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Ochoa leads two young stars

Sun., April 2, 2006

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. – Exhausted but still standing, just barely, Lorena Ochoa and Michelle Wie walked by the Wall of Champions leading to the final hole Saturday and glanced at the pond surrounding the island green, both all too familiar with the tradition at the Kraft Nabisco Championship.

The winner takes a plunge.

“I’ll be sure not to wear white tomorrow,” Wie said, a 16-year-old sounding confident that her time has come, even though she was three shots out of the lead.

Ochoa dodged a potential two-shot swing on the par-5 18th by making a testy 5-footer for par. It gave her a 2-over-par 74, and left her as the oldest player in the final group at the ripe age of 24, still in control of this major championship.

“That’s the plan – be patient out there and enjoy it,” she said. “Hopefully, one more round and we’ll be out there.”

Ochoa survived a third round that roughed up just about everyone, with wind gusting through trees lining the fairway, greens getting firmer, pressure mounting.

She finished at 9-under 207, three shot clear of Wie, her first time leading a major.

Wie, trying to become the youngest winner of a major, made a 15-foot putt on the 13th hole to escape with bogey, then gave herself five birdie putts inside 18 feet the rest of the way, making only one of them for a 73.

“Saving them up for tomorrow, I guess,” she said.

Joining them will be 23-year-old Natalie Gulbis, 0 for 110 in her career on the LPGA Tour, a calendar girl who left Mission Hills with a 68, not knowing it would move her up from a tie for 14th into the final group. She hit 8-iron from 140 yards into the cup on the par-5 ninth for eagle, and wound up at 4-under 212.

Also at 140 were Seon Hwa Lee (74) and Shi Hyun Ahn, whose 71 made her the only player to break par among the final dozen who teed off in the afternoon.

Ochoa was on edge to the end, when her pitching wedge spun back off the 18th green and toward the water, stopping on a tiny patch of grass. She putted it to 5 feet, while Wie had 10 feet for birdie.

Wie missed, Ochoa made and the lead remained at three shots.

“Three shots makes a big difference,” Ochoa said.

Wie was fortunate she didn’t tumble out of contention like so many others. She went from the right rough to the left rough, then dumped one into a bunker and came out weakly, leaving her 15 feet for bogey, already four shots behind. She made the putt and celebrated with a fist pump.

“I never thought I would do a fist pump for a bogey,” she said.

She dialed in her game quickly after that, and showed that she might be ready to reach the potential everyone saw when she played in the final group of the Kraft Nabisco as a 13-year-old.

“If I’m destined to win, it’s going to happen,” she said. “I’m going to try my hardest.”

Everyone else was spinning their wheels.

Defending champion Annika Sorenstam wasted a good start with too many bogeys and shot 73. Paula Creamer had to make birdie on the 18th hole for a 79, matching her worst score as a professional.

Ochoa began the tournament with a 62, matching the lowest score in a major, but the Dinah Shore course at Mission Hills has been fighting back ever since. The average third-round score was 74.9, and only 10 players remained under par through three rounds.

Ochoa appears to have the edge.

She is a two-time winner on the LPGA Tour, while Gulbis and Wie have not won anything since they were amateurs. The Mexican star’s the oldest, although hardly an elder.

“Hopefully, I’m more mature,” Ochoa said with a laugh.

Wendy Ward of Edwall, Wash., shot a 76 and is at 222.


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