Sorenstam’s presence missed at Samsung

Associated Press

PALM DESERT, Calif. – Lorena Ochoa and Annika Sorenstam won’t be dueling in the desert at the Samsung World Championship this time.

Ochoa, who rallied from three shots back on the final day to beat Sorenstam a year ago, said she’s sorry that Sorenstam isn’t playing. But she supports the Swedish star’s decision not to use an exemption to get into the elite event.

“What happened to her is very understandable, the way she got injured and tried just to slow down and not play as many tournaments,” added Ochoa, who has supplanted Sorenstam as the LPGA’s top player.

“She has been through a lot. For sure I will miss her, not only me, but a lot of players and the sponsors, and everybody would like to have her here.

“But she will be back. She is doing good and ready to start playing more golf more weeks in a row and get a good rhythm to show the results.”

Sorenstam, a five-time winner of the event, declined an offer to play in the tournament that begins Thursday at Big Horn Golf Club. After getting off to a slow start this year and missing time because of back and neck problems, she wasn’t eligible for the 20-player field until the organizers changed the eligibility criteria last week.

They eliminated the option to exempt the U.S. Women’s Amateur champion, which they hadn’t exercised in nine years, and changed that spot to an exemption for an active Hall of Fame member.

That would have gone to Sorenstam, with the eight-time player of the year providing another headliner for the tournament.

But Sorenstam didn’t want to take a spot that would have gone to another player, according to Mark Steinberg, her agent and head of the golf division at IMG.

Sarah Lee then got the final spot off the money list.

Ochoa applauded Sorenstam’s decision.

“What Annika decided to do, that’s something that I admire very much, I respect. She thought they were wrong to do it,” Ochoa said. “That just shows how much class she has and how professional she is.

“Hopefully they will be clear with the rules, how it’s going to be, the qualifications for next year and just stick with that.”

The field consists of the defending champion, four major champions, the leader on the Ladies European Tour money list, and one special exemption that went to Michelle Wie, with the rest coming from the money list.

Although Sorenstam won’t be around, Ochoa will be challenged. The field includes Suzann Pettersen of Norway, who birdied the second hole of a playoff to beat Ochoa on Sunday in the Longs Drugs Challenge for her third victory of the year.

Ochoa, the 2006 player of the year, has won six times this year — including the Women’s British Open for her first major victory — and earned a tour-record $3,068,421.

“Last year was a really special year, especially this tournament,” said the 25-year-old from Mexico by way of the University of Arizona. “I think winning here and playing that last round with Annika and coming from behind, it was something very special and important for my career.

“It was a lot of fun to finish strong last year and be able to play good so far this year. The course looks in great shape and I’m very excited about starting tomorrow.”

Also in the field are Morgan Pressel, the Kraft Nabisco champion; Cristie Kerr, who won the U.S. Women’s Open; and Ladies European Tour standout Bettina Hauert.

Wie made her pro debut in the 2005 Samsung, but was disqualified after the final round for signing an incorrect scorecard — caused by an improper penalty drop — at the end of her third round. She would have finished fourth.

Still only 17 and a freshman at Stanford, she has been hampered by a wrist injury and struggled this year. In seven events, she has made just two cuts and earned a total of $9,899.

She said earlier this week that she’s healthy again.

“I am just so grateful for the fact that I am actually feeling really healthy right now,” Wie said. “My wrist is feeling a lot better. I feel like I’m getting stronger. I feel healthy as a person, too, going to college, just having some fun.

“Just really working out and really practicing and just leaving everything behind.”

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