Lorena Ochoa is getting antsy. It's the first day of class at Arizona following spring break, and Ochoa's fellow students in a water safety class are bragging about their adventures. "I went to a psychic," says a bubbly blonde in jeans and flip-flops. "I thought it was going to be cheesy, but she, like, knew a lot of stuff about my life." Another student boasts of seeing the Pacific for the first time.
"Well, who else did something exciting over spring break?" asks instructor Ron Sutherland, with a nod toward Ochoa. Her cheeks redden as she explains that she finished "only O.K." (37th, actually) at the LPGA's Ping Banner Health in Phoenix. She's still not off the hook. "Lorena," Sutherland says, "tell us about your tournament in Mexico the week before."
"Oh, yeah," she says. "I won that one."
Ochoa, 20, does her best to pass as an average college sophomore, but her status as the hottest female golfer in the world-pro or amateur—has made that all but impossible. "My goal is to be the best," she says. The best college player? "No, the best player ever," she says.
She's off to a good start. So far this season she has steamrollered the intercollegiate competition, sweeping all six of the tournaments she has entered. South of the border, Ochoa, a native of Guadalajara, bagged her third straight Mexican Women's Amateur title during spring break.
Last week she teed it up at the LPGA's Welch's/Circle K Championship, at Randolph North, seven miles from Arizona's Tucson campus. With rounds of 70-67-69-68 she tied for 5th, only four shots behind winner Laura Diaz. It was the second best showing by an amateur at an LPGA event since 1981. The buzz among the pros is that the gritty Ochoa is a dark horse at the first major of the season, this week's Nabisco Championship at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, Calif.
Problem is, Ochoa's ridiculously good play has turned her into the busiest college student in America. To play hooky for the Circle K and the Nabisco, she had to beg her professors—in addition to water safety, she's taking Roman archaeology, astronomy, contemporary art and sports psychology—for extensions on term papers and rescheduled exam dates. "Oh, I don't think teacher will be happy when he hears I'll have to miss two more weeks," Ochoa said on March 18 as she briskly walked across campus to her 8 a.m. sports psychology class. By the time she arrived at Randolph North Golf Course for the first round of the Circle K three days later, she had made up her archaeology midterm and turned in a three-page contemporary art paper (two weeks late). "I worry that I'll never catch up in school," Ochoa says. "When I'm at the golf course, I tune out everything else."
Except her family. Lorena's parents escorted her to the 1st tee last Thursday at Randolph North, each clasping a hand. Before sending her off to play, Javier, a real estate executive, and Marcela, an artist, blessed their daughter with the sign of the cross. After kissing Lorena on the forehead, Javier whispered, "Good luck, pretty girl."
Actually, Ochoa's game is an awesome combination of power and finesse. Arizona coach Greg Allen calls her the longest player in college golf (she was 18th at the Circle K in driving distance, at 272.50 yards a pop), and she has a deadly short game (9th in putting at the Circle K). Her stroke average in college competition this year is 69.76, which is on pace to shatter the NCAA record of 71.33 set last year—by Ochoa. Her six wins have come by a combined 31 strokes, including a nine-shot rout at the Oregon State Invitational.
Though Ochoa remains mum about turning pro, her teammates say she's likely to bail after May's NCAA Championships. (Ochoa finished second in the individual competition last year, losing a playoff to Duke's Candy Hannemann.) "As good as she is, everyone told me I'd be lucky to keep her for even a year, but she really wants us to win the NCAAs," Allen says. That's because Ochoa feels indebted to her teammates. She arrived at Arizona having visited the U.S. only a handful of times, and she didn't feel comfortable with the language or the culture. Her childhood friend Cristina Baena of Colombia, then a junior on the Wildcats, served as her translator and introduced her to the basics of student life, including the spicy Buffalo wings at Long Wong's, a popular hangout near campus.