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."