In the U.S., Lorena Ochoa is most readily identified as the reigning Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year. In her native Mexico she is much more: the nation's sweetheart. Two weeks ago Ochoa played in front of her compatriots at the MasterCard Championship, outside Mexico City, and you had to be there to comprehend the intensity of the ardor.
Every day when Ochoa would exit the Bosque Real Country Club it looked like a scene out of A Hard Day's Night, with fans swarming around her car simply to catch a final, fleeting glimpse. During a lengthy rain delay in the second round, while every other player kept warm inside the clubhouse, Ochoa set up shop in a drafty tent for an impromptu autograph session. Hundreds of people of all ages waited patiently in the rain, yet they were the ones profusely thanking Ochoa. Meanwhile, the Mexican media were so smitten with their returning heroine that they didn't even pretend that anyone else in the field mattered. Annika Sorenstam is still the biggest star in women's golfat least she is everywhere elsebut after the first round she arrived at the pressroom just as Ochoa was departing. Sorenstam was nearly run over by the exodus of reporters. Eyes wide with disbelief, she said to no one in particular, "Everybody's leaving!"
Ochoa, 25, is the primary reason the LPGA has expanded into Mexico. The MasterCard and next month'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 momentous sporting events in the recent history of Mexico, and the final round was certainly one of the most raucous days the LPGA has ever seen. Says Julieta Granada, a Paraguayan who was paired with Ochoa for the final round, "It was like a futbol game." Or, like a football game. "You know when Rutgers beat Louisville and all the fans swarmed the field?" says LPGA staffer Dana Gross-Rhode. "That's what it was like on the 18th green."
Ochoa's popularity has transcended sports. At Bosque Real she was trailed by Andres Conesa, the CEO of Aeromexico. The airline does not usually traffic in athletes as endorsers, but for a company that literally connects a nation, signing Ochoa last year was an easy call. "She is an icon for all of Mexico," says Conesa. "For one of us to be the best in the world at anything, you can't overstate how important that is to this country's psyche. But she is so beloved for more than just her golf. There is a simplicity there, a grace. She connects with the people like few athletes can."
Much of Ochoa's appeal is that for all of her successincluding six victories last year and a tour-best $2.59 million in earningsshe remains a down-to-earth young woman who still lives in Guadalajara with her parents, Javier, a real estate executive, and Marcela, an artist. Even as she was the center of attention in Mexico City, Ochoa never stopped acting like a traditional daughter, deferential and loving with Javier. Moments before the first round, as Lorena was leaving the practice green, Javier made the sign of the cross on her forehead, kissed her three times on the cheek and then held her hand as they walked a hundred or so yards to the 1st tee. There were no gallery ropes for this journey, so the Ochoas were enveloped by the crowd and the singsong exhortations of "Buena suerte, Lorena! [Good luck, Lorena!]." One young woman slipped her a rosary. (This simple gesture would be repeated throughout the week, as fans pressed into her hand letters, religious medals and simple drawings.)
With so much inspiration to draw on, is it any surprise that Ochoa birdied the first hole of the tournament?
Ultimately she would tie for sixth, a result that did nothing to diminish the enthusiasm of the crowds. As always when she plays in Mexico, Ochoa was left feeling inspired. "To have so many people cheering for me and to know they will love me no matter what I shoot, it gives me the energy to keep going, to keep trying to be the best," she says. "I play for my country. I play for the people."
She is doing so much more than that for them.
The future of golf in Mexico can be found in the Satelete neighborhood of Mexico City, wedged into a little island of land between bustling Avenida Juarez and a parking lot for the massive Mundo Entertainment shopping center. In these humble environs is the Ochoa Golf Academy, the second outpost of what Lorena hopes will be dozens of portals into a game that has always been out of reach for the average citizen. (Mexico City, with a population of nearly nine million, has no municipal courses, and only two of the eight private clubs accept outside play.) The first Ochoa Golf Academy, in Guadalajara, opened in November; the Mexico City facility has been up and running only since late January, hence the large banner flapping in the breeze that reads YA ABRIMOS (We're open). The driving range is a mere 130 yards long and ends in a net, with a triple-decker hitting area that has a total of 27 bays. There is a practice green of artificial turf and a bunker with coarse yellow sand. A tiny triangular patch of dirt and weeds in a corner of the property will be turned into a natural-grass green in the coming months.
With a sweep of her 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 other choice."
Vaca and Ochoa have been best friends since age five, and they often traveled to junior events together. Vaca's favorite story is of a tournament in Queretaro when she and Lorena were 16. To cut down on expenses they shared a room with two other young women, 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 the room, we put the heat on instead of the air conditioning. We came home late and Lorena was covered in sweat. Oh, we died laughing." Pause. "She still won the tournament, of course."
