2006: Ochoa relishes success

"Hello.” It’s the way Lorena Ochoa begins every news conference. Sometimes she even throws in a little wave to unsuspecting reporters. It doesn’t sound like such an extraordinary gesture, but the truth is most players skip the salutations and go straight to the questions.

Not Lorena. It’s amazing how one little word can set the tone for an interview. It’s as if she’s saying, “I’m not viewing this exercise as a chore. Let’s talk.”

In a time when so many of golf’s superstars are weary of all that accompanies fame, Ochoa is a refreshing alternative. She relishes the spotlight but isn’t defined by it. She is as humble as she is fierce. One would be hard-pressed to walk up and down the range or alongside the gallery ropes and hear one bad word spoken about Ochoa. Which is why so many players, fans and insiders were pleased to see good things happen this year to one of Mexico’s finest.

Ochoa clinched Player of the Year honors when she notched her sixth victory of the season at last month’s Tournament of Champions. She closed the season atop the money list with $2,592,872, the second-highest single season mark in tour history (behind only Annika Sorenstam’s $2,863,904 in 2002). Ochoa also captured the Vare Trophy for lowest scoring average (69.24). Her consistency led to 20 top-10 finishes in 25 events and 62 of 89 rounds under par.

“I always knew I could do it and believed in myself,” said Ochoa. “Now it’s more that the other players – Annika, Karrie and Cristie – they know that I’m a tough player to beat. That made a big difference.”

It wasn’t merely players Ochoa worked hard to convince. Members of the Mexican media had grown accustomed to watching the Guadalajara native win in bunches at every level. The fact that she’d won a mere three events in three years on the LPGA simply wasn’t good enough.

“When you get a second place here on tour, it’s really tough, it’s really, really good,” said Ochoa. “(The Mexican media) doesn’t understand how hard it is to be out here and how hard the competition is to be the top three in the world. But we’ve been very patient. I will never get mad at them. I will always try to help them.”

Ochoa had plenty of runner-up finishes to explain at the start of the season – five in her first nine events, to be exact. She then took some of the pressure off with victories at the LPGA Takefuji Classic, Sybase Classic and Wendy’s Championship for Children.

But it was a title on her home soil that took this extreme-sports lover to new heights in her compatriots’ eyes. Pro golf tournaments in Mexico typically draw 4,000-5,000 fans per day. On an early October Sunday in Morelia, however, 13,000 came out to support Ochoa, many of them teenagers and children.

“I told her she looked different from the rest of the year,” said longtime instructor Rafael Alarcon of Ochoa’s Morelia performance. “I saw something about the way she was controlling the ball, the trajectory of the shots.”

The pair work together on a regular basis at Guadalajara Country Club when Ochoa is in town. They keep going back to her swing plane, making sure to eliminate extra motion and keep her from taking the club back too far behind the hips. But make no mistake, Ochoa’s game is all about rhythm and tempo. She’s a feel player.

To see her swing come together in the midst of a pressure-packed finale in Morelia was about as good as it gets for Alarcon. Ochoa compared the magnitude of the victory to a U.S. Women’s Open.

A week later at Samsung, after trailing Sorenstam by three shots entering the final round, Ochoa stared down the World No. 1 and posted a 7-under 65 to win by two strokes. Ochoa later called it her “biggest 18 holes of golf.”

Ochoa’s older brother and manager, Alejandro, says his kid sister is “always fighting, fighting, fighting.” He should know. As a child Lorena broke both wrists after falling from a tree house and grew up to climb mountains.

Her caddie, Dave Brooker, has yet to see her take her foot off the gas pedal.

“It’s the only way she knows how to play, being aggressive,” said Brooker.

She has the weight of a country on her shoulders – great expectations from loved ones and complete strangers – and it’s easy to forget that Ochoa is only 25.

Last year, Alejandro said, his sister paid more attention than usual during business hours to things like family, romantic ties and friends.

Ochoa broke things off with her longtime boyfriend soon after winning the Samsung and still was able to close out the year with a 1-2 finish.

“This year she learned to give everything its right moment,” said Alejandro.

Ochoa was in Guadalajara the week before the ADT Championship for the opening of her first golf academy at the city’s first public practice range. Ochoa and Alarcon worked together

to write the instruction manual used by each teaching professional. Her foundation will pay for lessons and range balls for Mexico’s underprivileged youth.

“We are going to use everything Lorena and I have been able to put together as a model for the game,” Alarcon said. “It’s a dream that we’ve always had.”

As more public ranges begin to pop up across Mexico, each will house an Ochoa Golf Academy by Rafael Alarcon. Plans call for seven to be opened by the end of 2007.

Ochoa isn’t waiting on her golden years to find time to give back. It’s part of what sets her apart from many other professional athletes. Like the time she signed autographs for 21⁄2 hours after a round in Morelia. Or the fact that she drops by the maintenance shed at every tour stop to thank Mexican workers for their hard work and support.

She isn’t flashy or crass. Her style is classic and simple. And her smile translates in every language.

After the third round of the ADT Championship, with Ochoa having safely qualified for the final round, a quartet of sombrero-wearing musicians stood on the patio of Trump International and played the “Mexican Hat Dance.” One can only assume tournament organizers ordered up the sombreros to celebrate Ochoa’s breakout season.

She didn’t win the record $1 million payout on Sunday, but she walked off the 18th green amid a flurry of chants and cheers.

She had them at hello.

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