By JAY A. COFFIN
Mexico, Brazil, and Paraguay are Latin American countries that produce a variety of exports, but star golfers aren’t high on the list.
There are exceptions, however. Three of them are named Lorena Ochoa, Candy Hannemann and Celeste Troche – the best in women’s college golf.
Ochoa, a 19-year-old University of Arizona sophomore from Guadalajara, Mexico, enters the season ranked No. 1 by Golfweek. Closely pursuing will be Hannemann, a 21-year-old Duke senior and returning NCAA individual champion from Rio de Janeiro, and Troche, a 20-year-old junior at Auburn from Asuncion, Paraguay. Hannemann and Troche begin the season ranked Nos. 2 and 3, respectively.
“It’s amazing that they’ve been able to adapt to America and at the same time do what they need to do on the golf course,” Arizona coach Greg Allen said. “It also shows the popularity of golf all over the world.”
As a freshman, Ochoa finished in the top 3 in nine of 10 events, including four victories and four runners-up. Her stroke average was 71.33 in 30 rounds. At the NCAA Division I Women’s Championship in May, Ochoa lost to Hannemann in a one-hole playoff.
“To do what she did last year, knowing what she had to overcome with how hard she worked on her English, amazes me,” Allen said. “As long as she’s in the lineup we always have a chance to win, and the four other players know that. She’s a special player and a special person.”
Hannemann won twice last year, had seven top-5 finishes and a stroke average of 72.88.
“Across the board as far as her development as a player and growth as a person, I’m very proud of Candy,” Duke coach Dan Brooks said. “She didn’t play well at times her sophomore season, but a champion is someone who can learn from the tough times, and I think she came back a better leader and a better player last year.”
Troche had two victories last season and finished in the top-10 in all but one of her 11 events, averaging 72.45 strokes in 33 rounds.
So what is it that makes these three the ones to beat? The overwhelming response is motivation and determination.
“You do well in your country, then you want to come over here and do well,” Hannemann said. “I think we appreciate it a lot more. I don’t think you take things for granted.”
Troche said she often thinks about Paraguay’s economic and political woes and treats every day in the United States as a gift.
“It was so hard to play there because we didn’t have anyone to play with or good golf courses,” Troche said. “When I came here I saw how many things you have, and I wanted to take advantage of it. It’s like every day was Christmas.”
Ochoa realized early that to succeed in golf she would likely have to move to the United States.
“I think in Mexico I have no chance or opportunities to succeed or be someone in golf or any sport,” she said. “We don’t have the support from the government or from the people, so if you want to do something good you have to come to the United States. I think we appreciate it more than other people do.”
Ochoa comes from a city of nearly 8 million people and only six golf courses. Still she began playing golf at age 5 when her father, Javier, asked her to join him on his Sunday outings. She was quickly hooked, and won her first state tournament at 6, national tournament at 7 and international tournament at 8.
The international tournament was the Junior World at Torrey Pines in San Diego, which she won five consecutive times. Her success in that event made it easier to get invitations into more junior events in the United States.
Ochoa was home-schooled during high school because she said her teachers in Mexico did not look highly upon students who missed class to seek athletic opportunities. Studying at home allowed her to graduate a year early at 17 and get a jump-start on planning her college career.
Originally, Ochoa planned to attend Texas A&M but scored poorly on her first attempt at the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). She then decided to take the extra year and improve her English as she prepared to retake the SAT. During that year, Ochoa was offered a scholarship to Arizona and she accepted because it was closer to Mexico and relatives who live near the border.
“When I came here I was mentally prepared,” Ochoa said. “I knew that it was going to be very hard mostly because of my English, because I couldn’t speak very well. Now, my English is getting better and my grades are good. I am most happy because I played very good golf and had a great year.”
Troche began playing at 8 after her father, Hugo, incurred a karate injury and turned to golf for therapy. Paraguay has only three courses and approximately 600 golfers, so Troche wasn’t exactly keen on the sport. Once her father allowed her to graduate from the practice range to the course she changed her mind.
Like Ochoa, Troche came to the United States each summer to participate in junior tournaments until she moved full time to Lanett, Ala., as a senior in high school to live with her aunt and uncle.
“It was hard to leave home because South American families are really close,” Troche said. “You don’t leave home until you’re married pretty much. It’s not like here, where you leave to go to college. But I knew I had to be here in order to choose more what I want to do.”
In 1999, Troche committed to Vanderbilt, but she had a change of heart in June and switched to Auburn. This year, the Tigers return every starter from a team that finished fourth at the NCAA Championship.
“I just want to win nationals with my team,” she said. “We were so close this year, and it really hurt when we didn’t do it. That’s my main goal, get ready this whole year for nationals.”
Hannemann’s story is quite similar. Growing up in a city of 5.5 million and six courses, she began playing at 9 after stints at tennis and gymnastics.
Two years later, she started traveling to the United States to play junior tournaments, focusing on the Junior Orange Bowl and Doral Publix Junior held in the Miami-area during Christmas.
In 1997, Hannemann moved to Bradenton, Fla., to attend the Leadbetter Academy but decided the program wasn’t for her. She moved to Hilton Head Island, S.C., in February 1998 to work with a new coach before choosing a college.
“I wasn’t even considering Duke when I first started,” she said. “I had five schools picked to go visit and Duke wasn’t one of them.”
On the day she canceled a visit to tour Arizona’s campus, friend and future teammate Beth Bauer called and talked her into a trip to Duke. She liked what she found in Durham, N.C., became a Blue Devil, and her choice has worked out well. Duke won the NCAA Championship in Hannemann’s freshman year, when she finished second to individual champion Grace Park of Arizona State by a shot.
Ochoa, Troche and Hannemann. Three players who were so driven by their desires to succeed that they left their homelands and families to come to America. There are sacrifices; Hannemann said she sees her family once a year. Here, though, they found what they were seeking, and now they enter a new college season as the premier players in college golf.
“I’m pretty good friends with both of them, and I just think we’re really good competitors,” Hannemann said. “I think if we would’ve played tennis instead of golf, we would’ve been good.”
Hannemann said it in a way in which she wasn’t bragging, but simply making a statement about the Big Three’s collective heart. “We just really like to compete and it just so happens that we all choose golf,” she said. “We’ve learned to play in places that are not that great, conditions that are not that great. I don’t think it’s only the fact that we come from different countries, but we also have some qualities in common.”
Determination would be high on the list. From improbable origins, these three Latin American players have risen to the top of women’s college golf. And considering their road is one less traveled, the view from the top is all the more enjoyable.