Ochoa’s real legacy? Inspiring Mexico’s kids

Lorena Ochoa photographed in Guadalajara, Mexico, in 2008.

This story appeared in the Feb. 9, 2008 issue of Golfweek

• • •

GUADALAJARA, Mexico – It’s midmorning at La Barranca School, and a boisterous group of first-graders is putting on a private concert. They’re naming parts of the body, shaking, pointing and giggling their way through the lesson.

“Do you know who Lorena Ochoa is?” the children are asked in Spanish by a translator accompanying a reporter and photographer.

“Siiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii.”

Maria Elizabeth Espadas Reina, an outgoing 6-year-old in the front row, raises her hand, asking to send Ochoa a message.

“She wants Lorena to teach her to golf and to read,” said Carmen Bolio Barajas, the newly named director of the Lorena Ochoa Foundation, which fully funds the school. Succinctly, the little girl has unwittingly summed up Ochoa’s mission in life.

“Everybody that has been successful understands that giving back is better than winning a tournament,” said Ochoa’s longtime instructor, Rafael Alarcón. “I think Lorena is at that stage now.”

• • •

To understand how one of Mexico’s finest athletes climbed to No. 1 in her sport, you have to understand what fills her heart. Her God. Her family. Her friends. The faces of La Barranca. And, yes, the joy that comes from winning golf championships.

“I want to be remembered for the things I did outside the golf course,” said Ochoa, sitting in a golf cart at her home course, Guadalajara Country Club. “Not for winning tournaments. That’s very clear to me.”

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Nayelli Jazmin Gonzalez Gutierrez, 8, sports a Ochoa Golf Academy hat while practicing at the La Barranca School.

Don’t misunderstand: Collecting trophies, particularly majors, is important to Ochoa. But the 26-year-old can’t make that happen unless she’s also spending time with loved ones and spreading love to those less fortunate.

“To me, the perfect day would be to go be with the kids and see them happy and smiling and playing,” said Ochoa, who likes to drop by La Barranca unannounced for a game of basketball during recess. “If I don’t spend time with my family, if I’m not happy doing the things that make me full, it would be impossible to play good.”

Situated in the impoverished outskirts of Guadalajara, La Barranca is an oasis of joy. The rocky road that leads to its doors is littered with jaw-dropping images of a poverty-stricken Mexico. It’s difficult to tell whether the beige, brick-and-stucco structures lining the streets have been abandoned or house generations of Mexicans. Many of the residents lucky enough to have jobs live on the equivalent of $5 per day. For 9-year-old Athziri Belén Cornejo Miranda, breakfast at La Barranca is a feast.

Ochoa struggled for years to decide what focus her charity should take. She prayed and consulted priests, nuns and close friends to find a project that would make an extraordinary impact. About 2,000 Mexicans drop out of school every day, according to government statistics, and only 31.6 percent of the population completes primary school. Nearly 1 in 10 Mexicans is illiterate. For Ochoa, education seemed a logical place to start.

La Barranca – which means “the ravine” – sits on the edge of a breathtaking canyon. An enclosed statue of the Virgin Mary anchors the middle of campus, and panoramic vistas offer unending inspiration. The curriculum offered to 252 students in grades 1 through 6 differs from traditional public schools by using music, theater and hands-on projects as its main tools.

“We always said we wished we had that type of education when we learned. I hated school,” Ochoa said with a laugh. “The way they learn is amazing.”

This fall, Ochoa’s foundation hopes to break ground on a high school adjacent to the elementary school.

Parental involvement at La Barranca is mandatory. Mothers volunteer in the school kitchen and take sewing and computer classes at night. In Miguel Angel Zepeda’s classroom, fathers are required to sign off on homework, and the children are instructed to shower their parents with hugs and kisses each afternoon.

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La Barranca teacher Miguel Angel Zepeda with La Barranca School students.

Most of the kids at La Barranca walk to school. Because many of them deal with situations of violence and alcoholism at home, each classroom is equipped with a male and a female teacher. It’s not unusual for the government to send troubled children to La Barranca, in the hope that its alternative system will make a difference.

Growing up, Ochoa attended private Roman Catholic schools. On weekends her classes would go to poorer sections of town to hand out food and teach people to pray. A group of 10 girls also took mission trips to the mountains each year to paint churches and play soccer. Ochoa came to the LPGA with a giving spirit, which only has been enhanced by her rise to the top.

• • •

Much of what keeps Ochoa balanced on tour is her time spent with the Women’s Professional Golf Fellowship. The group meets on Tuesdays during the season, and Ochoa considers it an important part of her weekly preparation.

“They don’t care if you are winning tournaments and in the No. 1 position or if you are missing cuts,” Ochoa said. “We become the same and just talk and relax.”

Cris Stevens has led Fellowship on tour for 25 years. She has seen plenty of players pick Ochoa’s brain, as much for her unshakable character as her position in the game.

“She’s the same privately as she is publicly, which is a great feat for someone in her position,” said Stevens, whom Ochoa refers to as a second mom.

Ochoa concedes that life on tour can be full of loneliness and jealousy. That’s why the support she receives at Fellowship each week is so important. Any time a Fellowship player wins on tour, Stevens buys a cake. “There were quite a few cakes this year,” Brittany Lincicome said with a laugh, referring to Ochoa’s eight titles. “That’s probably why I gained 10 pounds.”

