In the U.S.,Lorena Ochoa is most readily identified as the reigning Associated Press FemaleAthlete of the Year. In her native Mexico she is much more: the nation'ssweetheart. Two weeks ago Ochoa played in front of her compatriots at theMasterCard Championship, outside Mexico City, and you had to be there tocomprehend the intensity of the ardor. ¬∂ Every day when Ochoa would exit theBosque Real Country Club it looked like a scene out of A Hard Day's Night, withfans swarming around her car simply to catch a final, fleeting glimpse. Duringa lengthy rain delay in the second round, while every other player kept warminside the clubhouse, Ochoa set up shop in a drafty tent for an impromptuautograph session. Hundreds of people of all ages waited patiently in the rain,yet they were the ones profusely thanking Ochoa. Meanwhile, the Mexican mediawere so smitten with their returning heroine that they didn't even pretend thatanyone else in the field mattered. Annika Sorenstam is still the biggest starin women's golf--at least she is everywhere else--but after the first round shearrived at the pressroom just as Ochoa was departing. Sorenstam was nearly runover by the exodus of reporters. Eyes wide with disbelief, she said to no onein particular, "Everybody's leaving!"
Ochoa, 25, is theprimary reason the LPGA has expanded into Mexico. The MasterCard and nextmonth's Corona Championship were founded in 2005, her third season on tour.Ochoa's victory last year at the Corona is considered one of the most momentoussporting events in the recent history of Mexico, and the final round wascertainly one of the most raucous days the LPGA has ever seen. Says JulietaGranada, a Paraguayan who was paired with Ochoa for the final round, "Itwas like a futbol game." Or, like a football game. "You know whenRutgers beat Louisville and all the fans swarmed the field?" says LPGAstaffer Dana Gross-Rhode. "That's what it was like on the 18thgreen."
Ochoa'spopularity has transcended sports. At Bosque Real she was trailed by AndresConesa, the CEO of Aeromexico. The airline does not usually traffic in athletesas endorsers, but for a company that literally connects a nation, signing Ochoalast year was an easy call. "She is an icon for all of Mexico," saysConesa. "For one of us to be the best in the world at anything, you can'toverstate how important that is to this country's psyche. But she is so belovedfor more than just her golf. There is a simplicity there, a grace. She connectswith the people like few athletes can."
Much of Ochoa'sappeal is that for all of her success--including six victories last year and atour-best $2.59 million in earnings--she remains a down-to-earth young womanwho still lives in Guadalajara with her parents, Javier, a real estateexecutive, and Marcela, an artist. Even as she was the center of attention inMexico City, Ochoa never stopped acting like a traditional daughter,deferential and loving with Javier. Moments before the first round, as Lorenawas leaving the practice green, Javier made the sign of the cross on herforehead, kissed her three times on the cheek and then held her hand as theywalked a hundred or so yards to the 1st tee. There were no gallery ropes forthis journey, so the Ochoas were enveloped by the crowd and the singsongexhortations of "Buena suerte, Lorena! [Good luck, Lorena!]." One youngwoman slipped her a rosary. (This simple gesture would be repeated throughoutthe week, as fans pressed into her hand letters, religious medals and simpledrawings.)
With so muchinspiration to draw on, is it any surprise that Ochoa birdied the first hole ofthe tournament?
Ultimately shewould tie for sixth, a result that did nothing to diminish the enthusiasm ofthe crowds. As always when she plays in Mexico, Ochoa was left feelinginspired. "To have so many people cheering for me and to know they willlove me no matter what I shoot, it gives me the energy to keep going, to keeptrying to be the best," she says. "I play for my country. I play forthe people."
She is doing somuch more than that for them.
The future ofgolf in Mexico can be found in the Satelete neighborhood of Mexico City, wedgedinto a little island of land between bustling Avenida Juarez and a parking lotfor the massive Mundo Entertainment shopping center. In these humble environsis the Ochoa Golf Academy, the second outpost of what Lorena hopes will bedozens of portals into a game that has always been out of reach for the averagecitizen. (Mexico City, with a population of nearly nine million, has nomunicipal courses, and only two of the eight private clubs accept outsideplay.) The first Ochoa Golf Academy, in Guadalajara, opened in November; theMexico City facility has been up and running only since late January, hence thelarge banner flapping in the breeze that reads ya abrimos (We're open). Thedriving range is a mere 130 yards long and ends in a net, with a triple-deckerhitting area that has a total of 27 bays. There is a practice green ofartificial turf and a bunker with coarse yellow sand. A tiny triangular patchof dirt and weeds in a corner of the property will be turned into anatural-grass green in the coming months.
With a sweep ofher hand toward her future green, Academy director Elena Arce Vaca says,"We're using every inch of this place. It's so tiny, we have no otherchoice."
Vaca and Ochoahave been best friends since age five, and they often traveled to junior eventstogether. Vaca's favorite story is of a tournament in Queretaro when she andLorena were 16. To cut down on expenses they shared a room with two other youngwomen, and all but Ochoa spent evenings out on the town, flirting with boys."The weather was very hot," says Vaca. "As a joke, when we left theroom, we put the heat on instead of the air conditioning. We came home late andLorena was covered in sweat. Oh, we died laughing." Pause. "She stillwon the tournament, of course."
Ochoa has broughtthe same single-mindedness to expanding the academies. "I know I am now ina position of influence," she says. "It is a responsibility I take veryseriously. The game has given me so much. I have a lot of giving back todo." Thus, a second Guadalajara facility is under construction, as aresites in Morelia and Monterrey. Academies in Canc√∫n and Los Cabos are in theplanning stages, and another Mexico City facility is due to break ground inApril.