Ochoa has brought the same single-mindedness to expanding the academies. "I know I am now in a position of influence," she says. "It is a responsibility I take very seriously. The game has given me so much. I have a lot of giving back to do." Thus, a second Guadalajara facility is under construction, as are sites in Morelia and Monterrey. Academies in Cancun and Los Cabos are in the planning stages, and another Mexico City facility is due to break ground in April. Vaca says the Academy is straining to be as inclusive as possible. "If a kid comes to us who cannot pay but is serious about getting better, we will work something out," she says. There are plans to have one day a month during which the facility will be open to the public free of charge. The Academy is also trying to provide students the chance to experience a real golf course; negotiations are under way with a nearby private club, La Hacienda, to build an Ochoa Academy on club grounds. Part of the deal would be that students at the other Mexico City academies would have some playing privileges at La Hacienda. It is this expansion of opportunity to the disenfranchised that informs all of Ochoa's ambitions. "For Lorena, the goal behind the goal is to change the lives of children in this country," says her longtime coach, Rafael Alarcon, who has been so involved in the creation of the academies that the official name is Ochoa Golf Academy by Rafael Alarcon. "That means introducing them to golf so they can learn the great values of the game. More important, it's building schools to improve their future. It's of big-time importance to her. She knows her legacy is about more than trophies."
In 2004 the Lorena 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 to foster educational opportunities. (According to foundation literature, only 31.6% of the Mexican population finishes elementary school.) Over the last few years the foundation has paid for 325 annual scholarships to La Barranca, a school for children ages six to 15 in Guadalajara. Now Ochoa is in the midst of a campaign to raise 10 million pesos ($900,000) to build a cutting-edge school in Guadalajara that would educate kids and adults. As conceived, the Lorena Ochoa School would have computer workshops and art classes, sports facilities and gardens, social workers and psychologists.
To help realize this dream, Ochoa will headline four fund-raising tournaments this year. The first was to be played the day after the MasterCard, but rain necessitated a Monday finish, and the fund-raiser was postponed until April 23.
Ochoa's focus on education is an outgrowth of her love for children. She made headlines in January when, a couple of months removed from breaking up with a longtime boyfriend, she was quoted as saying, "I don't want to play for more than 10 years on the LPGA. I would like to be a more normal person, to have a family-that God gives me the opportunity to have kids." She later clarified that she had no timetable for retirement.
To see Ochoa with a group of children is to witness a different side of her. In the U.S. media she often comes across as shy, but at a clinic during the week of the MasterCard 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 a child's life, it means so much more to me than golf." She recalled a graduation ceremony at La Barranca, at which students presented her with a puppy as a token of their gratitude. "I was overwhelmed," she says. "I couldn't speak."
Even as Ochoa's life away from golf becomes more diversified, her maniacal quest for excellence within the game has not wavered. She always takes December off, spending the first half of the month snowboarding in Whistler, B.C., or Vail, Colo. Then she enjoys Christmas with her family at a beach house she has purchased in the village of San Juan de Alima, on the Pacific Coast. On New Year's Day she reports for duty with Alarcon.
They met nearly 20 years ago at Guadalajara Country Club. He had already emerged as the best player ever from Mexico and had spent a couple of years on the PGA Tour. Ochoa used to sit at the range and watch him hit balls, transfixed. When she was nine, they began working together informally. Three years later Alarcon became her full-time instructor. "It was when she was 12 that Lorena first told me she wanted to be the best player in the world," he says.
Ochoa's goals this year are simple: to win her first major championship and to overtake Sorenstam atop the world rankings. In this quest Ochoa is fortified by the knowledge that she is playing for something larger than herself. This point was driven home during MasterCard week.
On Tuesday she traveled to the ritziest golf club in Mexico City, Chapultepec. This is where Ochoa was supposed to have held her fund-raising tournament, but she turned up a 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 clinic Ochoa spent an hour signing autographs and posing for pictures. Patiently awaiting their turn at the end of the line were a half dozen men from the maintenance crew, all of them in their 40s or 50s. They stood rigidly, looking as nervous as schoolboys waiting for their prom dates. When Ochoa finally reached the men, she put them at ease with a smile and a few kind words, and they crowded around her for pictures.
It is the members of Chapultepec and the rest of the upper class that will fund Ochoa's foundation and help build her academies, but it is the kids and grandkids of the laborers who will benefit the most from her vision. That Ochoa can so easily bridge this gap helps explain why she means so much to so many in her home country.