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