LINKS LETTER, 2005 ANNUAL EDITION

MAKING HER ASCENT

By Jeff Hopper

When Lorena Ochoa awoke for good that third Sunday morning in May 2004, it was certainly not the first time. She had been restless all night.

Who could blame her?

She was on the verge of winning her first LPGA trophy. In college, she had collected nearly every prize placed before her. But a win on Tour had been slower in coming. Her first season she had been named Rookie of the Year, but she had gone without a victory.Lorena Ochoa, winner of 12 college tournaments in just two years—including seven in a row—winless for more than 15 months? ¡Imposible!

Lorena Ochoa, perhaps the best-known Mexican athlete since Fernando Valenzuela, kept from collecting the biggest of checks? ¡Increible!

This is what may have been on the mind of Ochoa’s old University of Arizona teammates. It may have been what made her adoring fans in Mexico restless. But none of this filled Ochoa’s mind.

Her mind was a million miles away. Well, almost. How about as far away as the top of Mount Everest?

All night long, Ochoa had not been able to sleep because her older brother, Alejandro, was somewhere near the summit of the world’s highest peak. At 11 p.m. the night before, he had called and said his team was leaving. They were just two hours from the top.

But two hours later, no call came. It was not until 4 a.m. that the phone rang. Alejandro had reached the summit. He was back at camp, the one nearest Everest’s summit.

Now Ochoa could sleep.

Or not. She had her parents to talk to and friends to e-mail. And then there was this business of the Franklin American Mortgage Championship. Her lead, when she would tee off in the final group that Sunday, was two shots.

It had been more than two months since Alejandro Ochoa had left for his Everest expedition. “Before we said goodbye,” Lorena Ochoa recalls, “I promised him, ‘Before we see each other, you’re going to climb Mount Everest and I’m going to win my first tournament.’ “It would be weeks before Lorena and Alejandro were reunited. There was this small matter of an Everest descent on Alejandro’s end. Yet the weight of the promise now rested on Lorena’s shoulders.

That first win was one thing. Those college teammates and back-home fans were another. But nothing matched Lorena Ochoa’s desire to win for her brother.

After all, this was the same Alejandro who had put Lorena to the test five years before, inviting and inspiring her to join him and two other men in an ecothon. Three days of team racing, the shortest of which lasted nine hours. Mountain biking, kayaking, rappelling, trekking, and that nifty 5k swim against a current churned up by a brutal wind. At 17, Lorena was the youngest participant in the race.

Whatever else you might say about Lorena Ochoa, you cannot say this: she isn’t up to the challenge.

Lorena Ochoa is all about challenges. You could sum up that part of her character in the three words, Mexican female golfer.

There aren’t many of them.In Guadalajara, Ochoa’s home, there is less than one golf course per million people. Those who are fortunate enough to play—and Ochoa will tell you over and over how fortunate she has been—are nearly all men.

But when she was just five, her father encouraged her to get out on the Guadalajara Country Club course, which is where you’ll also find the Ochoa home. (Her father is a retired developer; the family business is now run by her other brother, Javier.)

Golf was not her only sport. She also played tennis and basketball, and she swam. It’s a wonder she chose golf. It surely was not about the friends she made on the course.

“I was actually the only girl to play at (my club) at that time. Then a couple of years later, another girl started playing with me,” Ochoa says.

The time to which she refers came after she was 10 years old. That was when her father issued one of her earliest challenges: make a choice.

“When I was about 10 years old, my dad came to me and said, ‘You need to pick one sport just to be able to be good at it,’ ” Ochoa remembers.

The funny thing was, she was already good at it, having twice won her age group at the Junior World Championships in San Diego. It made her choice easy. “I thought, I think I’m going to stay with golf.

One aspect of the fortunate part of Ochoa’s life was that her father had the wherewithal to finance her golfing pursuits.

“For me it was amazing to be able to come to the States, represent my country, represent Mexico, have the opportunity to get to know different people, flying and traveling all around the world,” Ochoa says. “It was an opportunity that made a big impression on me. So I quit other sports and from there every afternoon I would come home from school, change really quick and play golf.”

