For Lorena Ochoa, a victory today in the Safeway International would be sweet redemption for her collapse at Superstition Mountain against Annika Sorenstam in 2005, when Ochoa led by four shots with three holes to play but ultimately lost in a one-hole playoff.
But even more than that, the former University of Arizona star from Mexico said she wants this championship for her fans, especially the large contingent from south of the border who now live in Arizona.
“I repeat myself, but this is a special place for me,’’ said the big-hearted Ochoa, who once again owns a four-shot lead, this time over Norway’s Suzann Pettersen and South Korea’s Jeong Jang with 18 holes to go.
“I want to get this trophy, not for me, but for the grounds crew here and for the Mexicans who are here watching me play. I have some friends out there, and it’s just a special week.’’
Judging by her galleries that have grown each day — some of those among the record crowd of 39,400 who turned out Saturday at Superstition Mountain Golf and Country Club — they want it for her just as badly. This is a love-fest that very well could turn into a fiesta by nightfall.
Especially if Ochoa stays patient like she did on this sunny day, when she completed her second round in the morning with a course record-tying, 8-under-par 64 and followed it up with a bogey-free 69.
“I still have to go lower,’’ said Ochoa, who is at 14-under 202 and playing rock-solid, with only one bogey through 54 holes.
“I tried to do that today, stay aggressive, but I just didn’t make any putts.’’
Ochoa can only hope that Pettersen has another schizophrenic round like her latest, when she made eight birdies and five bogeys that added up to 69.
“I had eight birdies, so I had every chance in the world to close the gap,’’ said a frustrated Pettersen, who has yet to win in five years on the LPGA.
Ochoa could be challenged by Jang if she keeps going low, like she did en route to a bogey-free 68 that included birdies on her last two holes. And Jang knows how to close, as she has two wins in the past two seasons, including the 2005 Weetabix Women’s British Open.
Sorenstam? The world’s No. 1 player might be too far back to catch her rival this time around, as the Swede is eight shots off the pace. Just don’t tell Annika, who holds a share of the LPGA record for comebacks, once rallying from 10 shots back to win the 2001 Office Depot.
Outside of that trio of challengers, Ochoa is sitting pretty. She looked even better midway through Round 3, at one point leading by six shots with 10 holes to play.
But pars became her routine despite a quick start, where Ochoa rolled in a 45-foot birdie at the first hole followed by a tap-in birdie at the par-3 fourth.
“It just missed by this much,’’ Ochoa said of the 9-iron from 136 yards at No. 4 that avoided the cup by an inch or two.
From there it was par for the course, as she reeled off 13 straight. Ochoa’s day ended with a two-putt birdie from 20 feet at the 18th, where she reached the green with a sensational 3-wood that sailed some 240 yards.
“I’m in good shape. I’m OK,’’ Ochoa said with the confidence that might have been missing two years ago. “I do want to go back and have a nice dinner, and go to bed early.’’
Certainly Ochoa is a different player after edging out Sorenstam last year for player-of-the-year honors.
“We change with the years,’’ the 25-year-old Ochoa explained of her rise to the top. “I don’t even remember what happened in 2005. You make mistakes and you put (them) in the trash and kind of keep moving. I try to only think of positive things and learn with experience. . . . “I’m really happy. I’m really thankful.’’
And the same could be said of her fans.