Chances are very good that Lorena Ochoa is on the verge of joining Danielle Ammaccapane, Laura Davies and Annika Sorenstam as the only repeat champions in the 38-year history of the Safeway International.
That Ochoa’s chief rival, Sorenstam, is seven shots back also bodes well for the No. 1 player in the world. As does the fact that, of Ochoa’s four closest pursuers — all within four shots — there is a total of one official victory among the foursome.
Just don’t try and sell such speculation to the defending champ, who said she never, ever thinks along those lines. “No, 100 percent, no,’’ said Ochoa, who has 18 career wins, including a blowout victory earlier this year in the elite HSBC Championship.
“I don’t even think of the names (of the closest competitors). It could be (Jee Young) Lee. It could be Angela Stanford or Annika, or whoever it is behind me. I just know that it’s someone who scores low, you know.’’
OK, so it’s better not to get ahead of yourself, especially in professional golf. And the cold, hard fact is Ochoa leads Stanford and Lee by a single shot heading into today’s final round at Superstition Mountain Golf and Country Club.
Still, Ochoa looked as if she had already been anointed champ during Saturday’s third round that drew 38,800 fans — just 800 off last year’s all-time, single-day record.
Chants of “Lorena,’’ “Lorena,’’ “Lorena,’’ were everywhere as she marched down the 18th fairway. And the roar was somewhat deafening when she responded with a tap-in birdie on the final hole that gave her the slim edge over Stanford and Lee, and a four-shot cushion between her and Inbee Park and Lindsey Wright.
The explosion of emotion at the final green was reminiscent of last year’s final round, as her fan club again was decked out in green T-shirts and waving Mexican flags, while sporting heartfelt messages directed at their heroine.
“I appreciate all that support. It means the world to me,’’ said Ochoa, who birdied four of the first five holes and then coasted home for a 4-under-par 68 that left her at 16-under 200 — or two shots better than a year ago.
In a lot of ways, Superstition Mountain has become Ochoa’s turf. The former University of Arizona All-American gets a ton of support from former Wildcats and fans from Tucson, and the Hispanic members of the grounds crew at Superstition Mountain and their immediate families simply adore her.
Add that adulation to all that talent and it adds up to a super-tall task for her challengers even if the champ disagrees.
Stanford, who stumbled down the stretch with bogeys on the 13th and 14th holes, got back in the chase by rolling in birdies on her final two holes for a 70. She has that one career win, but it dates back to the 2003 ShopRite Classic.
“I tried to stay within my own game … but I think I started to press a little bit,’’ admitted Stanford, who might be a little tired after sleeping on the lead two nights in a row.
Whether it frees Stanford up to not be paired with Ochoa today, as she was Saturday, remains to be seen. Regardless, the easy-going Texan has her strategy worked out.
“If I can stir it up early, she’s going to have to watch out all day,’’ said Stanford, who will be in the pairing directly in front of Ochoa.
Lee, 22, who made a nice move with a 67, will be with Ochoa in the final group. Lee can bomb it by Ochoa, but she lacks that experience of visiting the winner’s circle even if the South Korean star did win the C.J. Bridges when she was a nonmember of the LPGA in 2005.
“I’m comfortable and have confidence,’’ Lee said with the help of an interpreter. “Absolutely, (there is) pressure, but I like this course.’’
Once upon a time, Ochoa had trouble dealing with pressure. Such as in 2005, when she lost an ugly playoff here to Sorenstam by duck-hooking her drive into the drink on the first extra hole.
That led to the infamous nickname “O-choka,’’ but that’s a distant memory.
Last year, Ochoa won this tournament in convincing fashion, then went on a roll that ultimately led to seven more wins, $4.4 million in earnings and player of the year honors, as she wrested the top spot in the world rankings away from Sorenstam, another former Arizona Wildcat.
Asked to characterize the change and her game these days, Ochoa never blinked.
“It’s all about the experience (of winning),’’ she said. “It’s just the way that you feel Sunday: You feel more comfortable, you like the crowds, you like to be under pressure.
… The more you play on Sunday, the more confident you get, and that’s important.
“I think I’m more patient now, and I make better decisions.’’
That’s why it’s over and you’re the winner, Lorena, even if there are 18 more holes to play.
CONTACT WRITER: (480) 898-6525 or email@example.com