RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. – Welcome to the Kraft Nabisco Championship, the first major of the year on any tour.
Don’t feel bad if you’re not up to speed with the LPGA. This is just the second event of the year in the continental United States.
So, from Lorena Ochoa’s cooking skills to Karrie Webb’s lucky toilet, here’s a handful of things you need to know on the eve of the LPGA’s version of the Masters.
1. Lorena Ochoa is still the woman to beat.
But a repeat here will be no easy task. Ochoa kicked off last year with five victories in her first six starts, including her win here at Mission Hills.
Ochoa won her ’09 debut in Thailand, then finished tied for sixth, runner-up and tied for 15th last week in Phoenix. Last week’s showing, which was due in part to a bad draw, was her worst since the U.S. Women’s Open (excluding a tie for 17th at the ADT, with its multiple-cut format).
Ochoa doesn’t seem as invincible as she once was.
“I’m doing OK,” Ochoa said. “My game is very solid, and I’m working on my putting a lot. There are a few things I want to improve. I think things are getting together, and I really can’t wait to get to that moment and start really putting better and give myself more chances and to dominate.”
She entered last year’s Kraft seeking her second consecutive major title. She hasn’t won a big one since she celebrated with the mariachis here last year. Three wins in her past 20 starts is impressive, but not to the level of domination she was at this time last year.
Even Ochoa’s cooking is inspiring less confidence.
“I wasn’t asked to make breakfast (for the maintenance crew) this year, so maybe it wasn’t that good last year,” Ochoa said. “It’s already Wednesday, and I haven’t heard anything. So maybe it doesn’t happen this year and we are changing the plan. Maybe we just do that celebration on Sunday.”
The LPGA’s most recent major champion – Jiyai Shin – may be her biggest challenger. Shin has won four times since August, starting with the British Open. The two will tee off together at 8:49 Thursday in the first round’s premiere pairing.
2. Paula Creamer isn’t the favorite to win her first major here.
Creamer may be the tour’s best player without a major, but this is the only one where she doesn’t have a top 10, and she’s feeling under the weather. Of course, recent history could be in her favor. Phil Mickelson won the CA Championship after almost withdrawing before the final round.
“I’ve won sick before,” Creamer said. “I think it really makes you focus on other things. You know, you’re out there, you don’t feel well, but you’re getting the job done. I think … it’s interesting how it happens. I’ve played my best golf when I haven’t felt well.”
Only three players this decade have made the Kraft their first major victory.
Angela Stanford and Stacy Lewis are two of the favorites to make this their first major. Stanford has won three of her past 10 starts (and finished in the top 15 in all of them) thanks in part to swing changes that make her better-suited for Mission Hills’ firm, fast putting surfaces.
Stanford finished outside the top 50 at Mission Hills from ’03 to ’06, but has finished in the top 15 the past two years. That’s no coincidence. She started working with instructor Mike Wright late in ’05. They’ve worked on getting her to spin the ball more, so her record at this event has improved as she’s grown accustomed to his changes.
Lewis finished fifth here as an amateur in ’07 and is getting to play a course she’s familiar with, a rare occurrence for a rookie.
And you never know what Michelle Wie is going to do.
3. Watch out for the veterans.
The past two weeks have featured winners with good track records at the Kraft. Pat Hurst, the ’98 Kraft champ, birdied the 72nd hole to beat Ochoa in her home country, then Karrie Webb won last week for her first LPGA title since ’06.
Webb has won here twice, most recently in ’06, when she holed out for eagle on the final hole to force a playoff.
“I have great memories here at Mission Hills,” Webb said. “And obviously, winning last week was great. A lot of hard work, finally put it all together for four rounds in a row. I’ve been hearing the word ‘close’ a couple of years, and it was starting to wear me down.”
Webb was helped last week by an odd omen.
“This is probably a little too much information for you guys, but I went on the same toilet in the bathroom last week after I played well the first day,” Webb said. “I figured this was a good one to sit on.”
4. An amateur will contend here, and it could be another teenager.
From Aree Song to Michelle Wie, the Kraft has a history of success from teenage amateurs. Alexis Thompson, 14, could be the next one to add to that legacy.
Thompson has missed the cut in the past two U.S. Women’s Opens but has proved herself recently against older competition. She’s No. 3 in the Golfweek/Titleist Amateur Rankings after recent victories at the South Atlantic Ladies Amateur (by 13) and Doherty Invitational, and a runner-up finish to Candace Schepperle, Golfweek’s top-ranked collegian, at the Dixie Amateur.
Schepperle also is in this week’s field. She has made the cut in two career LPGA starts, but this is her first major.
Azahara Munoz, the reigning NCAA champion and U.S. Women’s Amateur runner-up; Tiffany Joh, a two-time U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links champion; and local junior Jennifer Johnson, winner of the AJGA’s flagship event, the Rolex Tournament of Champions in ’08, round out the amateur contingent.
Munoz is coming off wrist surgery, and Joh was left out of UCLA’s lineup for its most recent event.
5. Expect high scores.
Ochoa may have shot 11 under last year, and 11 players may have broken par, but that won’t happen this year. Players are saying the greens are faster and firmer than most years. Wind also is expected this week.
“The greens,” Creamer said when asked about the course’s challenges. “They’re just going to get firmer and firmer as the days go on. The rough, I’m sure, is going to keep growing and getting thicker, but I really feel the green speeds are going to be what causes it, and hopefully we’ll get some wind as well. That kind of makes things a little more interesting out there.”