Tour and News

Lorena Ochoa: Simply the Best

Photo: Bob Martin/SI

Ochoa one of the longest hitters on the women's tour.

A couple of weeks ago Lorena Ochoa took time out from being the world's most dominant female athlete to fulfill some of the obligations that come with her success. The LPGA tour had pitched its tent in New Jersey, and Ochoa had been talked into journeying across the Hudson River to help ring the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange, which would be nice publicity for the host tournament, the Sybase Classic. A black town car dropped her at the corner of Wall Street and Broadway, an unlikely destination given that it is the metaphorical intersection of money and fame, and Ochoa cares little for either.

She is not the type to roll with an entourage, and on this crisp morning Ochoa was utterly alone. Upon reaching the drop spot, it occurred to her that she did not know where to go from there, and neither did her driver — Willy, from Queens. After asking a stranger for directions, Ochoa finally navigated the two blocks to the heavily fortified front entrance of the Stock Exchange, which is patrolled by guards wearing mirrored sunglasses and dour expressions. She approached one, saying, "I am here to ring the opening bell, but I do not know where to go." Her hair was pulled back in a tight bun, making her look younger than her 26 years, and her English is accented from having grown up in Guadalajara, Mexico. She could easily have been mistaken for a college kid from abroad hiking the canyons of lower Manhattan. The guard gave her a doubtful look that translated roughly to fuhgeddaboutit.

"I am Lorena Ochoa," she said.

Not even a flicker of recognition.

"The golfer."

Nothing.

Eventually Ochoa was rescued by Stock Exchange staffers and ushered inside. In recent years Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods had also rung the opening bell in carefully choreographed appearances that nevertheless created a certain amount of bedlam. The Masters of the Universe at the exchange certainly love their golf, but as Ochoa was given a tour of the trading floor, only a few harried runners took time out from fueling the world economy to ask for an autograph. Afterward Ochoa returned to the corner of Wall Street and Broadway and loitered for 15 minutes while she awaited Willy's return. The city rushed by, but not a single person seemed to recognize her.

Willy finally screeched up, ending Ochoa's excursion to the big city. "That was fun," she said, settling into the backseat of the town car. "Now it is time to go to the golf course." She didn't say it, but it was easy enough to ascertain what she was thinking: Where I belong.

Lorena ochoa, the golfer, is that rarest of creatures: a superstar athlete who has not been corrupted by the forces of modern celebrity. When not reinventing the LPGA tour in her image, she lives with her parents in Guadalajara, where a wild night out means a dinner party with friends capped by her only vice, chocolate cake. Ochoa remains deferential to her father, Javier; when he visits her at tournaments, it is not uncommon for him to hold her hand as they walk to the 1st tee and send her off with a kiss on the cheek and the sign of the cross on her forehead. The player whom Ochoa has displaced atop the world ranking, Annika Sorenstam, has always marched down the fairways with a queenly detachment, but after every round Ochoa kisses even her playing partners' caddies. Every golf tour is as insular and gossipy as high school, and the cliquishness is exaggerated among the couple of hundred women who make up the LPGA. But even as Ochoa makes a mockery of the competition, having won a mind-boggling 20 tournaments in 54 starts since April 2006, it is nearly impossible to find a fellow player who doesn't gush about her.

"She is by far the sweetest, kindest, most giving person walking the earth," says LPGA veteran Christina Kim, a longtime friend of Ochoa's. "She has that inner light. I think she's been touched by God. Honestly, I'm surprised she hasn't been canonized yet. I'm not exaggerating — she is the greatest thing ever: a cross between Tiger Woods and Mother Teresa."

Woods is rightfully celebrated as a sportsman, but he does not hide his glee at crushing would-be challengers or hazing the few players who do not properly pay homage to his greatness. Ochoa is every bit as fierce a competitor as Woods, but she kills 'em with kindness. Two years ago Helen Alfredsson was dueling Ochoa at the Sybase Classic, but during their third-round pairing "we spent most of the time singing Gypsy Kings songs to each other," says Alfredsson. "Lorena was so into it that she did a little salsa step going down the 10th fairway. We were having so much fun, I barely noticed she was kicking my butt." Naturally, Ochoa went on to win the tournament.

That victory was near the beginning of Ochoa's emergence as the game's dominant player. She won six times in 2006 and piled on eight more victories last season, taking back-to-back player of the year awards as Sorenstam was slowed by injuries and distracted by off-course pursuits. By far the most meaningful in this burst of victories was Ochoa's triumph at the first Women's British Open to be played at St. Andrews, in '07. The Old Course is a vast canvas that encourages artistic expression, and it has a tradition of confirming genius, as it did with Seve Ballesteros in 1984 and Woods in 2000. Ochoa's first major championship victory stamped her arrival as a player for the ages.

