Mexican swing

Mexico's Lorena Ochoa, the No. 1 player in the world, inspires girls to take up golf in a nation of soccer fanatics.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Taxi drivers pronounce her name with pride. "Lorena Ochoa," they say. "The golfer." Mechanics do the same, as do line cooks and multitudes of Mexicans who have no clue what the 25-year-old does out on the course – let alone how to hit a wedge – but do know that one of their own in April became the top-ranked women's player in the world.

Yet within the "Lorena Ochoa" mania that is playing out on assembly lines and taxi stands, on billboards and front pages, perhaps those most encouraged by Ochoa are little girls like Valeria Gonzalez, age 9. She shuffles her feet into position before lifting her club for an approach shot to the green on a recent afternoon. The ball veers to the right. She looks back to see if anyone is watching.

"I want to be just like her," says Valeria, before running off to hit 300 more balls during an hour-long class in Guadalajara, Ochoa's hometown and the site of a golf academy that she opened in November to impart the sport to more Mexicans.

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In a country seemingly obsessed with soccer, where golf has been a privilege of the prosperous, Ochoa is inspiring a new generation of players. Many of them have ponytails hanging out of caps signed by Ochoa, girls who were barely visible on courses just a few years ago.

"Five years ago golf didn't even exist here," says Kalle Granada, one of Ochoa's oldest friends and the director of her golf academy here, where half the students are female. "Now there is a public space for it, especially for girls. I credit 90 percent of that to Lorena."

Golf is, of course, still barely visible in Mexico. While the US boasts 28 million to 30 million golfers, Mexico has just 70,000, according to Chuck Kinder, publisher of Best's Golf Guide to Mexico. The US has 16,000 golf courses. Mr. Kinder counts just 190 in Mexico. None is public.

"If Lorena Ochoa didn't exist, no one but the rich would know what golf was today," says Miguel Angel Ortega, a taxi driver in Guadalajara. "No one in my neighborhood has ever played."

It is men like Mr. Ortega, fueled by national pride and a 5-foot, 6-inch budding links legend, who are giving golf a new face in Mexico. Pablo Garza, a golf writer at the newspaper El Norte in Monterrey, says that the rise of Ochoa, who this week is trying to capture her first "major" on the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) tour, has changed the attendance at local tournaments. "Golf is taken more seriously among Mexican fans," he says. "It's not just LPGA tournaments, either. It's all kinds of tournaments."

But even more impressive are the changing demographics of the game. On a recent Saturday, a group of 89 Mexican children vied for spots in the Junior World Golf Championships to be held in San Diego in July. Andres Castellanos, who teaches five of the youths, says that when he started the job six years ago, maybe three girls participated per tournament. Now dozens do.

Take Evelyn Arguelles, 9. Her dad once showed her who Ochoa was on television, and she met the star at a Mexico City tournament earlier this year. She speaks softly, looking up shyly, but her goals are ambitious: "I want to be No. 1 someday."

It's a far different environment than the one Ochoa started in as a child 20 years ago. Even though she was winning championship after championship, the members of the Guadalajara Country Club, where she began playing at age 5, would say, "Oh, that cute little girl," says Mr. Castellanos. "They didn't realize how big she was."

Now everyone recognizes her stature, and the golf world here is trying to capitalize on it. The Mexican Federation of Golf, with 20,000 members, is looking for land to build the nation's first public course. The group's membership has been growing by about 10 percent a year, with many of the newcomers children.

In Guadalajara, students now have the option of taking classes at Ochoa's academy without needing to belong to a country club. They pay about $95 for eight hours of instruction a month. Currently, 100 young students and 40 adults are enrolled, half of them women.

It is far from fancy. Dirt patches dimple the practice area. The driving range is only 130 yards long, and the putting green is bordered by a lone sand trap. But it's an option that didn't exist before.

Valeria's mother gazes at her young daughter, dressed in tennis shoes, jeans, and a pink T-shirt, as she retrieves balls. "She wants to be just like Lorena," says Liliana Contreras. "She is a woman, and Mexican. It's something real."

Valeria, like almost every girl golfer in Mexico, has met Ochoa. Last month, the LPGA star attended an event in Morelia, in Michoacán. She was supposed to have lunch with the "big guys" at the golf club, recounts Jose De La Puente of the Mexican Federation of Golf. Instead, she opted to eat tacos with the girls, talking about movies and flop shots for two hours.

It's the kind of gesture that has made Ochoa an icon here and a major draw among Mexicans in the US, who flock to courses from California to Florida to follow her on tour. They carry flags in the gallery and scream "Viva Mexico!"

After tournaments, Ochoa almost always sits down with golf-course maintenance workers, many of them Mexicans who migrated to the US for jobs. Even if she's had a bad game, she'll usually sign autographs and answer questions for an hour. "She does not act like a star," says Mr. Garza, the journalist.

Ochoa, in fact, is quiet, almost timid. In that way, she's the antithesis of the last great golfer to capture the Mexican imagination, Lee Trevino, the gregarious Mexican-American.

Yet her humility is what endears her to Mexicans, who, like Americans, have become accustomed to indifference and arrogance from many celebrity athletes. Mr. Granada attributes much of Ochoa's groundedness to her Catholic background and family values. She maintains a close-knit group of friends. When she is home in Guadalajara, no matter what her practice regimen or personal schedule, she'll always be home at 2 p.m. to eat with her family and follow the unwritten dinner-table rule.

"We don't talk about golf – ever," says Alejandro Ochoa, her brother and manager.

Ochoa is, by all accounts, tough. She grew up in a family of athletes. Alejandro, for one, reached the summit of Mount Everest the day Ochoa won her first LPGA tournament in 2004.

Like many young stars, the reserved golfer has found the rise to national symbol rewarding but daunting. According to her brother, she has had to change her social life. She's now mobbed even when attending a movie in Mexico. "Water-skiing is the way she gets away from it all," says Alejandro.

Last year, Ochoa won six events. She's won two so far this year. Starting Thursday, the world's No. 1 will take aim at the ultimate measure of golfing greatness – how many "majors" she can win – when she tries for her first at the McDonald's LPGA Championship.

Back home, a nation will be watching – including a girl named Valeria.

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