Golf Legend Lorena Ochoa Continues to Elevate The Sport in Inspiring Ways
There’s an audacity about Lorena Ochoa that’s refreshing.
So often we fall victim to second-guessing ourselves, living in the past and leaving childhood dreams at our parents’ doorstep, never having the courage to follow through with the answer we gave when someone asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
The difference with Ochoa is those dreams turned into tangible realities at a young age.
“Really young I started dreaming that I wanted to be the best in the world,” Ochoa tells En Fuego about her passion for golf. “I always fought really hard since I was little to be the best in the world.”
Lorena Ochoa retired from golf at the very top of the sport in 2010. And then she got really busy.
There is an ease about Ochoa, a pleasant calm that comes from a person who knows what they want in life and has the confidence to accomplish it.
And it would be easy to dismiss that as a byproduct of being one of the best to ever step foot on a golf course.
She was the LPGA Rookie of the Year in 2003, inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2017, garnered 63 top-three finishes and 109 top-10 finishes in just 173 starts on the LPGA Tour. She celebrated 27 wins and two major championships in a career that was brief but dynamic.
Her confidence came well before the accolades. It comes from a life led moving forward, never settling for what success she might have in the moment. A volition that comes from parents who instilled in her the power of process and execution.
“Her parents were very good about pushing the kids to do things, pushing the kids to learn to do things, pushing the kids to challenge themselves,” explained coach, mentor and lifelong friend Rafael Alarcon.
The golf guru has seen Ochoa grow from a girl into a master at her craft and retire to become a wife, mother, course designer, philanthropist and general inspiration to an entire nation.
But it starts with a little girl, a five-year-old who decided that she wanted to play golf.
“I say the tenacious competitor comes from being a secure kid,” Alarcon continued. “And Lorena grew up in an environment where she always felt secure, because she was doing more stuff than any other little kids…She was never stopped. She was always told that if she learned to do it right then you can do it.”
Tenacity and Dedication
Rafael Alarcon is something of a pioneer, becoming a professional golfer when there was a relative dearth of people playing the sport in Mexico.
He started off playing at a young age in amateur tournaments and eventually found his way to Oklahoma State University.
“I had probably the most wonderful time of my life, probably the most challenging time of my life,” he said. “I didn't speak too much English when I went there. So, I had to take a lot of English courses just to pass and be admitted into the school.”
He would help secure two NCAA titles and would go on to play professionally from roughly 1981 to 2002, competing in 48 countries around the world.
But it’s in Mexico that he met a young girl who followed him around incessantly as he played at the Guadalajara Country Club.
Ochoa may have picked up the game at five and won her first tournament at six, but she didn’t find her mentor until about the age of 11. It’s then that she spotted Alarcon, observed and decided on the spot, “I wanted to be like him.”
Alarcon would be at the putting green and there she was. He’d go hit a few holes and she’d tag along, breathing in all that she could from the resident pro.
Alarcon had never coached another golfer prior to their meeting and Ochoa still had a lot to learn. The two would embark upon a never-ending relationship that would see Ochoa become the best in the world and Alarcon the kind of coach who would shape the very manner that golf is played in Mexico.
“You know, I'm gonna be very serious; I'm going to be here every afternoon. I want your advice,” she remembers telling Alarcon. “And for me, he was a role model.”
There is a mountain in Mexico, Pico de Orizaba. It’s the highest peak in Mexico and the third highest in North America. And at around 12 or 13, Ochoa wanted to go with her older brother Alejandro—he would later summit Mt. Everest—on a trip up the mountain.
“Her father told her to learn to do it right. And if you prepare yourself to do everything that you need to do, you got permission,” Alarcon recalled.
Ochoa is meticulous in what she does, and that goes for completing her life goals. She set out as a young girl to become the best she could possibly be, spotted the perfect mentor and trained relentlessly.
When she got to the biggest stage in the world, she again deciphered how things would play out. Others might let their careers unfold as it may. But life’s too short. It’s best just to do things perfectly the first time around. It’s a nice shortcut.
Very early on in her career, she told Alarcon that she’d be the best in the game and play about 10 years. There were greater things she wanted to do with her life.
“She saw herself being a family woman,” Alarcon said. “She saw herself as a leader.”
A maverick of golf departed into retirement in much the same way she began, on her terms. And you can’t help but smile at the refreshing notion that an athlete would do what they wanted when they wanted to do it.
“I was very happy to say goodbye to the competitive side of the game, because I also dream,” Ochoa tells me over Zoom call. “I was also excited about having a lot of things outside the golf course. And I promised myself when I see clearly that I want to get married and I'm ready to have kids, I'm going to step away because it's the right thing to do.”
