FOR SOMEONE who had won 10 tournaments in the preceding 13 months, Lorena Ochoa had a little something to prove during Sunday's final round of the Kraft Nabisco Championship, the first LPGA major of the year. As Ochoa increases her domination of her peers it has become trendy to compare her with Tiger Woods, but until recently she was more akin to Phil Mickelson: an extravagant talent whose game had just enough uncertainty to add suspense to the proceedings. It was at last year's Kraft that Ochoa stirred the ghosts of Winged Foot, making a messy quadruple bogey on the 17th hole on Saturday to kick away what could have been her first career major. Four months later she broke through at the Women's British Open with an overpowering victory on the Old Course, the perfect canvas for one of the game's preeminent feel players. Although Ochoa had long ago proved that she's close to unstoppable when her game is clicking, one question remained: whether she had the guts to grind out a major championship victory on an exacting course when she was not at her sharpest. On Sunday at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, Calif., she offered an emphatic yes, summoning one of the most commanding rounds of her career to blow away the field, not least Annika Sorenstam, who tied for second, a million strokes back. (O.K., it was actually five.)
During Ochoa's bogeyless five-under 67 she hit 16 greens in regulation and repeatedly willed three- and four-foot par putts into the hole on the baked-out greens. She had held the lead after every round but had also given the field hope with messy finishes, bogeying two back-nine holes last Friday and then three-putting twice on the final four holes of the third round. On Sunday, Ochoa's fierce determination was as palpable as the desert heat, and even as she pulled away in the middle of the round she refused to let up, going so far as to grind on a five-foot par putt on the 72nd hole.
"She wanted to put together a really flawless round," said Ochoa's caddie, Dave Brooker. "It wasn't flawless tee to green, but it was on the scorecard. She had to work hard for it."
For the 26-year-old Ochoa, the victory was her third of the year—by a combined and whopping 23 strokes—and the 20th of her career. (At the same age Sorenstam had only eight W's.) Under the LPGA's points system Ochoa's next win will qualify her for the Hall of Fame, though induction will have to wait until 2012, when she has played 10 years on tour. This victory was particularly freighted because the Kraft was threatening to become to Ochoa what the U.S. Open is to Mickelson: a source of never-ending misery. Ochoa had finished in the top 10 in five of the last six years, including a heartbreaker in 2006, when she blew a three-stroke 54-hole lead, then lost in a playoff to Karrie Webb. Having now exorcised those demons, she can set her sights on something grander: the Grand Slam.
Asked on Sunday if she can sweep the remaining three majors, Ochoa channeled Woods with an unblinking answer. "Yes," she said, not feeling the need to elaborate. Her lifelong coach, Rafael Alarcon, was more expansive. "Of course she can do it," he said. "Why not? We talk about winning every tournament. This one was always going to be the hardest to win because of all the memories."
The previous meltdowns in the desert had been the main reason for the whispers that Ochoa's swing was too loose and her nerves too unsteady to hold up in the crucible of major championships. Her double dip at the Women's British and now the Kraft has quieted that talk. "For sure, I'm a better player right now, and I have more control over things," Ochoa said in her champion's press conference, which she conducted turned out in a terry cloth robe after taking the victor's traditional plunge into the pond next to the 18th green. "I like the way I feel right now when I'm playing the last round and the last nine holes. I have really changed and improved that way."
It is more than just experience that has helped Ochoa become the LPGA's most ruthless closer. She simply has way more game than anybody else. Last year she was third in driving distance (270.6 yards), but Alarcon says that during the off-season his prize pupil added another 10 yards thanks to rigorous conditioning and a more efficient swing that continues to become tighter and more compact at the top. Two weeks ago the 5'6", 130-pound Ochoa wowed with her pyrotechnics en route to a seven-shot laugher at the Safeway International, including a one-hop bomb onto the putting surface of the 310-yard 14th hole during the final round. At the Kraft, Ochoa was second in the field in driving distance (276.3 yards), and her physical strength was evident during the final round when she missed seven fairways but repeatedly muscled approach shots onto the greens.
Her long game may be more powerful, but Ochoa's primary off-season project was making her putting stroke technically sound. She has always had a tendency to take the putter back outside the target line and then cut across the ball. She spent countless hours over the winter toiling to square her alignment and move the putter on a purer path. Even as she has been dusting the competition this year, Ochoa has been struggling to lock in the changes, and her discomfort was evident last Saturday when she took 34 putts. Following the round she repaired to the practice green, confronting howling winds that her caddie later estimated at 40 miles an hour. She left the green with renewed confidence, and her stroke held up when it really mattered, during the final round.
On the 1st hole Ochoa slashed a nine-iron out of the rough to 10 feet and buried the birdie putt. After reaching the 517-yard par-5 2nd with a five-wood, she produced a deft two-putt from 25 feet straight downhill on one of the fastest greens on the property. The opening birdies no doubt put a scare into the field, but for Alarcon the most important putt of the round came on the 3rd hole, after Ochoa had lagged a 70-foot birdie try four feet short. She poured the ensuing putt into the cup, chasing it with a little fist pump. "I knew then she was connected with her game," said Alarcon.
The par-4 7th hole was the key momentum changer. Ochoa's playing partner, Hee-Won Han, had just made a birdie to close to within a stroke and at 7 had a 25-foot uphill birdie putt, while Ochoa was over the green facing a delicate downhill chip. But Han three-putted, and Ochoa got up and down, pushing the lead back to two. Sensing her opening, Ochoa responded with a trademark burst of birdies, rattling off three in a row to push her lead to a commanding five strokes.