From there, she flew through Junior World Championships year after year, then made her way to the University of Arizona.

“It was a very hard transition, leaving home, coming to the States, being away from my home. I’m very close to my family,” Ochoa says.

But homesickness didn’t hurt her golf game. In her freshman and sophomore seasons, she won 12 times, including eight of 10 events she played that second year. It was one more victory than Nancy Lopez had won in two years as a collegian and just five off Juli Inkster’s record 17 wins as a four-year player.

She also loved the camaraderie. “Practicing with the team was incredible,” she says. “I used to play all the time by myself in Mexico, all the time on the same course, and always with boys, always boys older than me.”

At Arizona, there were 10 players, all bent on the same goal—improving their game. The atmosphere was just what Ochoa longed for. “I now have friends for a lifetime,” she says.

And it’s a good thing. Because Ochoa wasted no time getting on with life. After 18 months at Arizona, she turned professional, a move made more obvious by top ten finishes in tournaments for which she received sponsor’s exemptions.

On the Futures Tour, she won three times, bolted to the top of the money list and earned her LPGA exempt status for 2003.

In her first year on Tour, although she did not win, Ochoa finished in the top-10 eight times, including two runner-up showings. Easily, she collected the Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year award.

Then came two wins in 2004, first at the Franklin American, then again at the Wachovia LPGA Classic in Pennsylvania.

No doubt, Ochoa’s golf timeline has moved at an unbelievable pace. It’s the kind of rapid ascent that usually comes with extreme attention to self. Where else would a player find the time to build such a game?But if there’s one thing it’s nearly impossible to find in Lorena Ochoa, it’s an ounce of self-centeredness.

Just 23 as the 2005 LPGA season opens, Ochoa’s character is marked instead by two stunningly mature benchmarks: extraordinary discipline and a yearning to be mentored.

In college, Ochoa’s fitness regime was almost legendary. When the rest of the team showed up for workouts at 6 a.m., Ochoa had already completed a 10k run.

On Tour, though the travel cuts into her time, Ochoa continues to develop her 5-foot, 6-inch frame. When her tee time is later, she runs for 30 minutes in the morning. Sometimes she’ll wait until the afternoon and run for up to 40 minutes. She does ab work and stretches daily, and some work with light weights, though she admits the weights are hardest to build a routine with on the road.

“I work really hard in the off-season, December, January, and February,” she says. “I do a lot of exercise for my legs, my shoulders, my arms, my upper body and lower body. The idea is just to maintain what strength you gain in the off-season during the year.”

And she’s not giving up on those off-the-course adventures. Not yet anyway.

“That’s the way I am. That’s what makes me Lorena Ochoa, the whole person, not just the golfer. I enjoy doing all those things very, very much. I think they’re as important as me playing and practicing golf. I do those things to keep my balance in life and be happy.”

As much hard work as Ochoa has put forth, you’d expect her to guard herself, even to tout herself. She doesn’t. Instead, she keeps going back to her family and their place, to her coaches and her teammates at Arizona. And increasingly she keeps referring to Betsy King.

That’s right. When it comes to mentors on Tour, Ochoa the neophyte has chosen perhaps the unlikeliest one of all. Ochoa, the young, Mexican girl of Catholic upbringing has chosen King, the aging American veteran whose Christian testimony has a decidedly evangelical flavor. The average LPGA fan might have trouble relating to Ochoa—her accent is still thick. But they may find it even more difficult to relate to King—her thoughts are still so serious.

Yet when they’re together, it’s Ochoa who’s trying to keep up. “She has so much energy, you can’t imagine,” Ochoa says of King, the two-time U.S. Open champion. “I say, ‘Betsy, you need to rest. You need to calm down.’ She has so much energy, she does so many things.” Of course, that energy is an attraction to Ochoa, the ecothon-er. King has so much to give.

“She talks about her own goals. But it’s more about her attitude, the way she lives everyday,” Ochoa says. “She doesn’t need to talk much. You can learn so much from her from just seeing her each day.”