An Exhausting Retirement
Kick up your feet, play some occasional golf. Relax. Those are nice ideas. But Ochoa has more dreams to fulfill.
She continues to design golf courses and is doing one in Belize with Greg Norman and has one planned for Nayarit by the beach.
Then there are the many conferences and speeches she is asked to give, “I'm busy. I'm working all the time. I'm very active.”
Fundacìon Lorena Ochoa was founded in 2004 and includes La Barranca, a school dedicated to offering an education to lower-income families.
“Having that foundation is probably the best thing that happened in my career,” Ochoa remembers having the idea back in 2003. She recalls with a smile her incredulous mother who questioned how an unproven golfer could start such a foundation.
“I'm very proud to say that more than six thousand kids already went through the school,” Ochoa said. “Just to be able to change their lives and their future. For them to be confident and have the tools to really change their lives. And not only theirs, but also the family is something very special.”
When COVID-19 hit, the world shutdown and economies halted. Ochoa realized something needed to be done for Mexicans on several fronts. She helped start Le Entro, a foundation that aims to curtail health, education and hunger issues arising from the global pandemic.
Le Entro is helping to feed the community and supply protective gear to healthcare workers. Ochoa is also adamant that no child at her school leave because of economic hardship.
Due to the pandemic, 35% of La Barranca parents lost their jobs. Many explained to administrators that they needed to pull their kids from school, unable to pay the already low tuition. Ochoa wasn’t having it.
“No, no, no,” she told the parents. “We have special scholarships. We're going to take care of the kids. Nobody is going outside the school.”
The school remains a daily source of activity to a woman who remains diligent in her passions. Even in this so-called retirement.
Mexico on the Rise
The very first Ochoa Golf Academy was opened in Guadalajara in 2007. The academies’ success is a source of pride for the 38-year-old. And it’s Alarcon who’s in charge, steering each one’s mission to better not just individual golfers but to improve the coaching and from there expand golf’s reach in Mexico.
And the influence of the sport is palpable. Ochoa remembers that as a young girl, there were hardly any golfers at her club. That has changed significantly. Far more are interested at her home course alone.
“There are more than a hundred girls and boys practicing the game,” she said. And she's overjoyed, "just to be able to see how much the game is growing in the country.”
Alarcon was at a crossroads when Ochoa stepped away from the professional ranks, losing his notable client.
“What do I do with all the knowledge that I acquire taking a player to become the number one in the world? I have two options,” Alarcon said. “I can leave it there or I can share it with more people. So, I decided to share it by teaching more kids.”
But teaching kids to become golfers wouldn’t expand the game nearly as much as if he went in another more profound direction. His coaching would be widespread.
“I also decided to do it through the academies and through the preparation of teachers to become better teachers.”
There was an inherent need at the time to meet not only the growing demand but to fill a chasm of proper golf education. “We don't have any preparation here in Mexico,” Alarcon continued. “Teachers don't have access to any kind of professional information. So, I decided to share it.”
The impact has been immediate. Alarcon took Horacio Morales under his wing, bringing him to coach. Morales in turn has guided the likes of Gaby Lopez.
“After Lorena left the game, she left a big influence, but she was like an umbrella over the Gulf of Mexico,” Alarcon said.
She inspired up and coming stars and countless golfers who now take up the sport with great interest and pride. Once the umbrella came down, the profound impact was evident.
“The game in Mexico has broken through the social life,” said Alarcon. “It’s not for the elite anymore. Most of the golf courses in Mexico are pretty much open to daily play. We have better teachers. We have a lot better progress, more programs to [bring] new kids into the game.”
This is a special "generation of influence" as Alarcon calls it, a wave of young golfers that has a special opportunity to grow the game within a culture still getting acquainted with the sport.
“The more we go into the other countries, especially in the United States, they are gonna become heroes. And they are going to influence the Latino community. They're going to influence more people to know that they can become [golfers].”
Lorena Ochoa’s professional career spanned just seven years. But to encapsulate her impact on the sport to that period is to disregard so much of who she is and what she has done.
As for the family she dreamed of having. Ochoa and husband Andrés Conesa Labastida have three children. And the golf icon absolutely beams when she talks about Pedro, Julia and Diego.
So much of what is written about Ochoa often comes down to her retirement and a decision that was surprising at the time. The notion is absurd now once you take the time to take a measure of all that she has accomplished.
One dream after another. Ochoa continues to inspire simply by moving forward, showing what confidence in your decisions can get you. And she is bringing a nation along with her.