Lorena Ochoa is getting antsy. It's the first day of class at
Arizona following spring break, and Ochoa's fellow students in a
water safety class are bragging about their adventures. "I went
to a psychic," says a bubbly blonde in jeans and flip-flops. "I
thought it was going to be cheesy, but she, like, knew a lot of
stuff about my life." Another student boasts of seeing the
Pacific for the first time.
"Well, who else did something exciting over spring break?" asks
instructor Ron Sutherland, with a nod toward Ochoa. Her cheeks
redden as she explains that she finished "only O.K." (37th,
actually) at the LPGA's Ping Banner Health in Phoenix. She's
still not off the hook. "Lorena," Sutherland says, "tell us about
your tournament in Mexico the week before."
"Oh, yeah," she says. "I won that one."
Ochoa, 20, does her best to pass as an average college sophomore,
but her status as the hottest female golfer in the world--pro or
amateur--has made that all but impossible. "My goal is to be the
best," she says. The best college player? "No, the best player
ever," she says.
She's off to a good start. So far this season she has
steamrollered the intercollegiate competition, sweeping all six
of the tournaments she has entered. South of the border, Ochoa,
a native of Guadalajara, bagged her third straight Mexican
Women's Amateur title during spring break.
Last week she teed it up at the LPGA's Welch's/Circle K
Championship, at Randolph North, seven miles from Arizona's
Tucson campus. With rounds of 70-67-69-68 she tied for 5th, only
four shots behind winner Laura Diaz. It was the second best
showing by an amateur at an LPGA event since 1981. The buzz
among the pros is that the gritty Ochoa is a dark horse at the
first major of the season, this week's Nabisco Championship at
Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, Calif.
Problem is, Ochoa's ridiculously good play has turned her into
the busiest college student in America. To play hooky for the
Circle K and the Nabisco, she had to beg her professors--in
addition to water safety, she's taking Roman archaeology,
astronomy, contemporary art and sports psychology--for
extensions on term papers and rescheduled exam dates. "Oh, I
don't think teacher will be happy when he hears I'll have to
miss two more weeks," Ochoa said on March 18 as she briskly
walked across campus to her 8 a.m. sports psychology class. By
the time she arrived at Randolph North Golf Course for the first
round of the Circle K three days later, she had made up her
archaeology midterm and turned in a three-page contemporary art
paper (two weeks late). "I worry that I'll never catch up in
school," Ochoa says. "When I'm at the golf course, I tune out
Except her family. Lorena's parents escorted her to the 1st tee
last Thursday at Randolph North, each clasping a hand. Before
sending her off to play, Javier, a real estate executive, and
Marcela, an artist, blessed their daughter with the sign of the
cross. After kissing Lorena on the forehead, Javier whispered,
"Good luck, pretty girl."
Actually, Ochoa's game is an awesome combination of power and
finesse. Arizona coach Greg Allen calls her the longest player in
college golf (she was 18th at the Circle K in driving distance,
at 272.50 yards a pop), and she has a deadly short game (9th in
putting at the Circle K). Her stroke average in college
competition this year is 69.76, which is on pace to shatter the
NCAA record of 71.33 set last year--by Ochoa. Her six wins have
come by a combined 31 strokes, including a nine-shot rout at the
Oregon State Invitational.
Though Ochoa remains mum about turning pro, her teammates say
she's likely to bail after May's NCAA Championships. (Ochoa
finished second in the individual competition last year, losing a
playoff to Duke's Candy Hannemann.) "As good as she is, everyone
told me I'd be lucky to keep her for even a year, but she really
wants us to win the NCAAs," Allen says. That's because Ochoa
feels indebted to her teammates. She arrived at Arizona having
visited the U.S. only a handful of times, and she didn't feel
comfortable with the language or the culture. Her childhood
friend Cristina Baena of Colombia, then a junior on the Wildcats,
served as her translator and introduced her to the basics of
student life, including the spicy Buffalo wings at Long Wong's, a
popular hangout near campus.
Thanks in part to this unofficial Spanish-speaking mentoring
program, Arizona's women's team has turned into an international
powerhouse. Sergio Garcia's younger sister, Mar, joined the squad
in January after Ochoa promised to show her the ropes. "I was
worried about leaving Spain because I didn't know anyone here and
don't speak English very well," says Mar. "When I met Lorena, I
felt this strange connection, and now she helps me with
During the first round of the Circle K, Garcia uncorked an
ear-piercing "Ochooooo!" after her teammate stuck an approach to
10 feet on the 18th hole. The exuberant freshman then ran under
the ropes and slapped Ochoa's back as she approached the green.
