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Lorena Ochoa setting her own course

Of all the trophies Lorena Ochoa has collected since her magical hands first touched a golf club, one of her favorite mementos is a photograph taken when she was 12, standing beside a teenager who even then looked like a giant in the game.

Her head doesn’t quite reach the shoulders of 17-year-old Tiger Woods.

They posed in 1993 after Ochoa won her age division for the fourth straight year at the Junior World Golf Championship. They did not see each other again until last year at the Golf Writers Association of America dinner in Augusta, Ga., where Ochoa and Woods were honored as players of the year.

Woods’ eyes lit up when he saw the Mexican phenom, and he wrote an extensive message on the photo before signing it.

Now they are linked by more than just a snapshot.

As Woods continues to rule his sport, Ochoa has emerged as a force in women’s golf. She has won five of her six tournaments this year, including a major, by a combined 37 shots, raising questions about who is the more dominant player.

“That’s something that’s out of my hands,” Ochoa said. “That’s more the fans and the media point of view. But to be able to put my name next to him is always an honor, and I’m happy with that.”

Each seemed destined for greatness at an early age.

Woods learned the game before he could walk, mesmerized by his father swinging a golf club as Woods sat in a high chair. Ochoa was climbing trees at Guadalajara Country Club when she was 5 and broke both wrists after falling some 15 feet. She was in a cast from her shoulders to her fingers for three months.

“They said the doctor gave me magical wrists, some magic in my hand,” Ochoa once said.

Since setting an NCAA record at Arizona by winning eight straight tournaments as a sophomore, the 26-year-old Mexican has hit her stride and is running side-by-side with Woods.

Both are No. 1 in the world rankings, with more than double the points of the next-best player.

Woods skipped the PGA Tour’s first two events in Hawaii, then began his season with an eight-shot victory at Torrey Pines. Ochoa skipped the LPGA Tour’s first two events in Hawaii, then made her 2008 debut in Singapore and won by 11 strokes.

Woods won four straight times to start the season, extending a streak that began in September. Ochoa won her fourth straight start last week in Orlando, Fla., the first woman in 45 years to win four consecutive events on the schedule. Next week in Tulsa, Okla., she can tie the LPGA record for consecutive victories held by Annika Sorenstam and Nancy Lopez.

Ochoa has won 19 times since the start of the 2006 season, including the last two majors. Woods has won 18 times on the PGA Tour since 2006 with three majors, although he has played 20 fewer events.

The biggest difference between them — at least this year — is their quest for a Grand Slam.

Woods was the runner-up, three strokes back, at the Masters, ending his bid before it could get started. A week earlier, Ochoa ran off three straight birdies around the turn to pull away and win the Kraft Nabisco Championship by five shots.

It was her second straight major, having won the Women’s British Open last summer at St. Andrews.

“I guess right now I’m a little bit ahead because I won the last two,” Ochoa said.

Perhaps more parallels await.

Ochoa will be going for her third straight major at the LPGA Championship the first week of June. Pat Bradley in 1986 was the last woman to win three straight majors, while Woods is the only professional — male or female — to capture four in a row.

What can stop her?

“I’d like to believe nothing and nobody,” Ochoa said after winning the Nabisco. “I know this is just the beginning of the year. I know I put some high goals this year, but I want to try to keep going.”

It was only three years ago that similar comparisons were made between Woods and Sorenstam, who dominated women’s golf for five years. Sorenstam won six of her first eight tournaments in 2005, including the first two majors, by wearing down the field with her consistent, precise, robotic play.

Ochoa brings far more sizzle, not to mention power, and it shows in how badly she is crushing her competition. Ochoa twice has won tournaments by 11 shots this year.

At the Safeway International outside Phoenix, the strongest field in women’s golf, she won by seven strokes.

“Everything that she’s done this year has been phenomenal,” Brittany Lincicome said.

Even more remarkable is a graciousness rarely found in an athlete so ruthless.

Ochoa is proud of her heritage and her people, and often goes to the maintenance barn at golf tournaments to visit with the grounds crew, most of whom are Latino. She spent a half-hour with them at the Kraft Nabisco in Palm Desert, Calif., helping them cook breakfast, talking soccer and thanking them for their work.

When she closed out last season with a $1 million payday, Ochoa pledged $100,000 for flood victims in Mexico and set aside a large amount to help build schools for needy children in her town.

LPGA officials still rave about last year at the Ginn Tribute, which honored the women who founded the LPGA Tour in 1950. Some of the founders asked for Ochoa’s autograph, and only after signing did she go back and ask for theirs. She also had her picture taken with them.

“To keep for memories,” Ochoa said.

No doubt, she will treasure it along with the photo with Woods, both in their own way reminding her of an amazing journey.

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