Tuesday, April 8, 2008


TIGER WOODS finally has a serious rival. Someone who has won the last two Majors and three of the first four tournaments so far this season – the latest by a five-shot margin.

A golfer with a scoring average of 68.3 and a conversion rate of 67% when taking a lead into the final round. The fastest player to pass the $11 million mark in prize money, this superb competitor is only one point away from the Hall of Fame.

His name? Well, actually, if you haven’t guessed already, it’s a her – Lorena Ochoa.

The first Mexican golfer – male or female – to be ranked number one in the world, Ochoa has taken over the mantle of No. 1 in the Rolex Rankings from Sweden’s Annika Sorenstam.

She had to wait a while to win her first Major. But after making the breakthrough last August in the Women’s British Open at the Old Course, St Andrews – the home of golf – she has never looked back.

Just as Tiger dominates men’s golf, so Lorena has become the player to beat each week on the LPGA Tour.

In the past, some people had questioned her ability to handle the pressure. Not now. She made five birdies and no bogeys to card a final-round 67 for an 11-under-par total of 277 in the Kraft Nabisco Championship at Rancho Mirage, California, on Sunday.

Tradition has it that the winner must leap, fully clothed, into Poppie’s Pond. That presented no problem for Ochoa. Right now, she could walk on water.

Second-longest driver on the LPGA Tour

The slightly framed 26-year-old from the industrial city of Guadalajara packs a surprisingly powerful punch. She stands just 5ft 6in tall, yet she's the second-longest driver of the ball on tour behind Laura Davies. Her approach play and putting has come on in leaps and bounds.

Ochoa took up golf at the age of five. She won her first state event at six and her first national event at seven.

That success continued as a student at the University of Arizona. In her sophomore year, she won eight of the ten events she entered.

Winner of the Nancy Lopez Award for the world’s best female amateur golfer in 2003, she gained eight top-10 finishes in her rookie year on the LPGA Tour.

Her maiden victory came the following year at the Franklin American Mortgage Championship – she was the first Mexican-born player to win on the Tour – and she followed that by capturing the Wachovia LPGA Classic.

The trophies have followed with remarkable regularity since then. Now she’s dominating the major tournaments too.

“It took me five years to get to the top and now I feel really comfortable with the position,” she says. “It’s been tough, probably tougher than I thought. But it’s been worth it. I’m going to enjoy my time at the top as much as I can, because it has really been a blessing.”

Not surprisingly, Ochoa has become a national hero in her native Mexico. One fan described her as “an inspiration to all of us.” “She’s a simple person with a talent from God,” he added.

Lorena certainly acts like a “people’s champion.” She spent last Wednesday morning having breakfast with the maintenance crew of the golf course.

They were so appreciative that on Thursday, they erected a banner stating: “Mission Hills Golf Course Staff Supports Lorena Ochoa.”

This was removed the following day. Perhaps Ochoa’s rivals were worried the water sprinklers would be turned on while they were putting?

Like Tiger, the talk is now about whether Ochoa can complete a career Grand Slam by winning the next two Majors.

Her rival, Sorenstam, is not ruling it out. She says: “Lorena is playing great golf. You obviously need to peak at a certain time and you need a little luck, but I certainly do think it’s possible.”

One man who will be following her progress with interest is Woods himself. Apparently, the two were introduced for the first time at an awards’ dinner last year and expressed their mutual admiration.

The ladies still have some way to go to attract the same global media coverage as the PGA Tour. But there’s no doubt that Lorena Ochoa is putting Mexico – and women’s golf – on the world map.

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