"I support Lorena. Our teammates, they're not here. They're bad
teammates," said Garcia, giggling. Actually, Cristina Baena was
at the course, but she opted to follow older sister Marisa, a
former Arizona standout who finished 16th last week. The rest of
the Wildcats were either in class or working on their own games.
Ochoa didn't miss the rooting section. On the course she wears a
game face that would make Ben Hogan proud.
"These two weeks are very important for me," she said on the eve
of the Circle K. "When I turn pro, I want to make sure I can be
Number 1. I want to be a top 10 player my rookie year. If I don't
think I have an opportunity to win every tournament I enter, then
I'm not ready to turn pro."
Ochoa's ambitions have been elevated by expectations in Mexico,
where she's already a superstar. In November, President Vicente
Fox awarded her the Premio Nacional del Deporte (National Sports
Award). When she returns home, television crews wait for her at
the airport and tail her around the Guadalajara Country Club.
Ochoa, who grew up in a five-bedroom house next to the club's
swimming pool, took her first golf lesson at age five. Three
years later she was Mexico's top junior, and beginning in 1990
she set a record with five straight victories at the girls'
Junior World Championships at Torrey Pines, near San Diego.
(Tiger Woods owns the boys' record, with four in a row.) "In
Mexico the masses don't even know what golf is, but if you ask
any taxi driver in Mexico City, he'll know who Lorena Ochoa is,"
says Rafael Alarcon, her longtime coach in Guadalajara. "There
have been a few good players in the past, like Esteban Toledo,
but Lorena is the first woman to come out of Mexico."
Ochoa may wind up as the LPGA's next Nancy Lopez, but she could
be a poster child for the X Games, too. Among her hobbies are
snowboarding, wakeboarding, Alpine climbing and mountain biking.
She also competes in half marathons and triathlons. Ochoa's love
for the outdoors was born at her family's three-bedroom retreat
in Talpalpa, a town 100 miles west of Guadalajara in the Sierra
Madre mountains. She grew up camping, hiking and horseback riding
with her brothers Javier, 26, and Alejandro, 25, and her sister,
Daniela, 18, all adventure athletes.
Alejandro spent last winter climbing mixed routes in Patagonia
before returning to the U.S. last month to caddie for Lorena. An
amateur mountaineer who competed in the 2001 Eco Challenge in New
Zealand, Alejandro is the youngest Mexican to summit at 8,000
meters without oxygen (Mt. Cho Oyu in the Himalayas). In 1999 he
talked Lorena into joining a four-member team to race in a
four-day ecothon in Guadalajara. Then 17, she was the youngest
person in the field of 144 athletes. "The last day we each had to
swim five kilometers in a lake," Alejandro says. "It was brutally
windy, we're swimming against the current, and the water was so
cold that three teams dropped out because of hypothermia. Lorena
was 10 meters behind us. She was crying, asking me not to leave
her behind. I screamed, 'Keep swimming!' She stopped crying, and
we finished 2 1/2 hours later."
While her teammates question her sanity, Ochoa insists that
extreme sports have helped her gain an edge on the competition in
golf. "Ecothons and marathons are all mental," she says. "It's
about pushing yourself as far as you can. Sometimes I ask myself
why I play golf when I like to do so many outdoor things, but
golf is more complete. It's hard to do well, and I like the
challenge of managing my mind."
For all her accomplishments, Ochoa is still occasionally humbled
by the game. Following the first round of the Circle K, she
walked out of the scoring tent visibly upset and muttering about
her mediocre putting. The sky had turned purple, and after giving
a hug and a kiss to Javier, Marcela and Daniela, she turned to
Allen. "Could have been a 66," he said. Ochoa nodded and wiped
away tears. It had already been a long, exhausting week, but this
indefatigable student-athlete remained resolute. "I'll do
better," Ochoa vowed. "I belong out here."
COLOR PHOTO: TODD BIGELOW/AURORA SUPER SOPH Ochoa, who tied for fifth at last week's Welch's/Circle K Championship, has won all six of her collegiate starts this season.
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: JAN SONNENMAIR WORKING OVERTIME Ochoa's busy tournament schedule has left her little time for training (above) and study sessions.
COLOR PHOTO: TODD BIGELOW/AURORA BIG BROTHER'S WATCHING At Randolph North (left) or on Mexico's Mount Ixtacihuatl, Alejandro has been there for Lorena.
COLOR PHOTO: COURTESY OF LORENA OCHOA [See caption above]
"As good as she is, everyone told me I'd be lucky to keep her for
even a year," says Allen, the Wildcats' coach.
"Lorena was crying, asking me not to leave her behind," says
Alejandro. "I screamed at her, 'Keep swimming!'"