The six victories she has added in 2008 have been by a combined 38 strokes, including a message-sending 11-shot blowout at the season-opening HSBC Women's Champions. In the early spring Ochoa won in four consecutive weeks, including the season's first major, the Kraft Nabisco Championship, at which she ground out a bogeyless 67 on Sunday for one of the most impressive rounds of her career. The following week brought a joyous victory at the Corona Championship in Morelia, Mexico, which qualified Ochoa for the Hall of Fame under the LPGA's point system. (Enshrinement will have to wait until 2012, when she will have fulfilled the mandatory minimum of 10 seasons played.)

At this week's LPGA Championship, at Bulle Rock Golf Course in Havre de Grace, Md., Ochoa will continue her quest to become the first woman to win the Grand Slam, and she is hardly cowed by the immensity of the challenge. "Every tournament, my goal is to win," she says, echoing Woods's oft-stated mantra. "It is what drives me. So why should [the LPGA] be any different?"

As always, she will be motivated by her belief that she is playing for something larger than herself.

On the first day of the Kraft Nabisco Championship, in Rancho Mirage, Calif., the groundskeeping crew at Mission Hills Country Club gathered in the vast maintenance shed for a stand-up breakfast cooked by moonlighting mechanics. The 80 or so workers had already put in a long morning in the withering heat. Virtually all of the conversation was in Spanish, and when Ochoa slipped in through a side door, it set off raucous cheers and a round of Mexican futbol fight songs. She had taken time out from her tournament preparations to come thank the workers who manicure her playing fields. In Spanish, Ochoa told them, "You should be very proud of the work you do." Then she helped scramble the eggs. The workers were so touched by her sincerity that they arranged to have a mariachi band surprise her as she walked off the 72nd green, setting off one of the wildest celebrations in major championship history.

Every year Ochoa seeks out the grounds crew at a handful of venues to offer her thanks and encouragement, and she has been known to veer off fairways to salute gardeners and construction workers and housekeepers laboring at the fancy houses that line the golf courses. She feels a strong kinship with those who have left their homelands to better themselves. "They are good people, and they work hard to help their families," Ochoa says. "I want them to know I support them and that I play for them."

These workers are the embodiment of one of the most contentious political issues in the U.S. today. There are those in golf who would prefer that Ochoa not insert herself, however subtly, into the immigration debate, but Hall of Famer Nancy Lopez is not among them. "I know she has been told to be careful about what she says, but Lorena is so true to herself that she can't help but speak from the heart," says Lopez, with whom Ochoa is often compared because of their shared heritage and their on-course charisma.

By winning the Sybase Classic five days after she visited the Stock Exchange, Ochoa reached $12 million in career earnings faster than any other player in LPGA history. Her simple tastes are the source of endless humor on tour — "There are kids starving in Mexico, so of course Lorena wouldn't be caught dead wearing any jewels," Kim says. Ochoa couched her earnings record in terms of what it would mean for others. "I try to help as much as I can my community, my people in Mexico," she says. "The more I can win, the more I can help, so that's a great motivation."

The Lorena Ochoa Foundation was created in 2004 with an emphasis on health and education issues for children in Mexico. Over the last several years it has paid for 325 annual scholarships to La Barranca, a school for children ages six to 15 in Guadalajara, and with the foundation's help this fall La Barranca will begin an expansion that over the next six years will double its enrollment and expand its reach through the end of high school. When she is home, Ochoa likes to drop in unannounced at the school, for pep talks with the kids or the occasional game of futbol. "The teachers say it is good for the students, but I think I am the one who gets inspired," she says.

The foundation also subsidizes a school in Taplapa for at-risk youths and funds a program in Guadalajara to provide treatment and support for children with cancer. In the development stage is an initiative to identify schools throughout Mexico that are underperforming and then use foundation resources to upgrade the infrastructure and provide more training for teachers and administrators.

For these efforts as well as her performance on the golf course, Ochoa was recently named to Time magazine's list of the world's 100 most influential people. In Mexico she has transcended the sports pages and become a national sweetheart, beloved by people who will never lay eyes on a golf green. "Lorena is one of the rare athletes who just gets it," says Alfredsson. "She's like an Arnold Palmer or Nancy Lopez or Muhammad Ali — she understands the power she has to change the world."

For Ochoa, her benevolent impulses boil down to something very basic: "I have been given so much in my life. I have a lot of giving back to do."

Ochoa grew up in a five-bedroom house adjacent to the Guadalajara Country Club with her parents, two older brothers — Javier, 33, and Alejandro, 31 — and a younger sister, Daniela, 24. Her father, a real estate developer, and her mother, an abstract artist, shared a love of the outdoors, and Lorena had an idyllic childhood. The family had a cabin 100 miles west of Guadalajara, in the Sierra Madre. Lorena grew up hiking, climbing, horseback riding and mountain biking. When the Ochoas wanted a change of scenery, they camped on the beach, and Lorena turned into a wake boarder and water-skier. (She is also a hellacious snowboarder.) In all of these pursuits she was forever trying to keep up with her big brothers, both accomplished adventure athletes.

In 1999 Alejandro talked Lorena into joining him for a four-day ecothon. At 17 she was the youngest person in the field of 144 athletes. The final challenge called for a three-mile swim in a lake with water so cold that three teams dropped out because of hypothermia, but Lorena powered her way to the finish line. "My dad, my brothers, they always told me I could do anything," she says. With a laugh, she adds, "if I was tough enough."

