Taking a back seat

So much for the orderly transfer of power.

Late yesterday afternoon, Lorena Ochoa worked her way through the crowd that was cheering her and chanting her name as she headed off Bulle Rock's 18th green and to the scorer's trailer. About 15 minutes later, Annika Sorenstam made the same trek, except the crowds were cheering even louder.


The cheers were not for the victor. The victor was still playing, heading back to the 18th tee for the playoff to decide the McDonald's LPGA Championship. Sorenstam and Ochoa played in the final two groups yesterday, and they both spent the sweltering afternoon chasing the all-but-anonymous leaders, now playoff participants.

Chasing and never catching. Teasing the crowd with the possibilities of the two superstars facing off for the second major of the year, for history no matter who won - but ultimately seeing the final chase conducted by two others.


Another day, another canceled coronation. New England Patriots, denied. Big Brown, denied. Yesterday, Sorenstam's fairy-tale farewell to Havre de Grace before retirement, denied. And Ochoa's bid for a Grand Slam, or at least a Lorena Slam, denied.

Well, both Sorenstam and Ochoa said at the beginning of the week here that they thought the LPGA Tour was in good hands, well prepared for when Sorenstam walked away for good at the end of this year. When that was brought up at the end of her round yesterday, Sorenstam tilted her head, smiled and said, "Yeah, I still feel that."

The good hands it was supposed to be in, of course, were Ochoa's. Not that it still isn't. And not that Sorenstam was exactly dragging up the rear in the tournament. But the steamy course was fraught with anticipation as the next-to-last group teed off with Ochoa in it, two strokes off the lead - and tied for third with Sorenstam, in the final group.

Both groups drew the biggest galleries, by far, all day. Spectators were treated not only to their heroes, but also to the largely unknown players who ended up going four extra holes for the title - Taiwan's Yani Tseng, who went crazy with a 68 on the final day and won the playoff, and Maria Hjorth of Sweden, who hung in all day with the pressure of the legends behind her.

Eventually they stole the loyalties of the crowd. But not until the end. The two biggest roars of the final three holes of regulation were inspired by Ochoa and Sorenstam. On the 16th, Ochoa had a chance at an eagle, and her sand wedge from just below the sloping green couldn't have missed by less - prompting a theatrical collapse onto her back as the fans shouted in anguish.

"I was trying to hold myself," she said, "but after that, that shows you - I was just like, come on, something good, please."

That could have changed the entire dynamic of the tournament down the stretch - specifically, at that point it would have put her one back with two holes to play - but so would a few more of her makable putts falling, in either of the last two rounds. She insisted she didn't succumb to the pressure of what she was trying to accomplish - a third straight major win, setting up not just the U.S. Women's Open for her slam but the British as well for the Grand Slam.

"Now it's done," she said. "We don't have that opportunity anymore. So I'm going to hopefully start another [streak] at the U.S. Open."


And after all that drama with the heir apparent, the reigning queen found herself staring down a birdie putt on 18 that would have really shaken things up. After all, there are playoffs, and there are major championship playoffs with Annika on her farewell tour.

She left it short. She finished one shot back, with a 71 on the final day. Same for Ochoa, 71 in the final round and one shot back. And they both left when there was more golf to play, by Hjorth and Tseng.

"I'm disappointed in my finish, when I know I played so well," Sorenstam said. "It's disappointing when you give it your all and you don't get anything out of it."

So Sorenstam didn't add to her three McDonald's LPGA titles or her 10 majors overall as she continues her goodbyes. Ochoa, as she said, has to start a run of majors all over again. As much as was made of passing the torch cleanly, yesterday proved that it can clearly take unexpected detours before landing where it is expected.

"You know, it's golf," Ochoa said, speaking of her near-eagle, but summing up even more about the tour she's poised to take over. "It didn't happen."


Listen to David Steele Wednesdays at 9 a.m. on WNST (1570 AM).