Even though Annika Sorenstam was slightly upstaged by another former University of Arizona star in Thursday’s opening round of the Safeway International, the sweet-swinging Swede still was in perfect position to defend her title.
Ex-Wildcat Lorena Ochoa shared the top spot on the leader board with littleknown Siew-Ai Lim of Malaysia, as both players posted 7-under 65s at Superstition Mountain Golf and Country Club. Sorenstam was right on their spikes with a bogeyfree 66 that was even better than it looked.
"I hit a lot of fairways, I hit a lot of greens . . . I really wasn’t in any trouble,’’ said Sorenstam, who chipped in once for birdie at the 15th hole, and overcame her only bad break, where her approach at the 17th ricocheted off a sprinkler head over the green, where she easily got up and down for par.
"I thought I hit a lot of good quality shots, with good speed on the greens. So I’m very happy.’’
Stopping the streaking Sorenstam might border on mission impossible. She has won her last three tournaments dating back to last season, and five of her last seven. Of those who emerged in the early going here, Ochoa and veteran Juli Inkster, who also shot 66, were legitimate threats.
Ochoa, a third-year pro from Mexico City has lots of game, and tied for third in last year’s tournament. Like Sorenstam, she is a former rookie of the year (2003) and won twice last season. Ochoa also is known as a birdie machine, and this time she rolled in eight, including four in a row to start her day.
"Sometimes you start with a birdie, and it’s bad luck,’’ said Ochoa, who began on the back nine. "So we had fun with it, and I said (to her caddie), ‘Don’t worry, I’m going to make a birdie on No. 2.’
"We were just joking around, and it was the first time I made four birdies in a row at the start.’’
Lim’s birdies also came in bunches, including four in a row from the sixth through ninth holes, and four in a row to end her round.
"My career round,’’ noted Lim, whose previous best was a 66. "I was reading everything right, and the hole gets a little larger when you read it right.’’
Others tried to figure out these firm and fast greens on the Prospector Course with much less success, as the average score was 73.26. Even Inkster was secondguessing herself before reeling off six birdies on the back side, including five straight beginning at the 11th hole.
"I couldn’t get any momentum — birdie, bogey, birdie, bogey — and then I got it rolling,’’ said Inkster, who capped her round with a two-putt birdie from 90 feet.
With the exception of Inkster, all the front-runners played in the morning. Another was England’s Karen Stupples, who carded a 67.
Of the LPGA’s celebrated brat pack, 18-year-old Paula Creamer was the best with a 69, and 19-year-old Brittany Lincicome shot 71. Michelle Wie, the 15-year-old amateur, could do no better than 73.
"I can put myself back into contention. It’s highly possible,’’ said Wie, who was 4-over before holing three birdies coming home. "I’m just trying to feel what I played like on the back nine; just keep that up, and hopefully I’ll play better.’’
Chances are Wie will be OK, as she bounced back with a 67 last year after opening with a 72. She hasn’t missed a cut in her last 10 LPGA events dating back to the summer of 2003.
Among the notables under par were past champions Beth Daniel (1982) and Karrie Webb (1999) at 69. Liselotte Neumann, who won here in 1998, was at 70. Four-time champ Laura Davies (1984-87) was at 71 along with Grace Park and Meg Mallon. Se Ri Pak, the 2003 champ, fell to 72 after a double bogey at the 18th. All will need significant rallies if they are to keep up with Sorenstam. Asked how she liked her position, Sorenstam smiled.
"Given my choice, I’d like to have a 10-shot lead by Saturday. That would be great,’’ she quipped. "But, you know, I’ve been in so many different situations, I kind of like coming from behind a little bit on Sunday, (down) a shot or two, because it makes it really exciting.’’
In other words, Sorenstam could not be more satisfied with her start.