Commentary

Ochoa's lasting legacy may have nothing to do with golf

Originally Published: October 13, 2008
By George J. Tanber | Special to ESPN.com

The definitive mark of a memorable champion often stretches beyond the field of play.

[+] EnlargeLorena Ochoa
Icon SMILorena Ochoa raises another trophy -- this time after winning the Ginn Open in 2008. The Mexican superstar has won 24 times in her short LPGA Tour career.
Michael Jordan set the modern standard as a superstar both on the court and along Madison Avenue. Tiger Woods has supplanted Jordan and added another dimension -- a philanthropic path that has elevated his already significant global stature.

On the distaff side, there's only one comparable athlete, Lorena Ochoa -- No. 1 in the world and in the hearts of 108 million Mexicans.

Her coming-out party, a two-year process, exploded in May when Time magazine named her one of its 100 most influential people.

On the planet.

That's heady recognition for a 26-year-old golfer in a world where female athletes, generally, are viewed as secondary figures when compared to their male counterparts. Not since the early days of Nancy Lopez, who coincidentally is a Mexican-American golfer, has a female athlete generated such widespread public adulation.

Ochoa's on-course achievements over the past several years have been well-documented but bear repeating: Since the start of the 2006 season, she has won 21 tournaments, two of them majors; she has recorded 58 top-10s; she has won two player-of-the-year awards, and is a cinch for a third -- against a LPGA Tour field that has never been stronger. She also has been named the Associated Press' top female athlete in back-to-back years.

Along the way Ochoa replaced Annika Sorenstam, her idol, whom she followed at the University of Arizona, as the world's top-ranked player. When Ochoa supplanted her, Sorenstam had just completed an even more extraordinary run in which she won 43 times, including seven majors, between 2001 and 2005.

But as great a player as Sorenstam has been -- she's third on the all-time wins list -- she can't match Ochoa's persona or popularity.

Sorenstam, a Swede who lives in Florida and will retire at the end of this season, has always been an under-the-radar superstar, largely due to her quiet demeanor and a methodical, clinical style of play. Ochoa is a fiery golfer with a more engaging personality.

Sorenstam has nine million Swedes rooting for her. Ochoa, who still lives in her hometown of Guadalajara, has all of Mexico, Latin America and 42 million Americans of Hispanic descent in her corner.

Additionally, Ochoa possesses the "it factor," an often indefinable attribute that sets the great ones apart. Lopez, writing in Time, characterized Ochoa: "When you meet her for the second time and she remembers not only your name but also the slightest detail from the last time you spoke, you understand how exceptional this young woman is."

Numbers Game

Lorena Ochoa's game is well rounded as shown by her strong rankings in some of the LPGA Tour's key statistics. Here's a look at where Ochoa stands, through Oct. 12.

Stat 2008 rank
Rounds under par (56 of 73) 1st
Birdies (325) 4th
Eagles (11) T-2
Greens in regulation (72.1%) 1st
Sand saves (51.7%) 10th
Putts per green (1.77) T-3
Driving distance (270.1) 1st
Money list ($2,716,184.00) 1st
• More LPGA statistics
And always has been.

Rafael Alarcon, her coach, remembers an 11-year-old Ochoa approaching him as he worked on his game at Guadalajara Country Club, where her family lived near the 10th tee. She asked him if he would help her with her game. Alarcon asked her what her goal was.

"She said she wanted to be the best player in the world," he said.

In her second and last year at Arizona, she won seven straight tournaments. No college player had ever done that before. By the time she joined the LPGA Tour in 2003, she had already been given Mexico's National Sports Award by then-President Vicente Fox. At 21, she was the youngest recipient and first golfer to earn the honor.

On tour, it was clear from the get-go that Ochoa was going to be a star, especially after she was named the rookie of the year. For a while she had trouble closing out tournaments, but that changed in 2006 when she won six times. She followed that up with eight victories in 2007. She didn't win her first major until last year's women's British Open, but Ochoa proceeded to take two majors in a row.

As for her exploits in 2008? Well, she's finished in the top 10 in 17 of 19 events, including seven victories. For her career, Ochoa's win total now stands at 24, and her earnings total more than $13 million, even though she has been on tour less than six full years.

Yet, most often, it's the non-golfing Ochoa whom people enjoy discussing.

"Obviously, she's a great player, but I've always said she's a better person. She has a big heart and is very sincere," said Angela Stanford, one of the top-ranked American players who knows Ochoa from their membership in the tour's fellowship group.

