Cristie Kerr is feeling that familiar U.S. Women's Open fire. Defending U.S. Women's Open champ Cristie Kerr moves in on leader Angela Park as Ochoa sputters, Annika putters

EDINA, Minn. - With the last bit of sun disappearing over Interlachen Country Club's massive Bavarian-looking clubhouse, with the Minnesota mosquitoes, gnats and monster flies enjoying a human feast, with the No. 1 player in the world waiting not so contently up ahead, just off the green, Cristie Kerr stepped back. Again.

And then again. And again.

After a two-hour-and-27-minute rain delay pushed everyone off the course, Kerr turned into golf's version of the Human Rain Delay. Kerr couldn't decide how to play her second shot on nine (her 18th hole of the day) - one that had her in the rough flanked by two fat trees with a slender tree almost straight ahead. And she couldn't get into her elaborate pre-shot routine after a big fly buzzed by and interrupted it once.

So Kerr made No. 1 Lorena Ochoa and all groups playing behind her wait and wait. It's shaping up as the type of U.S. Women's Open Kerr loves, anyways. With Kerr finishing off a 3-under 70 shortly before darkness hit and second-round play was called for good on Friday evening, she finds herself just two back of clubhouse leader Angela Park (6-under for the tournament) and just one back of the 5-under, second-place trio of Minea Blomqvist, Inbee Park and Helen Alfredsson.

And Kerr is the defending U.S. Women's Open champion. Not Ochoa, who pulled off a Tiger-like streak of dominance (minus the legendary majors history) at the beginning of the season that had her talking Grand Slam. Not Annika Sorenstam, who's retirement Open "goodbye" dominates most of the talk in this Minneapolis suburb. Not Paula Creamer (4-under for the Open, like Kerr), the 21-year-old star whose quest for a validating major title has largely gobbled up the rest of any buzz.

And Kerr, your defending Open champ, is starting to feel it.

"I want this," Kerr said, eyes blazing. "You need the fire, and I've got it. The feeling I have inside my head and my heart. I feel like this course is made for me. I know I have the ability to get it done. That's confidence. Not pressure.

"This golf course (and last year's Women's Open site) Pine Needles just turns my switch on, if you know what I mean."

With that, Kerr excused herself with an "all right, time for bed." She spent more time talking to her clubs during the round - often loudly rebuking them - than she did reporters afterwards.

Ochoa only wishes she had such confidence heading into this morning's third round. The player who holds a vice grip on that No. 1 ranking finds herself at 1-over, seven strokes back, after going 73-74.

In fact, on a second day when Interlachen still yielded a 6-under 67 (Angela Park) and three 69s (Blomqvist, Inbee Park and Jeong Jang), the bigger story may have been who fell back and fell out. That's Ochoa, Natalie Gulbis (assured of missing the cut at plus-seven after a 7-over 80) and Michelle Wie, who played better (2 over through 17 holes) but at plus 10 for the Open only gets to come back and play one weather-postponed hole this morning in something of a cruel twist.

"I was very glad for the rain delay," said Ochoa, who was in even worse shape before the skies opened up. "I was down, feeling like nothing was going my way. It was good to get away a little bit."

Ochoa spent the two hours checking e-mails and talking to her friends on the phone in the locker room.

Sorenstam sets herself up for a U.S. Open weekend run

Sorenstam pushed herself one under par for the Open with a second-round, 3-under 70, but she's still fighting her putter even as she fights to make what she says will be her last Open as a full-time player memorable. Besides a twisting, 11-foot birdie putt on nine, Sorenstam still had issues on Interlachen's deviously breaking Donald Ross greens.

So, the No. 2 ranked player in the world retreated to the putting green to work on not being "so short and jabby."

"I have a tendency to have a short back-swing, and then I hit it rather than taking it slower, longer and just letting the putter go through," Sorenstam said. She's been working with short-game guru Dave Stockton to improve her putting, age 38 and announced retirement regardless.

Sorenstam talked a little wistfully this week about how she'll never be able to match Tiger Woods in majors now (he has 14, while she's at 10). But that doesn't mean she's stopped trying to add to her own legacy.

As she walks Interlachen Country Club's fairways, Sorenstam gets greeted with calls of, "Thanks for the memories!" It's something that even Creamer, one of her playing partners in the USGA's women's version of the Tiger-Phil dream threesome, couldn't help but notice.

"Without a doubt, you think about it," Creamer said of Sorenstam's swan song (though Annika has said she'll probably play in the U.S. Women's Open again and other majors in five years or so, just not full time on the LPGA Tour).

"She's definitely raised the bar for women's golf and has had such a big impact on where we're all at today."

Kind words from a young rival like Creamer - who famously butted heads with Sorenstam early in her career - doesn't have Sorenstam getting nostalgic, though. Instead, she's gone Rocco Mediate belt buckle with an extra edge.

Like Mediate at the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines South, Sorenstam has taken to wearing big, unmissable belt buckles. Only hers sport a giant A on them and a smaller 59. You know, just to remind everyone that she once shot a 59, the lowest round in LPGA history.

Of course, some other numbers played with Sorenstam - and many others in the field - on Friday. Those came in the yardage numbers from the USGA's new rotating tee system that caught many of the LPGA's best by surprise and had Creamer dubbing the setup, "a little weird."

Which only qualifies as music to Mike Davis' ears. The USGA's setup maestro, Davis wants to make the best women golfers in the world think - and then step away and think some more. He accomplished that by moving the 10th tee up to a box that many players didn't even believe would be in play this Open. He also played around with the par-4 17th, which is playing as the toughest hole on the course, by moving up the tee box exactly 36 paces (Davis measures this stuff out to the inch) in order to put the branches of an elm tree in play on a tough front left pin location.

Whether any of this is a reaction to a first round that often didn't look U.S. Open-like, with 32 players shooting under par, is a matter for debate. What isn't in doubt is that there were some clear blow ups in round two - including Pat Hurst who went from co-leader to a 5-over 78 and seven-time major winner Juli Inkster who matched Wie's 81 from day one.

Of course, there was also Angela Park draining almost every putt - including two 30 footers - in racking up five birdies and an eagle. That brought back memories of a 2007 rookie year in which Park was a major force as opposed to a sophomore campaign that's mostly disappointed.

"I think it comes down to how much you want it," Park said. "Tiger says he doesn't want to get beat by anyone, anytime. And I think I want to take more of that kind of approach to the game."

June 28, 2008

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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