A COUPLE OF weeksago Lorena Ochoa took time out from being the world's most dominant femaleathlete to fulfill some of the obligations that come with her success. The LPGAtour had pitched its tent in New Jersey, and Ochoa had been talked intojourneying across the Hudson River to help ring the opening bell at the NewYork Stock Exchange, which would be nice publicity for the host tournament, theSybase Classic. A black town car dropped her at the corner of Wall Street andBroadway, an unlikely destination given that it is the metaphoricalintersection of money and fame, and Ochoa cares little for either.
This is an article from the June 9, 2008 issue
She is not thetype to roll with an entourage, and on this crisp morning Ochoa was utterlyalone. Upon reaching the drop spot, it occurred to her that she did not knowwhere to go from there, and neither did her driver—Willy, from Queens. Afterasking a stranger for directions, Ochoa finally navigated the two blocks to theheavily fortified front entrance of the Stock Exchange, which is patrolled byguards wearing mirrored sunglasses and dour expressions. She approached one,saying, "I am here to ring the opening bell, but I do not know where togo." Her hair was pulled back in a tight bun, making her look younger thanher 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 abroadhiking the canyons of lower Manhattan. The guard gave her a doubtful look thattranslated roughly to fuhgeddaboutit.
"I am LorenaOchoa," she said.
Not even a flickerof recognition.
Eventually Ochoawas rescued by Stock Exchange staffers and ushered inside. In recent years PhilMickelson and Tiger Woods had also rung the opening bell in carefullychoreographed appearances that nevertheless created a certain amount of bedlam.The Masters of the Universe at the exchange certainly love their golf, but asOchoa was given a tour of the trading floor, only a few harried runners tooktime out from fueling the world economy to ask for an autograph. AfterwardOchoa returned to the corner of Wall Street and Broadway and loitered for 15minutes while she awaited Willy's return. The city rushed by, but not a singleperson seemed to recognize her.
Willy finallyscreeched 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 goto the golf course." She didn't say it, but it was easy enough to ascertainwhat she was thinking: Where I belong.
LORENA OCHOA, thegolfer, is that rarest of creatures: a superstar athlete who has not beencorrupted by the forces of modern celebrity. When not reinventing the LPGA tourin her image, she lives with her parents in Guadalajara, where a wild night outmeans a dinner party with friends capped by her only vice, chocolate cake.Ochoa remains deferential to her father, Javier; when he visits her attournaments, it is not uncommon for him to hold her hand as they walk to the1st tee and send her off with a kiss on the cheek and the sign of the cross onher forehead. The player whom Ochoa has displaced atop the world ranking,Annika Sorenstam, has always marched down the fairways with a queenlydetachment, but after every round Ochoa kisses even her playing partners'caddies. Every golf tour is as insular and gossipy as high school, and thecliquishness is exaggerated among the couple of hundred women who make up theLPGA. But even as Ochoa makes a mockery of the competition, having won amind-boggling 20 tournaments in 54 starts since April 2006, it is nearlyimpossible to find a fellow player who doesn't gush about her.
"She is by farthe sweetest, kindest, most giving person walking the earth," says LPGAveteran Christina Kim, a longtime friend of Ochoa's. "She has that innerlight. I think she's been touched by God. Honestly, I'm surprised she hasn'tbeen canonized yet. I'm not exaggerating—she is the greatest thing ever: across between Tiger Woods and Mother Teresa."
Woods isrightfully celebrated as a sportsman, but he does not hide his glee at crushingwould-be challengers or hazing the few players who do not properly pay homageto his greatness. Ochoa is every bit as fierce a competitor as Woods, but shekills 'em with kindness. Two years ago Helen Alfredsson was dueling Ochoa atthe Sybase Classic, but during their third-round pairing "we spent most ofthe 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 10thfairway. We were having so much fun, I barely noticed she was kicking mybutt." Naturally, Ochoa went on to win the tournament.
That victory wasnear the beginning of Ochoa's emergence as the game's dominant player. She wonsix times in 2006 and piled on eight more victories last season, takingback-to-back player of the year awards as Sorenstam was slowed by injuries anddistracted by off-course pursuits. By far the most meaningful in this burst ofvictories was Ochoa's triumph at the first Women's British Open to be played atSt. Andrews, in '07. The Old Course is a vast canvas that encourages artisticexpression, and it has a tradition of confirming genius, as it did with SeveBallesteros in 1984 and Woods in 2000. Ochoa's first major championship victorystamped her arrival as a player for the ages.