Many of her Mexican fans describe Ochoa as "muy simpática," which roughly translates into a kind and congenial person who sincerely cares about others -- high praise in the Latino world. What that means on tour is that on the first tee she'll ask her opponents how their family and friends are and then blow a drive 40 yards past their balls. (She is first on tour in driving distance at 270.1 yards as well as first in greens hit in regulation at 72.1 percent.

Four hours later, Ochoa has buried them by five shots but she'll give them a big hug and tell them to have a great evening. And mean it.

"The interesting thing about her," Stanford said, "is that her faith and her family rank above golf. That's pretty special. [So] when you're solid in your faith and you know who you are, it's very easy to turn it off and on."

Feel-good stories about Ochoa abound.

Pete Samuels, communications director for Ping, Ochoa's clubmaker, said that in March, when Ochoa traveled to Phoenix to play in the Safeway International, she requested a meeting with the company's employees -- all 300 of them.

"She addressed the group and thanked them for all their hard work. She answered questions and she signed 300 autographs," he said. "We've had other pros come and visit us, but what was unusual was that Lorena asked to do it. That meant a lot to our people."

LPGA Tour officials, not surprisingly, get giddy when talking about Ochoa.

"We're lucky to have her as an ambassador for us for women's golf," said Chris Higgs, the tour's chief operations officer. "She embodies everything the LPGA strives to achieve with all of our players. She does everything she's supposed to do, so it should not be a surprise to anybody that's she's a heroine in her country."

Higgs is correct: Ochoa connects with other Latinos in a remarkable way.

[+] EnlargeLorena Ochoa
David Cannon/Getty ImagesLorena Ochoa is surrounded by her family after winning the Kraft Nabisco Championship. From the left is Ochoa's mother Marcela, her father Javier, and her sister in law Paulina with her brother Alejandro and her caddie Dave Brooker standing behind her.
At tournaments in the Southwest and in California, she always greets the groundskeepers, most of whom are Hispanic. The galleries at those tour stops often are filled with vocal supporters, many of whom carry Mexican flags. Stanford has experienced the phenomenon on several occasions, most recently when she played with Ochoa at the Samsung World Championship near San Francisco.

"Every time I play with her I feel like I have half of Mexico following [us] around," she said. "They are very excited for her. The way I look at it, they're bringing people out to our golf tournaments and she's doing great things for our tour and our game. So it's fun to see."

Ochoa, uncomfortable talking about herself, tried to explain her own popularity.

"All I know is that I'm proud to be Mexican and represent them," she said.

Anyone who viewed the events after Ochoa won the Kraft Nabisco Championship by five shots in April -- the season's first major -- would have a clear understanding of the role her family and country assume in her life.

Traditionally, the champion and maybe her caddy jump into the pond that guards the 18th hole at the Mission Hills Country Club course. Ochoa, however, was initially joined by her parents and sister-in-law. They were followed by her brother, Alejandro, Alarcon, and her caddie. After that, scores of Mexicans in the gallery joined in while a mariachi band played nearby.

"It was a big celebration," Alejandro Ochoa said.

It's Alejandro, 32, one of four Ochoa children, who runs the family businesses under the Ochoa Group in Guadalajara. The company is fueled by Lorena's success and is quickly evolving.

In July, Alejandro signed an agreement with Arthur Hills of Toledo, Ohio -- one of the top American golf course designers -- to form Ochoa/Hills Golf Design. While golf course construction has slowed in the United States, Mexico has seen a 30 percent growth in each of the past three years, according to Alejandro. Lorena, although intrigued by the idea of eventually designing golf courses, says she's too busy at the moment and will leave that part of the business to her brother.

Ochoa Sports Management operates the LPGA Corona Championship, an annual tour stop in Morelia, Mexico. Lorena won this year's event in April by 11 shots, qualifying her for the LPGA Hall of Fame, the second-youngest player to achieve the honor after Karrie Webb.

Next month, OSM will launch its second event, the Lorena Ochoa Invitational at her home course in Guadalajara.

Meanwhile, Ochoa Sports represents Lorena, Alarcon and Sophia Sheridan, a 24-year-old Mexican golfer who plays on the LPGA's developmental tour. The Ochoas are confident the list will expand as they attempt to grow the game in Mexico through Ochoa Golf Academies, the creation of Lorena, Alejandro and Alarcon.