When Ochoa came to the Tour, she was looking for something around which to anchor her new life. Her Christian background seemed the right something. But she wasn’t sure the Tour Fellowship was for her, fearing they would not welcome a Catholic.

“I found out the Fellowship was non-denominational and we learn about the Bible,” Ochoa explains. “So I started coming and coming.” That’s when King stepped in.

“Betsy has been teaching me so much about how to live a good life, how to be a good example, how to be close to Jesus, how to use your priorities in life, how God is before anything else, and learning about the Bible. She’s teaching me all about the Bible.”

King, now 49, may be in the waning stages of her own Hall of Fame career, but she’s not done yet. She’s got a legacy to leave beyond her victories, a legacy she appears to be writing into the life of a young player possibly headed for a Hall of Fame career herself.

All this input hasn’t been lost on Ochoa. “Betsy’s making at least these first couple of years so much easier and so much fun. I’m enjoying myself so much out here, and I know it’s because of Betsy,” she says.

But Ochoa doesn’t miss that she too has something to give to King. “I think it’s fun for her to have someone who’s younger to give her ideas about ways to have fun and keep her happy,” Ochoa says of her role in this friendship.

And then, too, there was that other gift she was so happy to give to King, the one that came in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, late in the summer of 2004. That’s when Ochoa headed to the Wachovia LPGA Classic, a tournament long hosted by King in her home state, but a tournament that may close with King’s career.

When she left home in Mexico to head to the Wachovia, Ochoa boldly told her family: “I’m going to win this tournament for Betsy, so she will remember me—better, so she can’t forget me!

“The win was not to be an easy one, however, not like her first win, when she led throughout the weekend. This time, she would have to come from behind. Birdies at the fifteenth and sixteenth on Sunday afternoon put her in front, though, and she sealed the two-shot win over Grace Park with a three-foot birdie putt at the last. She came home in 4-under 32, overcame a five-shot deficit, and hoisted the trophy.

“When you play with a little more desire, or a little more excitement, or a little more motivator, or more focus, when you really want to do something with your heart, you just do it,” Ochoa says, then adds the obvious: “That was a special win for me.”

Chances are, it’s also one of many to come.

Ochoa isn’t shy about her goals. She wants to be Number 1 on Tour—”I know it is something very hard to achieve.” She knows it won’t come easily—”I will need to practice hard, but I am willing to do that.” And she’s willing to wait—”I’m doing that for two, three, four, five years, who knows?”

In 2005, the LPGA Tour comes to Mexico, something Ochoa calls “a dream come true.” The Mexican fans love her now. When she comes to Mexico, she knows they are “going to be crazy.”

But from the beginning, Ochoa has more than golf in mind. She keeps looking for the balance that will make her a complete person. She does that by keeping golf in place, behind God, family and friends.

“I know in my heart,” she says, “that God knows everything I do, I do for Him.”

COPYRIGHT 2005 LINKS PLAYERS INTERNATIONAL

  • Lorena Ochoa

    26 LPGA Tour Wins (two majors): 2004 Franklin American Mortgage Championship, 2004 Wachovia LPGA Classic, 2005 Wegmans Rochester LPGA, 2006 LPGA Takefuji Classic, 2006 Sybase Classic, 2006 Wendy’s Championship for Children, 2006 Corona Morelia Championship, 2006 Samsung World Championship, 2006 Mitchell Company Tournament of Champions, 2007 Safeway International, 2007 Sybase Classic, 2007 Wegmans LPGA, 2007 Ricoh British Women’s Open, 2007 CN Canadian Women’s Open, 2007 Safeway Classic, 2007 Samsung World Championship, 2007 ADT Championship, 2008 HSBC Women’s Champions, 2008 Safeway International, 2008 Kraft Nabisco Championship, 2008 Corona Championship, 2008 Ginn Open, 2008 Sybase Classic, 2008 Navistar LPGA Classic, 2009 Honda LPGA Thailand, 2009 Corona Championship, 2009 Navistar LPGA Classic

    Awards: 2003 Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year; 2006, 2007 LPGA Player of the Year; 2006, 2007 Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year