Hall of Famer Lorena Ochoa delivers lasting impact in Mexican homeland

Lorena Ochoa Orlando Ramirez/Golfweek

Hall of Famer Lorena Ochoa delivers lasting impact in Mexican homeland

LPGA Tour

Hall of Famer Lorena Ochoa delivers lasting impact in Mexican homeland

MEXICO CITY – World Golf Hall of Famer Lorena Ochoa couldn’t help but yawn in between clicks of the camera. Her 3-year-old daughter, Julia, the middle child who requires great patience, had climbed into Ochoa’s bed at 3 a.m. that morning.

“Mom, it’s already light,” Julia said. “Can I put my princess shoes on?”

Ochoa laughs as she tells the story. Friends and family say the curly-haired Julia looks a lot like her mother at that age. Julia likes to dance and play tennis. Ochoa believes their wiry springer spaniel named Manchas (“Spots” in Spanish) has been good for Julia.

Early Thursday morning Ochoa’s eldest son, Pedro, asked if she was leaving to play in her tournament.

“No, only playing on the weekend,” Ochoa told him, “just for fun. Remember, I don’t play anymore.”

“Why did you retire?” 5-year-old Pedro asked.

“Well, because I wanted to have a family,” the mom replied. “I wanted to have you and your sister.”

Lorena Ochoa

Lorena Ochoa still has plenty of game. (Orlando Ramirez-Golfweek/USA TODAY Sports)

A precious conversation before the start of the first round of the new Lorena Ochoa Match Play tournament. This marked the 10th anniversary of Ochoa’s event in Mexico, and the first time with match play.

Ochoa and brother Alejandro have struggled with her namesake event since she retired, changing sponsors, dates and locations. The 2017 budget couldn’t cover the cost of television.

“We are not going to give up just because it’s difficult,” Ochoa said.

This year’s staging held particular significance for Ochoa.

Late last year she and husband Andres Conesa, CEO of AeroMexico, had put the kids to bed and sat down for dinner when LPGA commissioner Mike Whan called. Ochoa assumed it was something about her event.

Her call to the Hall

“Lorena, are you sitting?” Whan began.

Ochoa had come up short of the 10-year playing requirement to make the LPGA Hall of Fame to start a family and essentially put the dream out of her mind.

“I just gave up that,” she said.

When the World Golf Hall of Fame came calling (or Whan, in this case), she was floored.

“It feels like a surprise, a present,” she said.

Conesa first took Ochoa to the World Golf Hall of Fame in St. Augustine, Fla., back in 2008 when they were dating. Ochoa, then at the height of her career, put on a wig and sunglasses so that she could wander around unnoticed.

It didn’t last.

Someone recognized the World No. 1, and she was soon looking at the vast collection of winning scorecards from her LPGA career to date.

“She told me ‘One day I’m going to be in here, and I’m going to share it with my children,’ ” Conesa said.

That day has come.

In March, Ochoa returned to the museum for a second time with her fellow inductees Meg Mallon, Davis Love III and Ian Woosnam.

“When you go into the museum and walk around and see all those names, it really puts it in perspective,” Ochoa said. “Wow, what I did was important.”

Things got really emotional when the gathering moved outside for Ochoa, the first inductee from Mexico, to raise her country’s flag.

A video of the ceremony quickly went viral back home. Ochoa’s parents called, gutted they weren’t invited. Many in Mexico thought that was the actual induction.

“I’m crying at my house on my own!” Ochoa’s father told her.

The main event, scheduled for Sept. 26, will be in New York in conjunction with the Presidents Cup. Ochoa was allotted 50 tickets, but put in a request for 80 with World Golf Hall of Fame and Museum president Jack Peter.

“I kept telling him, ‘Remember at Nabisco?’ ” said Ochoa, who won 27 times on the LPGA, including two majors. “There were a lot of Mexicans who jumped in the lake. We need a lot more tickets.”

Time to build a legacy

It was during a vacation on the beach around Christmas last winter that Ochoa and brother Alejandro began brainstorming something special for her event.

When the idea came to invite three World Golf Hall of Famers – Annika Sorenstam, Juli Inkster and Se Ri Pak – to participate in a celebratory exhibition, Ochoa got so excited she immediately pulled out her iPhone and started composing a letter.

The three legends immediately accepted her invitation.

Mexican fans came out in droves to see Ochoa dazzle once more.

The 35-year-old only began practicing several weeks before the event, but many marveled that nothing had changed.

Even her clubs stayed the same; she only changed grips. It was vintage Ochoa on the first tee, from the sign of the cross, to the kiss of the thumb, to the double-pump at the finish.

Lorena Ochoa-Annika Sorenstam-Julie Inkster-se ri pak

(From left) Annika Sorenstam, Se Ri Pak, Juli Inkster and Lorena Ochoa share a laugh this past weekend before in Mexico City. (Orlando Ramirez-Golfweek/USA TODAY Sports)

Only one thing changed: Ochoa raced over after picking up her tee to embrace two of her children.

The youngest of the three, Diego, was asleep in a baby carriage. It was a poignant moment, a reminder of why she left the tour.

Ochoa hosted a press conference and cocktail reception for her esteemed guests on the eve of the exhibition.

She showed a video of La Barranca, a special school that sits on the impoverished outskirts of her hometown, Guadalajara. It takes 9 million pesos a year to fund the school, which has educated and inspired 4,000 children.

There were lean years at La Barranca after Ochoa retired and became less active. But not anymore. Now there’s a lush organic garden, a new kitchen and a music program supported by renowned Mexican pianist Jorge Viladoms.

“We just improve things for them instead of surviving,” Ochoa said. “Now we really are on top of every detail.”

Ochoa long has believed God gave her the ability to play golf at a world-class level so she could do his work through her foundation. She dreams of opening another school in Mexico City.

She is gone from the tour, but the hard work never finishes.

“That’s where I think she has really built her legacy,” said a heartfelt Sorenstam, “to impact these kids to have a future. It’s great to hit long drives and make putts, but when you see these kids smile, to me, that gives me goosebumps.”

(Note: This story appeared in the May 8, 2017 issue of Golfweek.)

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