Taking a swing at it

Ochoa has no shortage of drive to win LPGA

June 05, 2008|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Sun Reporter

Lorena Ochoa has a lot of motivation going into this year's LPGA Championship, which begins today at Bulle Rock Golf Course in Havre de Grace. You name it, and Ochoa can find a good reason to win.

At the top of the list is a Grand Slam: winning the Kraft Nabisco Championship in April, the LPGA Championship, the U.S. Women's Open later this month and the British Open starting July 31.

Ochoa has won two straight majors starting with last year's British Open at St. Andrews, where she finally broke through to win her first major after several near misses - and a few final-round collapses.

No player has won more than two straight majors in a year when four have been played, and only one player, Pat Bradley, has won three in a row over two years (1985-1986).

"I think it's something very special," Ochoa said this week. "I want to break a few records, and I'm going to keep doing the same, working hard to make sure that I continue in the next few tournaments."

Ochoa also has some personal motivation, stemming from her uncle's passing away last week in Mexico after an extended illness. She withdrew from last week's Ginn Tribute outside Charleston, S.C., to be with her family.

"It's more important now for my family. I'd love to give them some joy, so I have many motivations," Ochoa said.

As much as Ochoa wants to finally win a tournament that she has played well in, with four straight top-10 finishes, there also might be a reason the LPGA could be quietly rooting for Ochoa.

With Annika Sorenstam's recent announcement that she will retire after the 2008 season, Ochoa, already considered the best female golfer in the world, will also become the face of the LPGA Tour.

It's a different kind of face than the LPGA has had in a while, perhaps dating to the days when Nancy Lopez was in her prime. There is a welcoming smile attached to this face, unlike the steelier facades of Sorenstam and Karrie Webb, who preceded Sorenstam as the No. 1 player in the world.

Christina Kim, who came out on tour in 2003, the same year as Ochoa, sees the 26-year-old from Mexico as the kind of player who will attract fans, media and, most importantly, sponsors to the LPGA as it moves forward without Sorenstam.

"I think because they're different people overall - not that one is better than the other - they embody different things," Kim said this week. "Annika was more business and golf, while Lorena spreads her wealth in all directions, and I think people would view her [as] more approachable."

Ochoa was honored this year by Time Magazine for being among the 100 most influential people in the world, mostly because of her charitable activities in Mexico. A foundation bearing her name has opened three schools.

She is the reason Mexican fans flock every year to the Kraft Nabisco Championship and why the LPGA has two events in Mexico, including the inaugural Lorena Ochoa Invitational in November.

Asked how she balances her life on and off the course, Ochoa said: "It's tough. But it's part of the package. I always do it with a smile on my face, and I think it's part of everything. But it's good. It's like paying taxes. Hopefully you pay a lot of taxes."

Ochoa's self-deprecating sense of humor is also part of the attraction. She is winning her long quest of mastering the English language, one that began when she first went to college at Arizona.

"I wanted to study psychology, and I went to a few classes and I couldn't understand a word, so I have to change to PE," she said with a laugh. "I learned the class but my grammar was zero. I think it's [still] so bad. I think everybody makes fun of me and they don't teach me."

Motivated since age "12 or 13" to be the best player in the world, Ochoa has been at the top of the world rankings since passing an injury-hindered Sorenstam last year, but Ochoa's ascendance has been obvious for awhile.

It took Ochoa a couple of years to establish herself, winning three events her first two years. In 2006, Ochoa won six times; last year, she won eight.

Dating to her years as an amateur in Mexico, and later as a college star at Arizona (the same school Sorenstam attended), Ochoa also had a reputation for blowing tournaments down the stretch. Quietly, some called her "Ochoka."

Ochoa, who blames her earlier final-round struggles on issues with her swing, heard the whispers.

"Of course I was aware," she said. "I had a lot of people asking in the media. But it never bothers me. I'm the one that knew what was happening and what I am capable of doing. At the same time, I wanted to prove the opposite, so it made me a better player. Until I win a major, they have the right to say that."

The win in the Women's British Open, where she built a six-shot lead through three rounds, proved to be an important breakthrough. She has been dominating ever since, winning her first two events after that, three more to close the year and five of her first six this year, including four straight in one stretch.

With it has come talk of the Grand Slam. Ochoa might be thinking about winning the four majors, either over two years or in the same calendar year, but she is trying to downplay it as much as she can going into Bulle Rock.

"It's still in my mind," she said. "Of course I think it's possible. I have it in my head. Those things only happen a few times in your career. Here I am, and I'm going to make sure to give it a good try."


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