive. This is what I have done for over 20 years. I’ve done this for a very long time. It’s just something that’s in me.”

Sorenstam, who turns 38 next Thursday, has won a record five Samsung World Championships—and the Swede would like nothing more than to go out on top this week in her last one.

That will take beating two-time defending champion and world No. 1 Lorena Ochoa. Sorenstam would like to finish atop the money list in her last year, too, and as Player of the Year. Both of those things also would mean passing Ochoa.

And Sorenstam is realistic.

“That challenge is a little tougher than I anticipated starting,” Sorenstam said Wednesday following her pro-am round at the Samsung. “I got off to a good start but haven’t played really well. Pretty much since my announcement, I’ve been nonstop. I’ve been traveling a lot, playing a lot of tournaments. The results haven’t been there to put me in that situation.”

Sorenstam and Ochoa will be the favorites—fan favorites, too—when they tee off together Thursday in the first round of the elite, 20-player field on the 6,450-yard, par-72 Ocean Course at Half Moon Bay Golf Links. A year ago, Ochoa beat Mi Hyun Kim by four strokes in the event at Bighorn Golf Club in Palm Desert. It was the seventh of her eight 2007 victories.

Ochoa, from Mexico, has seven tour titles this season and Sorenstam three. Both are seeking the $250,000 winner’s purse here.

“Annika, of course, has played many years,” said Ochoa, the winner Sunday in Alabama. “I have so much respect for her. But I don’t want her to beat me. We’ll see at the end of the season where we both are.”

They each like the challenging course, with its five par-5s rather than the typical four and thick grass that makes for tough chipping.

“I am hitting my driver good,” said Ochoa, who recently spent time back home resting and tweaking her swing. “That’s important this week. I’m going to make sure I can get it in the right direction. I think hitting the fairways is probably going to be the most important thing.”

That, and staying focused to avoid the distractions of the spectacular ocean views on the Northern California coast just south of San Francisco.

“The good thing, if you hit a bad shot, it’s nice to look at the ocean and breathe,” Ochoa said. “It’s beautiful.”

Yani Tseng also should be high on the leaderboard. She is the leader for LPGA Rookie of the Year race and ranked No. 3 in the world. She is the youngest player in the field at 19, and clearly thrilled—not to mention downright giddy — to be among top players.

She and Ochoa often bet $50 for both most birdies and lowest round.

“I’m very happy to be betting with Lorena,” Tseng said, chuckling. “Last tournament we had two rounds together. I tell myself, ‘This is very important.’ I want to beat her. Every time I make a par I just watch her and smile. We are good friends and we are going to bet until maybe we both retire.”

So, Sorenstam isn’t the only one targeting Ochoa this week—and Ochoa realizes the depth in her sport is only increasing by the day and by the tournament.

“Right now she is the No. 1 player in the world,” said Paula Creamer, raised in nearby Pleasanton. “Lorena is a very confident player, but there are so many people out there trying to challenge that. I think that’s great. I don’t think we’ve had that before in women’s golf.”

The tournament had been at Bighorn the past four years. This move gives Northern California consecutive weeks of women’s golf. The Longs Drugs Challenge is next week in nearby Danville.

Half Moon Bay, designed by Arthur Hills in 1997, becomes the 15th course to host the Samsung.


October 2, 2008

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