The six victoriesshe has added in 2008 have been by a combined 38 strokes, including amessage-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'sfirst major, the Kraft Nabisco Championship, at which she ground out abogeyless 67 on Sunday for one of the most impressive rounds of her career. Thefollowing week brought a joyous victory at the Corona Championship in Morelia,Mexico, which qualified Ochoa for the Hall of Fame under the LPGA's pointsystem. (Enshrinement will have to wait until 2012, when she will havefulfilled the mandatory minimum of 10 seasons played.)
At this week'sLPGA Championship, at Bulle Rock Golf Course in Havre de Grace, Md., Ochoa willcontinue her quest to become the first woman to win the Grand Slam, and she ishardly cowed by the immensity of the challenge. "Every tournament, my goalis to win," she says, echoing Woods's oft-stated mantra. "It is whatdrives me. So why should [the LPGA] be any different?"
As always, shewill be motivated by her belief that she is playing for something larger thanherself.
ON THE first dayof the Kraft Nabisco Championship, in Rancho Mirage, Calif., the groundskeepingcrew at Mission Hills Country Club gathered in the vast maintenance shed for astand-up breakfast cooked by moonlighting mechanics. The 80 or so workers hadalready put in a long morning in the withering heat. Virtually all of theconversation was in Spanish, and when Ochoa slipped in through a side door, itset off raucous cheers and a round of Mexican f√∫tbol fight songs. She had takentime out from her tournament preparations to come thank the workers whomanicure her playing fields. In Spanish, Ochoa told them, "You should bevery proud of the work you do." Then she helped scramble the eggs. Theworkers were so touched by her sincerity that they arranged to have a mariachiband surprise her as she walked off the 72nd green, setting off one of thewildest celebrations in major championship history.
Every year Ochoaseeks out the grounds crew at a handful of venues to offer her thanks andencouragement, and she has been known to veer off fairways to salute gardenersand construction workers and housekeepers laboring at the fancy houses thatline the golf courses. She feels a strong kinship with those who have lefttheir homelands to better themselves. "They are good people, and they workhard to help their families," Ochoa says. "I want them to know Isupport them and that I play for them."
These workers arethe 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 isnot among them. "I know she has been told to be careful about what shesays, but Lorena is so true to herself that she can't help but speak from theheart," says Lopez, with whom Ochoa is often compared because of theirshared heritage and their on-course charisma.
By winning theSybase 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 kidsstarving in Mexico, so of course Lorena wouldn't be caught dead wearing anyjewels," Kim says. Ochoa couched her earnings record in terms of what itwould mean for others. "I try to help as much as I can my community, mypeople in Mexico," she says. "The more I can win, the more I can help,so that's a great motivation."
The Lorena OchoaFoundation was created in 2004 with an emphasis on health and education issuesfor children in Mexico. Over the last several years it has paid for 325 annualscholarships to La Barranca, a school for children ages six to 15 inGuadalajara, and with the foundation's help this fall La Barranca will begin anexpansion that over the next six years will double its enrollment and expandits reach through the end of high school. When she is home, Ochoa likes to dropin unannounced at the school, for pep talks with the kids or the occasionalgame of f√∫tbol. "The teachers say it is good for the students, but I thinkI am the one who gets inspired," she says.
The foundationalso subsidizes a school in Taplapa for at-risk youths and funds a program inGuadalajara to provide treatment and support for children with cancer. In thedevelopment stage is an initiative to identify schools throughout Mexico thatare underperforming and then use foundation resources to upgrade theinfrastructure and provide more training for teachers and administrators.
For these effortsas well as her performance on the golf course, Ochoa was recently named to Timemagazine's list of the world's 100 most influential people. In Mexico she hastranscended the sports pages and become a national sweetheart, beloved bypeople who will never lay eyes on a golf green. "Lorena is one of the rareathletes who just gets it," says Alfredsson. "She's like an ArnoldPalmer or Nancy Lopez or Muhammad Ali—she understands the power she has tochange the world."
For Ochoa, herbenevolent impulses boil down to something very basic: "I have been givenso much in my life. I have a lot of giving back to do."
OCHOA GREW up in afive-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 familyhad a cabin 100 miles west of Guadalajara, in the Sierra Madre. Lorena grew uphiking, climbing, horseback riding and mountain biking. When the Ochoas wanteda change of scenery, they camped on the beach, and Lorena turned into a wakeboarder and water-skier. (She is also a hellacious snowboarder.) In all ofthese pursuits she was forever trying to keep up with her big brothers, bothaccomplished adventure athletes.
In 1999 Alejandrotalked Lorena into joining him for a four-day ecothon. At 17 she was theyoungest person in the field of 144 athletes. The final challenge called for athree-mile swim in a lake with water so cold that three teams dropped outbecause of hypothermia, but Lorena powered her way to the finish line. "Mydad, my brothers, they always told me I could do anything," she says. Witha laugh, she adds, "if I was tough enough."