In September 2007, the Ochoas hired Tom Gerke, a Wisconsin native who directed academies in Madison and Milwaukee, to develop their golf instruction program. What the 40-year-old Gerke found when he arrived in Mexico in December was a country filled with resort and private courses but few public links or driving ranges for non-country club players -- and kids -- to develop their games. Also missing were skilled instructors.

In 10 months, Gerke has written an instruction manual for teachers based on the way Ochoa learned the game from Alarcon and a manual for students. And Gerke has reached agreements with about 10 golf clubs around the country that will offer Ochoa Academies programs. As part of the effort to bring more people into the game and uncover new talent, the clubs have to keep 10 percent of their junior programs open to non-members free of charge and host community clinics.

Miss Consistency

How strong has Lorena Ochoa's game been in 2008? Her worst tournament was a tie for 31st at the U.S. Women's Open. Other than that result (and a tie for for 12th at the Michelob Ultra Open), Ochoa finished in the top 10 at every other event she competed in this year (through Oct. 12).

Event Finish
HSBC Women's Champions 1st
MasterCard Classic T-8
Safeway International 1st
Kraft Nabisco Championship 1st
Corona Championship 1st
Ginn Open 1st
SemGroup Championship T-5
Michelob Ultra Open T-12
Sybase Classic 1st
McDonald's LPGA Championship T-3
Wegmans LPGA T-6
U.S. Women's Open T-31
Evian Masters 5th
Ricoh Women's British Open T-7
CN Canadian Women's Open T-4
Safeway Classic T-6
Navistar LPGA Classic 1st
Samsung World Championship T-3
Longs Drugs Challenge 4th
• More LPGA statistics
"Everything takes a little longer down here, but things are moving in the right direction," Gerke said. "There's a lot of potential down here. Hopefully, we can bring some consistency to teaching the game. The only way is to force the issue and make everyone realize the world of golf is going to change in Mexico."

There has been some speculation that Mexico might become the next South Korea, where Se Ri Pak's success fueled a golf boom that has resulted in dozens of South Koreans who play on the LPGA tour.

Alarcon, speaking frankly, said it won't happen because of the differences between the Mexican and South Korean cultures.

"In South Korea, the parents are tough on the kids and push hard. It's about achieving the No. 1 position. In Mexico, we don't push the kids into something that is a fantasy for the parents. We have programs to help the kids learn but, basically, their success comes from individual efforts."

Lorena Ochoa, whose growth as a golfer epitomizes this philosophy, has a succinct viewpoint on the focus of her academy.

"It's not about having 40 Mexicans on tour. It's about making the sport more popular. And to make it more accessible, not only for rich people. That's my biggest fight."

Nevertheless, Gerke foresees a time in which Ochoa Academies-trained golfers will earn scholarships to American universities, and that development could lead to more Mexicans who turn pro. And Alarcon believes Ochoa's popularity in the United States will draw more American youths of Hispanic descent into the game.

Yet of all the Ochoa family enterprises, the Lorena Ochoa Foundation is the one that Lorena most relishes. The foundation operates La Barranca, a primary school in Guadalajara with 250 underprivileged students and an innovative curriculum.

This year, the foundation opened a high school with 21 freshmen students. The plan, according to foundation director Carmen Bolio, is to add a new class each year and then construct a high school building that's separate from the primary school. Proceeds from the Lorena Ochoa Invitational golf tournament will help with construction costs and support the foundation, but more assistance is required, she said.

Bolio says it's the work of the foundation that has elevated Ochoa's stature in Mexico.

"She is very young and she can do whatever she wants with her money," she said. "But they admire her because she really wants to help [these children]. It comes from her heart. And people know that."

Ochoa is clear on what La Barranca means to her.

"That's the most important thing," she said. "That gives me more joy than winning a golf tournament. We need to get these children ready to prepare for their future. That's the reason why I play golf."

With the academy, the foundation, Mexico, her family and the desire to one day marry and have children competing for her attention, it's clear that Ochoa will not last nearly as long as, say, the 38-year-old Sorenstam has on tour, according to Alejandro Ochoa.

Lorena agrees with her brother, but declines to speculate on when she will retire.

"It's true that I won't be here forever. But I think it's too early to start thinking about that. It could be three years; it could be seven years. Right now, I'm just trying to keep up the momentum. I want to keep winning."

That's great news for her growing legion of fans, but not for other LPGA players.

George J. Tanber is a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at george.tanber@iscg.net.

George J. Tanber is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com's golf coverage.