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Simply the Best
June 09, 2008
Off the golf course she may go unrecognized, but that's just fine with LORENA OCHOA. The world's most dominant female athlete never wanted to be anything more than No. 1 in her sport
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June 09, 2008

Simply The Best

Off the golf course she may go unrecognized, but that's just fine with LORENA OCHOA. The world's most dominant female athlete never wanted to be anything more than No. 1 in her sport

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Woods is rightfully celebrated as a sportsman, but he does not hide his glee at crushing would-be challengers or hazing the few players who do not properly pay homage to his greatness. Ochoa is every bit as fierce a competitor as Woods, but she kills 'em with kindness. Two years ago Helen Alfredsson was dueling Ochoa at the Sybase Classic, but during their third-round pairing "we spent most of the time singing Gypsy Kings songs to each other," says Alfredsson. "Lorena was so into it that she did a little salsa step going down the 10th fairway. We were having so much fun, I barely noticed she was kicking my butt." Naturally, Ochoa went on to win the tournament.

That victory was near the beginning of Ochoa's emergence as the game's dominant player. She won six times in 2006 and piled on eight more victories last season, taking back-to-back player of the year awards as Sorenstam was slowed by injuries and distracted by off-course pursuits. By far the most meaningful in this burst of victories was Ochoa's triumph at the first Women's British Open to be played at St. Andrews, in '07. The Old Course is a vast canvas that encourages artistic expression, and it has a tradition of confirming genius, as it did with Seve Ballesteros in 1984 and Woods in 2000. Ochoa's first major championship victory stamped her arrival as a player for the ages.

The six victories she has added in 2008 have been by a combined 38 strokes, including a message-sending 11-shot blowout at the season-opening HSBC Women's Champions. In the early spring Ochoa won in four consecutive weeks, including the season's first major, the Kraft Nabisco Championship, at which she ground out a bogeyless 67 on Sunday for one of the most impressive rounds of her career. The following week brought a joyous victory at the Corona Championship in Morelia, Mexico, which qualified Ochoa for the Hall of Fame under the LPGA's point system. (Enshrinement will have to wait until 2012, when she will have fulfilled the mandatory minimum of 10 seasons played.)

At this week's LPGA Championship, at Bulle Rock Golf Course in Havre de Grace, Md., Ochoa will continue her quest to become the first woman to win the Grand Slam, and she is hardly cowed by the immensity of the challenge. "Every tournament, my goal is to win," she says, echoing Woods's oft-stated mantra. "It is what drives me. So why should [the LPGA] be any different?"

As always, she will be motivated by her belief that she is playing for something larger than herself.

ON THE first day of the Kraft Nabisco Championship, in Rancho Mirage, Calif., the groundskeeping crew at Mission Hills Country Club gathered in the vast maintenance shed for a stand-up breakfast cooked by moonlighting mechanics. The 80 or so workers had already put in a long morning in the withering heat. Virtually all of the conversation was in Spanish, and when Ochoa slipped in through a side door, it set off raucous cheers and a round of Mexican f�tbol fight songs. She had taken time out from her tournament preparations to come thank the workers who manicure her playing fields. In Spanish, Ochoa told them, "You should be very proud of the work you do." Then she helped scramble the eggs. The workers were so touched by her sincerity that they arranged to have a mariachi band surprise her as she walked off the 72nd green, setting off one of the wildest celebrations in major championship history.

Every year Ochoa seeks out the grounds crew at a handful of venues to offer her thanks and encouragement, and she has been known to veer off fairways to salute gardeners and construction workers and housekeepers laboring at the fancy houses that line the golf courses. She feels a strong kinship with those who have left their homelands to better themselves. "They are good people, and they work hard to help their families," Ochoa says. "I want them to know I support them and that I play for them."

These workers are the embodiment of one of the most contentious political issues in the U.S. today. There are those in golf who would prefer that Ochoa not insert herself, however subtly, into the immigration debate, but Hall of Famer Nancy Lopez is not among them. "I know she has been told to be careful about what she says, but Lorena is so true to herself that she can't help but speak from the heart," says Lopez, with whom Ochoa is often compared because of their shared heritage and their on-course charisma.

By winning the Sybase Classic five days after she visited the Stock Exchange, Ochoa reached $12 million in career earnings faster than any other player in LPGA history. Her simple tastes are the source of endless humor on tour—"There are kids starving in Mexico, so of course Lorena wouldn't be caught dead wearing any jewels," Kim says. Ochoa couched her earnings record in terms of what it would mean for others. "I try to help as much as I can my community, my people in Mexico," she says. "The more I can win, the more I can help, so that's a great motivation."

The Lorena Ochoa Foundation was created in 2004 with an emphasis on health and education issues for children in Mexico. Over the last several years it has paid for 325 annual scholarships to La Barranca, a school for children ages six to 15 in Guadalajara, and with the foundation's help this fall La Barranca will begin an expansion that over the next six years will double its enrollment and expand its reach through the end of high school. When she is home, Ochoa likes to drop in unannounced at the school, for pep talks with the kids or the occasional game of f�tbol. "The teachers say it is good for the students, but I think I am the one who gets inspired," she says.

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