This fearlessnesshas served her well in golf. She first picked up a club when she was five, andfor years she was the only girl who played at Guadalajara Country Club. Hermentor was Rafael Alarcón, who knocked around the PGA and Nationwide tours inthe 1980s and '90s. Ochoa used to sit at the range and watch, transfixed, asAlarcón hit balls. He began teaching her when she was nine. "When she was12, Lorena told me she wanted to be the best player in the world," saysAlarcón.
The University ofArizona was one step along the way. After a record eight victories in 10college events as a sophomore, Ochoa turned pro, arriving on the LPGA tour in2003. 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 gamewas a monument to Nordic reserve—precise and plodding, to minimize mistakes.Ochoa's rounds could be set to a mariachi beat, as her attacking andoccasionally risky play produced barrages of birdies. But early in her procareer she was also prone to the big mistake. In her first three LPGA seasonsshe had 36 top 10 finishes yet only three wins.
Ochoa has alwaysbeen the quintessential feel player. Her quirky swing featured a lot of headmovement and an unorthodox rerouting of the club at the top. As she struggledto close out tournaments, there were whispers that the swing couldn't hold upunder pressure. An ugly example came at the 2005 U.S. Women's Open, when shearrived at the 72nd tee a stroke off the lead. She uncorked a drop-kickedpull-hook into a pond, leading to a quadruple bogey.
That off-seasonOchoa committed to a two-year plan with Alarcón to shorten and tighten herswing. She also redoubled her punishing work in the gym. This made her swingmore efficient and reliable without diminishing her trademark athleticism andrhythm. "What I love about Lorena's swing now," says Judy Rankin, aHall of Fame player and one of the game's most astute announcers, "is thatit is uniquely hers, unlike [those of] so many other young players who seemburdened by trying to make someone else's idea of a perfect swing. They arebogged down by mechanics, [but] Lorena simply hits the ball."
And how. At awillowy 5'6" and 130 pounds, Ochoa has emerged as pound-for-pound thelongest hitter in the game. This season she is second on the LPGA tour indriving distance, averaging 271 yards, and the woman ahead of her, by .6 of ayard, is Sophie Gustafson, a powerfully built 5'10". Says Kim, "Thatsomeone can be so creative around the greens and play shots that no one elsecould even fathom, and then be a great iron player and now [be] 10 yards longerthan everybody else? And wear a size zero? It's just not right."
Ochoa's physicalgifts are married to a mental toughness forged in extreme sports, and she iswell 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 Hurstuses the word carefree to describe Ochoa on the golf course. "She hassimplified the game so much," says Hurst. "She's making it look soeasy, it's silly. Golf is not supposed to be this easy."
AS OCHOA has piledup 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 neversaid no to anything we've asked," says LPGA commissioner CarolynBivens.
It was only a fewhours after Ochoa's participation in the ceremony at the Stock Exchange thatSorenstam, 37, rocked the golf world by announcing she was retiring at the endof the season. Beginning next year Ochoa will have to carry the tour prettymuch by herself, but she has already steeled herself for that. "I chose tobe in this position," she says, "so I accept the responsibilities thatcome with it." She allows, however, that "it is not always easy,because I am a private person." She is still adjusting to the scrutiny thathas come with her four-month-old romance with Andrés Conesa, who as CEO ofAeroMexico is one of his country's most prominent businessmen.
In announcing herretirement Sorenstam said she is looking forward to building her Annika brand,which already includes a clothing line and a course-design business. MeanwhileOchoa may be omnipresent in Mexico—in November she will host the inauguralLorena Ochoa Invitational at Guadalajara Country Club, the third LPGA event tobe founded south of the border in recent years—but the tour wants to raise herprofile in the U.S. Ochoa is ambivalent about that, saying, "I am happywith what I have now."
Sorenstam'sprimary reasons for walking away are personal: She is getting married nextJanuary and is eager to have children. This has resonated deeply with thefamily-oriented Ochoa. If she feels an urgency to win the Grand Slam, it isbecause she has often said that she sees herself playing only 10 seasons or sobefore she retires to focus on a family of her own. She does not disguise herlonging to spend more time at her beach house in San Juan de Alima, a fishingvillage on the Pacific coast.
"I love golf,I love competing, I love winning," Ochoa says. "I have worked very hardto 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 alittle more...." She stares out the window of Willy's town car, searchingfor the right word. Manhattan is in the rearview mirror, and she is speedingtoward a future that holds so much promise. "Simple. I like that word. Yes,simple. That is what I look forward to."