Mexican women seize the sports limelight

Golfer Lorena Ochoa is one of three new female Mexican sports idols

Forget Annika Sorenstam. Mexico has its own "Tigresa Woods."

Lorena Ochoa, the hotshot Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) rookie whose golfing record is topped only by her taste for adventure, has enraptured this nation of 100 million, even though only some 18,000 people here have ever picked up a golf club.

But Mexico's Golf Association for Women says its phone has been ringing off the hook since Ms. Ochoa hit the pro circuit last year, with parents calling to find out where their daughters can take golf lessons. "This is entirely because of her influence," says association president Sonia de Feher. "She is opening the doors for young female golfers here and female athletes in general."

In a macho culture where most prominent athletes are male, and the majority play soccer, Ochoa's sudden rise to fame is extraordinary.

What's more, she's not alone. There's track star Anna Guevera, who recently broke the world record in the 300-meter sprint; songs have been written about her speed and grace. And there's weightlifter Soraya Jimenez, who scored a huge upset in the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, winning Mexico its first-ever gold medal in the 127-1/2-pound lift.

In a country where busty bombshells have long been the main female images on ad campaigns, three strong, competitive women have become national heroes. Now Ochoa, Ms. Guevera, and Ms. Jimenez are featured in campaigns for companies ranging from Audi to Aeromexico, selling everything from Nikes to Wonder Bread.

"Outside [soccer], it was always very hard for an athlete to fill a stadium, especially competing in sports that don't have tremendous interest here," says Ivis López, a sports columnist for the newspaper Reforma. "The fact that these three women aren't the typical female image here - I think that is part of the curiosity. It is something new for us."

Excelling in golf is nothing new for Ochoa. In two years at the University of Arizona, she notched five Junior World titles to her belt, an NCAA record.

After less than a year as a professional golfer, the native Guadalajaran leads the rookie-of-the-year standings, finishing in the top 10 in four of the nine tournaments she has played, and ranking sixth on this year's money list.

When she's not storming the golf course, Ochoa is usually off on another sort of adrenaline-boosting exploit, perhaps climbing one of Mexico's highest volcanoes or running a marathon. Her manager says this kind of work ethic contributes to her drive to succeed.

"She has by far the most star power of anyone I have ever dealt with," says sports agent Rocky Hambric, who has also managed the careers of such golf luminaries as US Open champ Larry Nelson and Phil Mickelson, the world's sixth-ranked male. "I think she is perfectly capable of being the No. 1 player in the world on the ladies' side within the next few years," he says.

In Mexico, it sometimes seems as if she's already No. 1. In 2001, Ochoa became the youngest person and the first golfer to receive the National Sports Award, which is given to the country's best athletes. Since she stormed onto the pro circuit this year, Ochoa's picture has been plastered across newspapers and magazines. She's been featured on all the major TV sports shows.

Ochoa, who lives in Tucson, Ariz., says the public attention back home helps her maintain the drive to win.

"I play for me and I play to win, but it gives me great pleasure to represent Mexico," she says. "It is of great importance to me to be an example for young people of my country."

Chipping away at a macho culture

For all that the three women are doing to redefine roles for Mexican women, sports aficionados here say it will require many more years - and female sports heroes - before longstanding cultural traditions melt away.

"These women are doing a lot to change stereotypes and break down barriers for young girls in general," says Ms. Feher. "But changing our macho culture will take time."

Still, for Ochoa, it represents an important first step.

"I really hope that what we are doing inspires young Mexican girls not be afraid to get involved in sports," she says. "It gives me a lot of pleasure to think we have made a difference."

Ochoa has a grueling schedule of tournaments in the coming months - including the Giant Eagle LPGA Classic in Ohio this weekend - something she says is the hardest part of playing pro golf.

"It is a new life for me - traveling alone all the time, eating in restaurants, playing different courses," she says, adding that she misses her family and Mexico terribly. "But I am very satisfied with my results on the course so far."

She tied for 20th in last week's McDonald's LPGA Championship, one of the tour's major tournaments, which was won by Ms. Sorenstam.

Athletic powerhouse

In October, she looks forward to some downtime, though no one expects her to be sitting in Guadalajara with her feet up.

The 5 ft. 7 in. powerhouse climbed Mexico's Mt. Iztacihuatl (17,324 ft.) when she was only 16, has competed in two triathlons, and had finished a four-day ecothon (mountain biking, trekking, swimming, kayaking, and rappelling) by age 17.

"Our family has always been outdoorsy," says her brother Alejandro, in a mild understatement (he himself plans to climb Mt. Everest next year without oxygen.) "It may not sound like physical rest to some, but for us it is a kind of mental rest."

Ochoa says keeping in good shape helps clear her mind "of negative thoughts and keep focused" on the next goal.

"I expect," jokes her brother, "that it's winning the US Open."

Whatever her next target may be, one thing is clear. There may be few Mexicans who know the difference between a birdie and a bogie, but watching Lorena Ochoa score them has become this country's favorite new sport.

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