Going Native

Lorena Ochoa's heart is never far from Mexico, her homeland, and her superb start coincides with a decision to make herself heard in the immigration debate
May 07, 2006

More than 60course workers have gathered beneath a scattering of palms between the 4thgreen and the 5th tee at Reunion Resort & Club outside Orlando. It isFriday afternoon at the Ginn Clubs & Resorts Open, and these ElSalvadorans, Guatemalans, Hondurans and Mexicans form a second gallery,identifiable by their work clothes, sweat-stained baseball caps andcocoa-colored skin. As they look out over the fairways and greens they hadpainstakingly groomed in the dark, predawn hours, they are searching for oneplayer in particular--Lorena Ochoa of Mexico. One of the workers, 32-year-oldTania Ramos, also of Mexico, is all smiles when Ochoa appears. "We loveLorena," she says. "She's one of us." ¶ Ochoa has given Hispanicsplenty to cheer about of late. She led the Ginn Open (page G29) for much of thefirst two rounds and wound up tied for second, two shots behind Mi-Hyun Kim.Ochoa had arrived in Orlando on the heels of a wire-to-wire win at the LPGATakefuji Classic in Las Vegas. The week before that, she had a runner-up finishat the Kraft Nabisco Championship, in Palm Springs, Calif., during which sheshot a 62, tying the record for the lowest score in a major championship--onlyone highlight in a season that has seen Ochoa become the LPGA's leading moneywinner ($667,528).

A gifted playerwho joined the LPGA in 2003 after a decorated college career at Arizona, Ochoawas heralded as the player most likely to knock 67-time winner Annika Sorenstamfrom the top of the women's game. But Ochoa, who has four career wins, insteaddeveloped a reputation as a top-flight player who wilts under pressure. Themost storied of her several final-round stumbles occurred during last year'sU.S. Women's Open, at which she came to the 72nd hole one stroke off the leadonly to snap hook her drive into a water hazard and finish with a demoralizingquadruple bogey.

Ochoa, 24,finally flipped the script--sort of--last month at the Kraft Nabisco. Goinginto the final round with a three-shot lead, she bogeyed the 12th, 13th and15th holes to fall behind but then bounced back with a dramatic eagle at 18 toedge out Michelle Wie and former Arizona teammate Natalie Gulbis and force aplayoff with eventual winner Karrie Webb. Ochoa says that surviving the roughmoments of that round and sinking a clutch six-footer on the 72nd hole haveimbued her with the confidence she needs to win a major this year.

During Nabiscoweek, the intense Ochoa also learned something beyond the scope of golf. On theTuesday before the tournament she spotted a picture on the front page of theLos Angeles Times showing more than 500,000 Latinos who had gathered indowntown L.A. the previous Saturday to protest the deportation of undocumentedimmigrants and legislation proposed in Congress that would make their presencein the U.S. a felony. "When I read about and saw the immigration protestson TV, I got goose bumps," Ochoa says. "I'm not a political person, butI'm very worried about this. It's such a hard time right now. There are so manyMexicans in the U.S. who work hard to support their families here and backhome. They really value the opportunities they get here."

Since then, whiletraveling from tournament to tournament, Ochoa has made a point of connectingwith as many Latinos as possible. The rank and file of the grounds and kitchencrews at the country clubs that host LPGA events invariably break from theirdaily labors to cheer their champion--the triumphant young Mexican whoepitomizes the success they seek in a foreign land where opportunity comes atthe expense of isolation from family and culture.

In Las Vegas,Ochoa went so far as to step off the 12th fairway and shake hands withconstruction workers who were building course-side condos and had hoisted asign of support on a bedsheet. On April 25, during a practice round at theGinn, Ochoa stopped to chat with the gardeners who were planting flowers onseveral holes.

When Ochoa looksat these workers, she thinks not of border-crossing miscreants who deserve tobe deported, but people with hopes and dreams. And to those she meets, shecomes off not only as an LPGA star but also as a friendly face who can speak tothem in their own language. "She's not conceited," says José ManuelCeja, who headed a 25-man Mexican crew that worked on the Dinah Shore courseduring the Kraft Nabisco. "Lorena stops and talks to everybody. She asks ushow our families are."

