MEXICO CITY, Mexico (AP) — From a leafy golf course in Mexico’s second-largest, sprawling city, Lorena Ochoa has willed her way to the top of the women’s game, drawing millions of new fans to an increasingly international sport.
In Mexico, admirers point to “the Lorena effect” to explain how the world’s No. 1 female golfer is putting the sport on the map in a country where green fees are often five times the average daily wage and soccer rules hearts.
“She’s an icon,” said Hector Juarez, editor of the Mexico City-based magazine Caras Golf. “Most people in Mexico don’t know what golf really is, but they know Lorena Ochoa. That’s a huge gain. She’s giving golf massive exposure.”
Ochoa, one of 120 active international players on the tour, tees off Friday at the MasterCard Classic in Huixquilucan, Mexico, the first of three LPGA events in the country. Without her, odds are Mexico would not have any LPGA events. One of them is the Lorena Ochoa Invitational. The only other living player whose name is the title of the tournament is Arnold Palmer.
The 26-year-old Ochoa is just establishing her dominance in her sixth LPGA season, replacing Annika Sorenstam as the world’s top player last April. Ochoa won her first major, the British Open, in August and set a record for season tournament earnings with nearly $4.4 million last year.
Two weeks ago at the HSBC Women’s Champions tournament in Singapore, their only meeting this season so far, Ochoa buried Sorenstam by 11 strokes, shooting 20 under par. Sorenstam is not competing this weekend in Mexico.
Ochoa, who grew up with her brothers on a Guadalajara golf course, is known as much for her grace as her game.
“Lorena sets a best-of-class example of not just how to be a great athlete, but how to be a great human being,” LPGA Commissioner Carolyn Bivens said. “Lorena has given much more to the game than she has taken.”
Ochoa is one of the youngest golfers to start her own philanthropic foundation, adopting an elementary school for 241 low-income children near her hometown. Foundation director Carmen Bolio credits Ochoa for increasing the number of donors through the “Lorena effect.”
Ochoa and her brother Alejandro, who is her manager, also have opened two golf academies and plan three more this year to train and certify instructors and help students access the country’s cloistered greens.
“We’re interested in growing golf in Mexico in every sense: in the number of players, the number of people who follow it on television, the number of golf courses,” Alejandro Ochoa said.
Mexico counts 108 million people, but just 50,000 golfers and about 220 courses, according to the Mexican Golf Federation, compared to some 16,000 courses in the United States. About a quarter of the Mexican courses are at tourist resorts, and nearly all others are private, with membership often topping $10,000.
Still, more prospects are earning NCAA scholarships, and junior golf participation has swelled 25 percent since 2006 in central Mexico, according to the federation.
After all, Ochoa won five straight junior world championships and then had two NCAA player of the year seasons at the University of Arizona.
“Lorena has opened doors and is blazing a trail for these young players,” said Ian Gardner, director of the Mexican golf federation. “We’ve had more success in the past two or three years on an amateur level than almost ever before.”
And the flood of media coverage devoted to Ochoa in Mexico is raising awareness of the sport.
“I remember when they told me I had to cover golf, I practically cried,” said Juarez, who has followed Ochoa since 2000.
About eight Mexican reporters covered the sport then, he said, while more than 100 do today.
But Ochoa’s reach extends beyond Mexico.
“Every time I go back home, I see more and more young players with great potential,” LPGA golfer Virada Nirapathpongporn, 25, from Thailand, said in an e-mail. Ochoa’s success “goes to show that golf can be played and mastered by anyone, from any country … as long as they have that tremendous desire.”
Ruffin Beckwith, director of Golf 20/20 at the World Golf Foundation, likens Ochoa to Palmer, who got golf out of the country club in the 1950s, causing thousands of public courses to be built across the United States.
Forty years later, U.S. golf is stalling, as fewer rounds are played and more courses are closing than opening, Beckwith said.
Ochoa could unwittingly reverse that trend, Beckwith suggested, drawing millions of Mexican-American fans who were too young or far away to remember four-time LPGA player of the year Nancy Lopez.
On manicured greens from Las Vegas to Florida, Ochoa connects most visibly with countrymen who also earn a living off the game, greeting groundskeepers, restaurant and construction workers, signing flags and programs, and hosting breakfasts just hours before tee time to thank them for their work.
To many, she embodies their own dreams and struggles to get ahead, at home and in the world.
“Mexicans are very proud of you,” President Felipe Calderon told Ochoa at the 2007 LPGA Corona Championship in Morelia, Mexico. “Lorena represents the Mexico we long to see, a Mexico that refuses to be defeated, a Mexico that fights, a Mexico that opens ways in the world, a Mexico that wins.”