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Alejandro Delgado works with student Alan Alonso Ascencio, 10, at Lorena Ochoa's Golf Academy in Guadalajara, Mexico.

In her five years on tour, Ochoa has found several churches she looks forward to attending and “gets mad” when she misses Mass. Self-discipline, whether it’s in her walk with God or time spent on the range, is a trait that leads to excellence in nearly every area of Ochoa’s life.

Her caddie, David Brooker, is amazed by Ochoa’s constant energy level. He said her outlook is the same at the start of every event: “I really feel good about this week.”

“She’s able to manage things mentally so well,” Brooker said. “Every Tuesday, it’s like she’s had two weeks off.”

Before Ochoa set out looking for ways to improve upon an eight-win season that ended with Player of the Year honors for the second consecutive year, she took a month off.

First she went to Vail, Colo., with 10 girlfriends for 10 days of snow skiing. Then she went to her beach house for 20 days and put her skis in the water. She went on a strict diet, ran in the mornings, lifted weights and practiced yoga. She didn’t hit balls but did work on swing drills to start grooving muscle memory.

For the past two offseasons, the ultra-thin Ochoa has cut sugar and drastically reduced fat in her diet from December to February. Her body fat has decreased from 22 percent to 18 percent, and she remains a rock-solid 130 pounds.

Ochoa won’t start her season until later this month, skipping the first two events in Hawaii and catching up when the tour heads to Singapore for the HSBC Women’s Champions. Last year, Ochoa played in 25 events with 21 top 10s and a record $4,364,944. At times she seemed both tireless and unstoppable.

But Alarcón, a former PGA Tour player, worried Ochoa wasn’t getting enough R&R. So they decided to trim her 2008 schedule to 22 or 23 events, giving her at least two extra weeks to re-energize. Ochoa also hopes to carry that mind-set on the road, remembering to put herself first from time to time.

“I have a goal this year to have a couple hours of free time for me,” Ochoa said. “If I want to go the movies or read a book or lie down, usually I’m just running around all day. I’m going to take care of myself better and enjoy more.”

• • •

When Ochoa sets out to improve areas of her game, she’s essentially driving toward perfection. The 2007 leading money winner – the first women’s player in history to reach $4 million in earnings – has topped the tour in many statistical categories, including greens in regulation, rounds under par, scoring average and top-10 finishes. Alarcon aims to improve Ochoa’s short game from 100 yards and in, specifically distance control with her wedges and putting.

The only thing missing from last year’s dominating season was the presence of a healthy Annika Sorenstam. Like many fans, Ochoa wants to see how she fares against one of the game’s greats in ’08.

“Annika is coming back strong, and she’s ready to win. I respect that very much,” Ochoa said. “But I’m prepared, and I’m going to stay on top.”

• • •

Ochoa has added motivation this season as the tour comes to her beloved Guadalajara Country Club on Nov. 13-16 for the inaugural Lorena Ochoa Invitational.

“I was not 100 percent happy with the tournaments in Mexico City and Morelia,” Ochoa said. “I was missing something. What I needed was to come here where everything started, to be able to play here for my gallery and my people.”

Ochoa grew up in a house that opens into the club’s swimming pool. Her father, Javier, is a retired real-estate developer, and her mother, Marcela, is an artist. As a child, she played in the bunkers in her school skirts, fished in the lake on the 11th hole with her brothers and jumped off bridges barefoot into streams with girlfriends. She won her first tournament at Guadalajara at age 6 and quickly fell in love with her playground, which doubled as a golf course.

“We were members of the country club, and that was amazing, a blessing,” Ochoa said. “We always struggled to pay for the fees, but my dad always made it, with my mom’s help.”

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Ochoa knows the vast majority of Mexicans never glimpses the inside of a private country club, let alone belongs to one. One year ago, Alarcón and Ochoa opened their first golf academy, attaching it to the city’s first public driving range. For now, Alarcón does most of the work developing the academies’ programs and planning for expansion. He estimates the game is growing by at least 10 percent annually in Mexico and credits much of that to Ochoa’s success.

Last November, the Reforma Media Group conducted a national poll to determine the 2007 Mexican of the Year. Ochoa won with 19 percent of the vote, followed by Mexican President Felipe Calderón (11 percent) and Carlos Slim (2 percent), one of the world’s richest men according to Forbes magazine.

Along with Ochoa’s rising fame, however, comes unwanted change. In Mexico City, she can’t go anywhere without security. Even in Guadalajara, a sprawling metropolitan area of 7 million, Ochoa takes a driver when venturing beyond a three-block radius in the financial district.

But Ochoa won’t let anything keep her from maintaining a sense of normalcy when it comes to relationships – friends or otherwise. She ended a one-year romantic relationship in November 2006 and was a single girl on tour last year. Ochoa always has said she will put away the clubs when it’s time to start a family.

“I don’t have my life planned. I just know that I’m not going to play golf forever,” Ochoa said. “It could be three years; it could be seven years. . . . Hopefully, God has a good plan for me.”

The students at La Barranca certainly seem like a good start.

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