Family isforemost for Ochoa, who comes from a tightly knit clan in Guadalajara, thesecond largest city in Mexico (pop. 3.7 million). In this colorful, bustlingplace known for mariachi music and charros (cowboys), Ochoa grew up near theGuadalajara Country Club with her father, Javier, a real estate executive; hermother, Marcela, an artist; two brothers, Javier, 31, and Alejandro, 29; and asister, Daniella, 22.

"Hertremendous popularity in her country accelerated the tour's plans to expandinto Mexico by years," says LPGA chief operations officer Chris Higgs.March's MasterCard Classic, near Mexico City, and the Corona MoreliaChampionship (Oct. 5-8), in the southwestern Mexican state of Michoacàn, wereadded to the LPGA schedule in 2005. This year the Corona will be run by OchoaSports Management, the company Lorena set up with Alejandro four years ago.Ochoa Sports is also developing three private courses in Mexico and building apublic driving range (expected to be completed next year) in her hometown.Ochoa Sports plans to follow up with a public course. A charitable foundationOchoa established 3 1/2 years ago provides lessons and practice rounds to thechildren of Guadalajara caddies. "She's a princess in Mexico," saysGulbis, who was paired with Ochoa at this year's MasterCard. "It's crazy.She had to have six bodyguards around her."

Ochoa returns toGuadalajara to recharge at every opportunity. It was there that she recuperatedfrom an exhausting and disappointing conclusion to the '05 season andimmediately launched into preparations for '06. She spent December--her usualoff-season--running, lifting weights and adhering to a strict diet to reduceexcess body fat. (The 5'5" Ochoa weighs only 110 pounds.) She also took upyoga, which, she says, has improved her focus and helped her remain calm whenthe adrenaline flows during high-pressure situations.

In January sheworked on her putting with Rafael Alarcón, a Mexican pro who played on the PGATour in 1983 and '97, and has coached Ochoa since she was 11. After the Nabiscoshe returned to Alarcón to make adjustments to her swing. "Lorena has atendency, especially under pressure, to take the club back a bit [off plane],and she doesn't break her wrists until late in her backswing," saysAlarcón. "We worked on getting her to break them a little earlier."

Despite hercongeniality, Ochoa has a fiery competitiveness that was no doubt nurturedwhen, as a child, she fought for acceptance among her older brothers and theirfriends. "Lorena insisted on doing everything we did," says Alejandro."When she was eight, she came with us on a three-day, 80-kilometer campingtrip on horseback through rugged, mountainous terrain outside Guadalajara. Whenwe went riding on the beach and plunged our horses into the water, she wouldfollow and swim with her horse, holding on to its mane."

Ochoa's dark,coffee-colored eyes narrow when she is asked about her inability to win atournament in Sorenstam's presence. (Her four wins occurred in tournamentsSorenstam didn't enter.) "I'm ready," she says. "¬°Que venga! [Lether come!]"

That fearlessnessand a newfound confidence have fueled her recent run of fine play, but she'salso found motivation in the plight of her countrymen. "I want to give themsomething to cheer for in these difficult times," she says. "I came tothis country too. I know what it's like to be separated from your family. Therewere times at school when I almost gave up and went home. I stuck it outbecause I wanted to be the best golfer in the world."

In Las Vegas, Ochoa went so far as to step off the12th fairway and SHAKE HANDS WITH CONSTRUCTION WORKERS who were buildingcourse-side condos.

Ochoa's eyes narrow when she's asked about herinability to win in Sorenstam's presence. "I'M READY," SHE SAYS."¬°QUE VENGA! [LET HER COME!]"

PHOTOPhotographs by Darren Carroll ON AROLL
The LPGA's leading money winner, Ochoa tied for second at the Ginn Clubs &Resorts Open.
TWO PHOTOSPhotographs by Darren Carroll;HARRY HOW/GETTY IMAGES (BOTTOM)BACKERS Workers (top) watch Ochoa, who has never won when Sorenstam plays. TWO PHOTOSROBERT BECK (TOP); LISA BLUMENFELD/GETTY IMAGESFANTASTIC After turning the corner at the Nabisco (top), Ochoa clicked in Vegas.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)