This fearlessness has served her well in golf. She first picked up a club when she was five, and for years she was the only girl who played at Guadalajara Country Club. Her mentor was Rafael Alarcon, who knocked around the PGA and Nationwide tours in the 1980s and '90s. Ochoa used to sit at the range and watch, transfixed, as Alarcon hit balls. He began teaching her when she was nine. "When she was 12, Lorena told me she wanted to be the best player in the world," says Alarcon.

The University of Arizona was one step along the way. After a record eight victories in 10 college events as a sophomore, Ochoa turned pro, arriving on the LPGA tour in 2003. Sorenstam was coming off an epic season during which she won 11 times. Ochoa became the heir apparent after taking the rookie of the year award in '03, but she and Sorenstam were as different as fire and ice. Sorenstam's game was a monument to Nordic reserve — precise and plodding, to minimize mistakes. Ochoa's rounds could be set to a mariachi beat, as her attacking and occasionally risky play produced barrages of birdies. But early in her pro career she was also prone to the big mistake. In her first three LPGA seasons she had 36 top 10 finishes yet only three wins.

Ochoa has always been the quintessential feel player. Her quirky swing featured a lot of head movement and an unorthodox rerouting of the club at the top. As she struggled to close out tournaments, there were whispers that the swing couldn't hold up under pressure. An ugly example came at the 2005 U.S. Women's Open, when she arrived at the 72nd tee a stroke off the lead. She uncorked a drop-kicked pull-hook into a pond, leading to a quadruple bogey.

That off-season Ochoa committed to a two-year plan with Alarcon to shorten and tighten her swing. She also redoubled her punishing work in the gym. This made her swing more efficient and reliable without diminishing her trademark athleticism and rhythm. "What I love about Lorena's swing now," says Judy Rankin, a Hall of Fame player and one of the game's most astute announcers, "is that it is uniquely hers, unlike [those of] so many other young players who seem burdened by trying to make someone else's idea of a perfect swing. They are bogged down by mechanics, [but] Lorena simply hits the ball."

And how. At a willowy 5' 6" and 130 pounds, Ochoa has emerged as pound-for-pound the longest hitter in the game. This season she is second on the LPGA tour in driving distance, averaging 271 yards, and the woman ahead of her, by .6 of a yard, is Sophie Gustafson, a powerfully built 5' 10". Says Kim, "That someone can be so creative around the greens and play shots that no one else could even fathom, and then be a great iron player and now [be] 10 yards longer than everybody else? And wear a size zero? It's just not right."

Ochoa's physical gifts are married to a mental toughness forged in extreme sports, and she is well served by an innately sunny outlook that no sports psychologist can teach. Ask her how she overcame all the near misses early in her career and she says, "I remember only the good shots. The others, they disappear."

Veteran Pat Hurst uses the word carefree to describe Ochoa on the golf course. "She has simplified the game so much," says Hurst. "She's making it look so easy, it's silly. Golf is not supposed to be this easy."

As Ochoa has piled up victories, she has found that the hard part of her job is outside the ropes, where she is pulled in so many directions. "To my knowledge she has never said no to anything we've asked," says LPGA commissioner Carolyn Bivens.

It was only a few hours after Ochoa's participation in the ceremony at the Stock Exchange that Sorenstam, 37, rocked the golf world by announcing she was retiring at the end of the season. Beginning next year Ochoa will have to carry the tour pretty much by herself, but she has already steeled herself for that. "I chose to be in this position," she says, "so I accept the responsibilities that come with it." She allows, however, that "it is not always easy, because I am a private person." She is still adjusting to the scrutiny that has come with her four-month-old romance with Andres Conesa, who as CEO of AeroMexico is one of his country's most prominent businessmen.

In announcing her retirement Sorenstam said she is looking forward to building her Annika brand, which already includes a clothing line and a course-design business. Meanwhile Ochoa may be omnipresent in Mexico — in November she will host the inaugural Lorena Ochoa Invitational at Guadalajara Country Club, the third LPGA event to be founded south of the border in recent years — but the tour wants to raise her profile in the U.S. Ochoa is ambivalent about that, saying, "I am happy with what I have now."

Sorenstam's primary reasons for walking away are personal: She is getting married next January and is eager to have children. This has resonated deeply with the family-oriented Ochoa. If she feels an urgency to win the Grand Slam, it is because she has often said that she sees herself playing only 10 seasons or so before she retires to focus on a family of her own. She does not disguise her longing to spend more time at her beach house in San Juan de Alima, a fishing village on the Pacific coast.

"I love golf, I love competing, I love winning," Ochoa says. "I have worked very hard to get to this point, and I am enjoying it. But there will be a time to stop, to concentrate on other things that matter. I look forward to a life that is a little more..." She stares out the window of Willy's town car, searching for the right word. Manhattan is in the rearview mirror, and she is speeding toward a future that holds so much promise. "Simple. I like that word. Yes, simple. That is what I look forward to."

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