Vaca says theAcademy is straining to be as inclusive as possible. "If a kid comes to uswho cannot pay but is serious about getting better, we will work somethingout," she says. There are plans to have one day a month during which thefacility will be open to the public free of charge. The Academy is also tryingto provide students the chance to experience a real golf course; negotiationsare under way with a nearby private club, La Hacienda, to build an OchoaAcademy on club grounds. Part of the deal would be that students at the otherMexico City academies would have some playing privileges at La Hacienda.
It is thisexpansion of opportunity to the disenfranchised that informs all of Ochoa'sambitions. "For Lorena, the goal behind the goal is to change the lives ofchildren in this country," says her longtime coach, Rafael Alarcon, who hasbeen so involved in the creation of the academies that the official name isOchoa Golf Academy by Rafael Alarcon. "That means introducing them to golfso they can learn the great values of the game. More important, it's buildingschools to improve their future. It's of big-time importance to her. She knowsher legacy is about more than trophies."
In 2004 theLorena Ochoa Foundation was created, and it has nothing to do with golf. Ochoa,who spent two years at the University of Arizona, is using the foundation tofoster educational opportunities. (According to foundation literature, only31.6% of the Mexican population finishes elementary school.) Over the last fewyears the foundation has paid for 325 annual scholarships to La Barranca, aschool for children ages six to 15 in Guadalajara. Now Ochoa is in the midst ofa campaign to raise 10 million pesos ($900,000) to build a cutting-edge schoolin Guadalajara that would educate kids and adults. As conceived, the LorenaOchoa School would have computer workshops and art classes, sports facilitiesand gardens, social workers and psychologists.
To help realizethis dream, Ochoa will headline four fund-raising tournaments this year. Thefirst was to be played the day after the MasterCard, but rain necessitated aMonday finish, and the fund-raiser was postponed until April 23.
Ochoa's focus oneducation is an outgrowth of her love for children. She made headlines inJanuary when, a couple of months removed from breaking up with a longtimeboyfriend, she was quoted as saying, "I don't want to play for more than 10years on the LPGA. I would like to be a more normal person, to have afamily--that God gives me the opportunity to have kids." She laterclarified that she had no timetable for retirement.
To see Ochoa witha group of children is to witness a different side of her. In the U.S. mediashe often comes across as shy, but at a clinic during the week of theMasterCard she was downright exuberant as she hammed it up for 150 or so kids.Later, in a quieter moment, she said, "To see the effect I can have on achild's life, it means so much more to me than golf." She recalled agraduation ceremony at La Barranca, at which students presented her with apuppy as a token of their gratitude. "I was overwhelmed," she says."I couldn't speak."
Even as Ochoa'slife away from golf becomes more diversified, her maniacal quest for excellencewithin the game has not wavered. She always takes December off, spending thefirst half of the month snowboarding in Whistler, B.C., or Vail, Colo. Then sheenjoys Christmas with her family at a beach house she has purchased in thevillage of San Juan de Alima, on the Pacific Coast. On New Year's Day shereports for duty with Alarcon.
They met nearly20 years ago at Guadalajara Country Club. He had already emerged as the bestplayer ever from Mexico and had spent a couple of years on the PGA Tour. Ochoaused to sit at the range and watch him hit balls, transfixed. When she wasnine, they began working together informally. Three years later Alarcon becameher full-time instructor. "It was when she was 12 that Lorena first told meshe wanted to be the best player in the world," he says.
Ochoa's goalsthis year are simple: to win her first major championship and to overtakeSorenstam atop the world rankings. In this quest Ochoa is fortified by theknowledge that she is playing for something larger than herself. This point wasdriven home during MasterCard week.
On Tuesday shetraveled to the ritziest golf club in Mexico City, Chapultepec. This is whereOchoa was supposed to have held her fund-raising tournament, but she turned upa day later instead to give a clinic for the members. The kids came in droves,many still dressed in the uniforms of their private schools.
After the clinicOchoa spent an hour signing autographs and posing for pictures. Patientlyawaiting their turn at the end of the line were a half dozen men from themaintenance crew, all of them in their 40s or 50s. They stood rigidly, lookingas nervous as schoolboys waiting for their prom dates. When Ochoa finallyreached the men, she put them at ease with a smile and a few kind words, andthey crowded around her for pictures.
It is the membersof Chapultepec and the rest of the upper class that will fund Ochoa'sfoundation and help build her academies, but it is the kids and grandkids ofthe laborers who will benefit the most from her vision. That Ochoa can soeasily bridge this gap helps explain why she means so much to so many in herhome country.
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"For one of us to be the best," says Conesa,"you can't overstate how IMPORTANT THAT IS TO THIS COUNTRY'SPSYCHE."
"If a kid comes to us who cannot pay but isserious about getting better," says Vaca, "WE WILL WORK SOMETHINGOUT."
Penny De Los Santos
NAME BRAND During a rain delay Ochoa spread the gospel of golf while giving autographs at a makeshift signing station.
Penny De Los Santos
FAMILY VALUES Javier, leading Lorena to the 1st tee, saw her tie for sixth.
Penny De Los Santos
REAL KIDDER Ochoa always connects with children, at an exhibition or one on one.
Penny De Los Santos
BIG PLANS Ochoa's goals for this year: win her first major championship and overtake Sorenstam atop the LPGA rankings.