By Juan Esparza Loera and Sandra Velasquez
Vida en el Valle
DANVILLE, CA The Lorena Ochoa revolution is catching fuego north of the border.
This was evident last weekend at the Longs Drugs Challenge golf tournament at Blackhawk Country Club when the 5-foot-6, 130-pound native of Guadalajara, Mexi-co, charmed fans of all races. Her power game generates 300-yard-plus drives, her short game is the envy of avid golfers, her smile belies her competitive spirits, and her personality that makes her every-body’s favorite player... from fellow competitors to golf course workers.
Ochoa, who lost a two-hole playoff to Norway’s Suzann Petterson that prevented her from winning her seventh LPGA tournament of the year, nonetheless became the first woman to surpass $3 million in season winnings. The world’s No. 1-ranked player, Ochoa could pad that total at this weekend’s ADT Championships in Palm Springs where the first-place check is $1 million.
Blackhawk Country Club a hilly course that offers spectacular panoramas, plus a few cows mooing when players get ready to putt is located in a city of about 42,000, of which less than 5 percent is Latino. But throngs of Ochoa fans helped turn the course into a second home for the 26-year-old Ochoa.
Jonathan Martín of San Francisco took time to paint his face with the Mexican colors. His cousins, Clarissa and Carla Velázquez, also had splashes of the red, white and green.
Elías Castañon of Oakland does not play golf (unless you count miniature golf). But that didn’t keep him from turning out on Sunday with seven other family members to cheer for Ochoa. Castañon, who attended last year’s tournament where Ochoa placed fourth, said there were more Latinos in attendance this year.
Maura Ortiz, another non-golfer, traveled from Mexico City to visit her brother. She made sure she stopped at the tournament to get a close-up look at the golfer she admires on television.
Not all Lorena-mania was reserved for Latinos.
Marty Goldade of Fremont wrapped a bandana of the Mexican flag on his straw hat to show support.
Caroline Basset made the drive from Sunnyvale near San Jose early Saturday morning to catch a glimpse of her favorite female golfer.
Thirteen-year-old John Sylvestre of Alamo, an 8-handicapper, marvels at Ochoa’s short game.
Ochoa had a simple message for these fans on Sunday: “I think this is a tough course for the players, and we appreciate a lot of people came, especially the Hispanics and the Mexicans (who) are all here. And I want to say thank you to all of them. It feels good to feel the support.”
Tournament officials had a hard time prying Ochoa away from fans who wanted her signature on hats, T-shirts, golf cards and tournament programs.
Minutes after her press conference, Ochoa took time to congratulate the tournament and LPGA staff. She hugged one woman who will not be attending the ADT Championships and made sure to say she would see her next year.
Fellow competitors from Petterson to Julie Inkster to Lori Kane, all contenders last weekend praise Ochoa’s friendliness. If there was a Miss Congeniality contest on tour, they say, Ochoa would win hands down.
The reason for her loyal following, according to Luis Camarillo, is simple: “She loves being around her race, her people. And she is so proud of being Mexican.”
Camarillo should know. He and about 150 other Latino maintenance workers at Blackhawks’ two golf courses had breakfast with Ochoa on Saturday morning, a ritual Ochoa makes sure she keeps wherever she plays.
“She allowed us to ask her questions, take photos with her. And she encouraged each one of us give our best effort in our work,” said Camarillo, course superintendent at the Blackhawk Falls course nestled among million-dollar homes.
Petterson recalls how “cool” Lorena is. At the previous tournament, Ochoa won a bet against Petterson. Such play, said Petterson, helps keep the players loose.
“Like I said, you wouldn’t probably say this about a competitor, but she is just a very nice person and we have a lot of fun,” said Petterson. “And, I think that is good for all of us.”
But, don’t let the smiles and camaraderie fool you: Ochoa is a competitor.
“We both pushed each other. We are competitive, but at the same time, we kind of support each other and want the best out of everybody,” said Petterson after claiming the $165,000 first-place check.
Ochoa, who leads the tour in almost all the major categories (scoring average, driving distance, rounds under par, winnings, birdies, and greens in regulation), has wrapped up her second consecutive player of the year title. Although she picked up a check for $101,967 for finishing second on Sunday, Ochoa wasn’t thinking about the money.
“It is not in my head. I don’t like to lose. That hurts me,” said Ochoa.
She showed frustration at not being able to tame the 155-yard hole. “Since last year, I don’t like that hole,” she joked.
A second-place finish is not going to derail Ochoa, who believes she is advancing her goals.
“My goal at the end of the year was to be consistent, give myself the chance to win in a tournament and be at the top,” Ochoa told Vida en el Valle. “And that is what I’m doing. If I give myself an opportunity (to win) every week, you can win them all. I’m okay (not winning). I understand that is life, that’s golf. I’ll look to winning the following week.”
Ochoa is not even thinking about getting the LPGA player of the year. “It’s very early to be thinking about that, and I try to concentrate week by week in each tournament. I believe that having good results, those awards will come at the end of the year. Therefore, I don’t think much about them.”
One thing Ochoa talks about often is her foundation for needy children.
“The foundation is very important. It’s the priority in my career. Therefore, thanks to God, we are going well and hope that we’ll continue improving because we have a desire to help many needy children,” said Ochoa.
Ochoa’s success on the golf course has helped the sport in her native México.
“I think it has improved a lot because we have more fans. I’m happy to see the change and hopefully there will be more Mexicans over here (on tour),” she said.