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Hear her roar: Ochoa wants to be the Tiger of women’s golf

Lorena Ochoa has thrown down the gauntlet. Now, we’ll see if her actions intimidate peers on the LPGA Tour.

Ochoa, 26, has been the Tiger Woods of women’s golf — with one glaring exception — since the start of the 2006 season. She’s set the standard for earnings and scoring average. But she’s rarely been the one to watch, let alone beat, in major championships.

Whether that changed at the 2007 Women’s British Open — when Ochoa’s victory in the final major of the season marked her first career triumph in one of the LPGA’s elite events — is anyone’s guess.

Ochoa likes to think it did. That’s why she welcomed comparisons to Woods after her 11-stroke victory on March 2 at the HSBC Women’s Champions event in Singapore, Ochoa’s 2008 season debut.

After that triumph, Ochoa acknowledged she was inspired by Woods’ eight-stroke victory at the PGA Tour’s Buick Invitational in his first event of the season. Woods’ margin of victory, in Ochoa’s estimation, sent a powerful message to peers that she wanted to emulate. Then, she topped it by three strokes.

“I had that in mind,” Ochoa told reporters after her landslide victory. “It’s always great to be compared with Tiger. We all want to be like him ... and I’m going to try to go after him.”

In the process of mimicking Tiger, Ochoa hopes she fired a warning shot to peers about what lies ahead the remainder of the season, starting with this week’s MasterCard Classic in Huixquillican, Mexico.

“When my name is up there on the leader board … [opponents] know that I’m prepared. It says to my competition that I’m going to do everything they do,” Ochoa said. “Every tournament I play, I play to win. And when I’m in Nabisco teeing off for that first major [April 3-6], I’m going to be ready to win. That’s what I do.”

Woods himself could not have worded it any better or any more ominously for easily intimidated peers. One problem, though: His talk about winning every event he enters in 2008 is backed by 13 major championships. Ochoa is only 1-for-24 in converting opportunities into major titles heading into next month’s Kraft Nabisco Championship.

Although her statistics are impressive — Ochoa led the LPGA Tour in earnings ($4,364,994), scoring average (69.69), victories (8), greens in regulation (73.1 pct.) and putting average (1.76) last season — it will be fascinating to see how her words and her Tigeresque start to the season impact peers. Especially in tight Sunday shootouts against quality opponents, where Ochoa’s track record is spotty at best.

The first example comes this week in Ochoa’s home country, at an event she’d love to win almost as much as any of the 2008 majors. And the feedback from peers in response to Ochoa’s season-opening message has been interesting.

Scotland’s Catriona Matthew buys into the Tiger hype, citing Ochoa’s 2007 victory in the Women’s British Open at historic St. Andrews as a career-turning point for the world’s top-ranked female golfer. After watching Ochoa lap the field in Singapore, Matthew told the Daily Scotsman: “There were some doubts about her ability to close out events she should have won, but those seem to have disappeared. Winning at St. Andrews last year seems to have given her a new sense of freedom. Certainly, she has separated herself from the rest of us since that victory.”

Annika Sorenstam, winner of 10 majors, sounds less convinced. After watching Ochoa’s romp in Singapore, Sorenstam said her rival was “playing well” but not off-the-charts. Asked about matching Ochoa’s efforts, Sorenstam said: “I don’t think that’s not achievable, by any means. I think I’m playing as good from tee to green.”

Translation: Message received, Lorena. But you’ll need more than one major title and one hot week in 2008 to convince Sorenstam that you’ve supplanted her as the Tiger Woods of women’s golf.

ATOP THE QUOTE BOARD

“Out of 78 guys [in the field], 55 or 60 could win on any given week. That’s pretty strong.”

— Bernhard Langer, a Champions Tour rookie who ranks second on the season money list ($423,227), on the difficulty of keeping up his pace on the 50-and-over circuit.

BY THE NUMBERS

0 Missed cuts by defending champion Vijay Singh in 15 career starts at the Bay Hill Club and Lodge, site of this week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational in Orlando, Fla.

1 Victory needed by Tiger Woods, who is entered at the Palmer event, to match Ben Hogan for third place on the PGA Tour’s career victories list. Hogan has 64. Woods has 63.

5 Top 10 finishes in five starts by Stuart Appleby, most among PGA Tour participants this season. 31Career victories by Vijay Singh, a native of Fiji, tying him with England’s Harry Cooper for most PGA Tour triumphs by an international player.

66.12 Tiger Woods’ season scoring average, placing him more than a stroke per round ahead of his record pace set in 2000 (67.79).

Fort Worth area pros

How exempt players with Fort Worth-area connections (residents, or golfers from Fort Worth area high schools or colleges) are faring on the PGA, Champions, LPGA, Nationwide and Duramed Futures tours this season.

PGA TOUR

Rory Sabbatini — $1,053,480 (12)

Ben Crane — $487,479 (34)

Chad Campbell — $476,466 (38)

Tag Ridings — $220,743 (80)

Todd Hamilton — $60,813 (154)

J.J. Henry — $57,255 (156)

Stephen Leaney — $38,100 (172)

Brandt Jobe — $36,766 (175)

Mark Brooks — $17,871 (201)

LPGA TOUR

Angela Stanford — $79,566 (9)

Heather Young — $18,919 (50)

CHAMPIONS TOUR

No earnings yet.

NATIONWIDE TOUR

D.J. Brigman — $71,785 (7)

Greg Chalmers — $44,668 (12)

Kelly Grunewald — $14,499 (47)

Hunter Haas — $13,112 (53)

J.J. Killeen — $7,002 (75)

DURAMED FUTURES TOUR

First event is March 14-16.

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