CHERRY HILLS VILLAGE, Colo. (AP) – With every fairway she missed and every putt that grazed the edge of the cup, Annika Sorenstam slipped farther away from surprising leader Nicole Perrot in her quest for the Grand Slam.

And with every par Michelle Wie salvaged out of a scrappy round at Cherry Hills, the 15-year-old phenom showed she just might be ready to contend for the U.S. Women’s Open.

The biggest event in women’s golf brought solid play from Perrot and a shocking finish from Sorenstam, who bogeyed her final three holes for a 4-over 75 to fall six shots behind the 21-year-old from Chile.

Perrot, a former U.S. Junior Girls champion who has played only two years on the LPGA Tour, was flawless amid a wild mix of birdies and bogeys around her, posting her second straight 1-under 70 to remain the only player under par at Cherry Hills.

Perrot was at 2-under 140 and will play in the final group Saturday with Wie, who kept her composure with a string of pars and finished with a 7-iron into 18 inches for a hard-earned round of 2-over 73, leaving her just two shots behind.

Lorena Ochoa didn’t make a par on the back nine until the 17th hole, then dropped a shot on the tough 18th for a 68 that also left her at even-par 142.

The most bizarre round belonged to 18-year-old Paula Creamer, who was 6 over par through four holes and appeared headed home for the weekend.

Despite an upset stomach, she played the next nine holes at 8 under par, including an eagle from the 10th fairway, to take the lead.

Just like that, she gave it back with three straight bogeys, only to save par with a 25-foot putt on the 18th for a 69 to finish at 143, along with Angela Stanford and Rachel Hetherington of Australia.

Sorenstam was hardly ready to concede.

Visibly rattled after she finished her round, she was asked whether she could still win.

“Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah,” Sorenstam said, almost offended by the question. “Thirty-six holes is a lot of golf left. Six strokes is nothing. I have to play good golf, there’s no doubt about it. But I’m a fighter.”

Perrot has never finished higher than seventh on the LPGA Tour this year, and she had never shot better than 78 in two previous trips to the U.S. Women’s Open.

.t sure didn’t look that way at Cherry Hills, with her aggressive pass at the ball and steely putting. Perrot birdied the first two holes on the back nine to take a lead she never relinquished, and holed a 10-footer for par on the 14th to escape her only serious trouble.

“It’s the U.S. Open. You never know what can happen,” Perrot said.

Sorenstam took 35 putts on greens that got more bumpy as the round wore on, but the most stunning part of her round – not to mention her run through the majors – came on the par 5s.

The longest and straighter driver on the LPGA Tour, she has yet to make birdie on the par 5s at Cherry Hills.

Worse yet, she now has gone 21 consecutive par 5s without a birdie, dating to the first one she played two weeks ago in the LPGA Championship, which she won by three shots.

Sorenstam left Cherry Hills perplexed by her game, but not willing to dwell on it.

“It’s just one of those days,” she said. “Sometimes you can analyze things. You’ve got to drop it and move on.”

She desperately needs to move up from a tie for 22nd on a course that does yield birdies, but has trouble waiting on every shot that misses the fairway.

Wie woke up at 4:15 a.m. to finish her storm-delayed first round, promptly saving par from just off the green, nearly holing out a gap wedge on the par-5 17th for a tap-in birdie, then coming a fraction of an inch from making the only birdie of the round at the uphill, 459-yard 18th hole.

That gave her a 69 and a share of the first-round lead.

She spent the next five hours trying to hang on by the seat of her shorts, and it was nearly as impressive.

“I could have shot some ridiculous numbers today, but I kept my head and I made a couple of good par putts, and I think that kept me going,” Wie said.

The kid might have come of age on a sunny day that turned gloomy, causing another delay by storms.

This was a round that could have gotten away from her, and frustration was evident after missing four straight putts inside 12 feet at the beginning of her round.

But she saved par with putts of 5 and 8 feet, twice lagged putts from across the green to tap-in range, and kept herself at even par, enough to get into the last group at a major.

Is Wie good enough to win?

“I feel like I’m ready,” Wie said. “If I never think I’m ready, then I can never win. Always think positively.”

Laura Davies just went along for a Wie ride. The former Women’s Open champion polished off an 84 in the morning – her worst score ever in this championship – and went for broke on every shot in posting an 81 in the second round.

Still, she was impressed with what she saw. “She beat me by 23 strokes, that’s all I can say,” Davies said.

“She doesn’t play as aggressively as I thought she would. Obviously, the team strategy is not going for the par 5s. Personally, I’d like to see her lashing all around the course. But that’s the golf fan in me.”

Davies was headed home, but she offered one last wish for the final round.

“Michelle and Annika would be the dream ticket,” she said.

Sorenstam has some work to do for that to happen, let alone pursue her challenge of winning all four majors.

AP-ES-06-24-05 2212EDT


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