2006: Mexico throws fiesta

Morelia, Mexico

No matter what the calendar says, thanks to Lorena Ochoa, Oct. 8 was a national holiday in Mexico.

The LPGA’s leading money winner won for the first time in four tournaments in her home country, a feat that led to a joyous fiesta for her frenzied followers and perhaps will spur more growth in the game in her homeland.

“Definitely this is the most important day of my professional career,” said Ochoa, who closed with a 4-under 69 and cruised by five shots over rookie Julieta Granada and six over Paula Creamer. “For me, this was the most important tournament. I enjoyed it so much.”

And Ochoa wasn’t saying that because the $150,000 first-place check made her only the second player in LPGA history to cross the $2 million threshold ($2,124,122). It was because she had finally fulfilled her dream of winning in front of her friends, family and most devoted fans.

“For me, it’s like a U.S. Open,” she said, “being able to play in my country and win in front of my people.”

Ochoa had been a nonfactor at last year’s inaugural Corona Morelia Championship and at the LPGA MasterCard Classic played outside Mexico City in March 2005 and ’06. She had faltered under pressure, pressing too hard to impress the droves of fans who hung on her every swing.

The pressure Sunday at Morelia was no different. All day, the galleries seemingly were preparing for an 18-hole victory lap by Ochoa, who grew up in and still lives in Guadalajara, 175 miles away.

Hundreds followed her from hole to hole, many wearing red caps and T-shirts embroidered with her ‘L’ logo, and thousands of others watched from the galleries, some waving Mexican flags. They screamed “Bravo!” and “Let’s go Lorena!” after nearly every shot.

“It’s an honor, it’s great for all Mexicans,” said Ramon De Alba, 65, who drove three hours from Guadalajara to follow Ochoa. “She’s the first Mexican woman to be great in golf and now she’s been great in Mexico, with all of us.”

Her long-awaited victory in Mexico behind her, Ochoa now seems to have a new goal: ending Sorenstam’s reign as the world’s top player.

“There are those who say we are behind Annika,” Ochoa said. “With all of this, maybe we are showing we are catching up with her.”

On the bubble: So what does it take to earn job security on the LPGA? Probably less than you think. The Corona Morelia Championship was the last stop for players to make a move on the money list to improve their status for the 2007 season.

Janice Moodie earned exempt status for ’07 by finishing 90th on the money list with $92,703. (Nos. 91-125 earned nonexempt status.)

Except Moodie didn’t play last week in Mexico. In fact, she played only 10 times this season and earned only one top-10 finish, a tie for ninth at the Ginn Clubs and Resorts Open. She posted 12 sub-par rounds and broke 70 twice.

Of course, the two-time LPGA winner had a good excuse for having such a sparse schedule. Moodie gave birth to her first baby in September and hopes to return to the tour next March in time for the Kraft Nabisco Championship.

The only player that jumped into the top 90 with her performance at the Corona Morelia was Johanna Head, who tied for 16th in Mexico and earned $12,688 to move up four spots to No. 89 with $93,366.

The unlucky one who dropped out?

Alena Sharp, who entered the Corona Morelia at No. 90 on the money list but slipped to 91st after a T-45 finish. The New Mexico State grad missed out on exempt status for the ’07 season by $814. Sharp’s best finish in 2006 was a tie for 17th.

“I wasn’t really worried about it because everyone says, top 95, you’ll play in everything anyway,” said Sharp, who said she won’t head to this year’s Q-School finals to try and improve her status.

Those players headed back to Q-School will include Kate Golden (No. 131), Louise Stahle (138), Beth Bauer (141), Charlotta Sorenstam (145) and Naree Song (160).

Short shots: Natalie Gulbis was disqualified for not signing her scorecard after a first-round 77. Gulbis started the round on fire with three birdies and a par in her first four holes (Nos. 10-13), but then made three consecutive double bogeys (Nos. 14-16) and a bogey on No. 17. At the end of the day, the card she didn’t autograph had six pars, four birdies, four bogeys, three double bogeys and an eagle. . . . Amateur Alejandra Martin Del Campo

of Guadalajara, Mexico, was the only one of seven sponsor exemptions to make the cut. She tied for 61st.

– Staff and wire reports

On the tee

Next up: CJ Nine Bridges Classic, Oct. 27-29, The Club at Nine Bridges, Jeju, South Korea. Defending champion: Jee Young Lee.

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