Golf star Lorena Ochoa swings strong in face of Mexico drug war

Lorena Ochoa teed off in her first PGA Tour event since retiring nearly a year ago, her star power lending a needed boost to sports events in violence-wracked Mexico.

Tami Chappell/Reuters/File
Lorena Ochoa of Mexico hits off the eighth tee during the second round of the Ginn Tribute golf tournament in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, in this June 1, 2007 file photo.

Nearly a year after retiring as the most celebrated golfer in Mexican history, Lorena Ochoa teed off Wednesday in her first Mayakoba Golf Classic, her star power lending a needed boost to sports events in violence-wracked Mexico.

Hailing from a country where golfers, especially women, were invisible next to soccer icons, the four-time LPGA Player of the Year became the first Mexican golfer to rank No. 1 in the world – and she kept that ranking for three consecutive years while also winning over Mexican fans with her unassuming manner and charity work.

Her tireless promotion of golf in Mexico now has an added advantage: Ms. Ochoa’s participation in Mexico’s only PGA Tour event “provides us with a very powerful tool to show the sense of safety that we have in Cancún,” says Jesús Almaguer, CEO of Cancún’s Tourism Promotion Trust, a corporate ally of the Mayakoba Golf Classic held in nearby Playa del Carmen, near Cancún.

The sense of safety that Mr. Almagueris mentions does not exist everywhere. Earlier this month, the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LGPA) dropped April’s Tres María Championship in drug-plagued Morelia, Michoacán, citing the violence there. Shortly thereafter the United States issued a travel alert for Guadalajara, the city hosting LGPA’s Lorena Ochoa Invitational in November. Organizers reportedly said they are monitoring the situation but did not cancel the event.

This year Mexico will host more high-profile international games than it has seen in two decades, experts in the field say, even as drug-related violence spreads to major cities where the events will take place. Ochoa’s presence this week was seen by some as a promotion of these tournaments just as they come under scrutiny about security concerns related to the violent drug war.

Security scrutinized ahead of Pan Am Games

In October, more than 40 countries from across the Americas will send some 6,500 athletes to Mexico’s second city, Guadalajara, for the Pan American Games. Security has become a hot topic after criminal groups blocked major streets by forcefully commandeering buses and trucks and setting them on fire in early February and later lobbed a grenade at a night club, killing six people.

In reaction, the US Consulate General in Guadalajara prohibited US officials from traveling after dark between the city and its international airport and recommended that US citizens consider similar precautions.

Organizers of the Pan Am Games, which take place every four years, are taking extensive security precautions, securing the athletes’ village with electrified barriers and video cameras. Federal police will patrol the city, which is reportedly requesting that civil protection personnel participate from other countries.

Sports stars fight bad press from drug war

And just like Ochoa at Mayakoba, celebrities will do their part to promote the Pan Am Games and calm fears, says Hector Lopez Zatarain, a sports marketing consultant working for the Pan Am Games.

Guadalajara’s own Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez of Manchester United and Formula 1 champion Sergio Perez are on the list to campaign for the event. Ochoa, another Guadalajara native, will publicize her upcoming golf tournament, according to Mr. Lopez Zatarain. “They will help to promote the city as a safe city, as a nice place to visit,” he says.

The FIFA Under 17 World Cup will also hold games in Guadalajara, playing in June and July in seven Mexican cities, including troubled Morelia and Monterrey.

Killings during tennis' Mexico Open fuel concerns

All the preparation in the world, however, may do little to calm organizers’ jitters, which were on full display this week at the Mexican Open in Acapulco, the largest tournament in Latin America. The men’s Association of Tennis Professionals, or ATP, warned against traveling outside hotels and players were advised to leave the resort city right after being eliminated, The Associated Press reported.

"We [players] are a bit scared about this and we're trying to decide what to do," said Argentine athlete David Nalbandian.

This past weekend 12 taxi drivers and passengers were gunned down in Acapulco, local media said, just before the tournament opened Monday. Last month 15 headless bodies were scattered outside a mall.

Acapulco spring break reservations have since plummeted to 1,000, down from 9,000 last year, the Mexican daily El Universal reported, saying that other violent beach towns in Sinaloa and Sonora have taken major hits this year.

Calmer resorts like Cancún have not yet witnessed a drop in tourism, says Almaguer, the tourism promoter. And many hope that Ochoa's noted swing at the pro-am portion of the Mayakoba Golf Classic from Feb. 23-27 will help keep tourism strong.

"What she's done for golf in Mexico could never be repeated," golfing great Greg Norman said Tuesday before the tournament began. "She's been a great ambassador for the game of golf. She's represented her country as well as I've seen anybody represent their country."

Tournament Director Larson Segerdahl agreed. "Not only does she represent the very best in the game of golf but she represents the very best of Mexico," he said in a statement.

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