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GOLF THOMAS BONK

At 21, Ochoa's Extremely Successful

March 29, 2003|THOMAS BONK

You might not have noticed it, here on the Annika Sorenstam Tour, but there's a youth movement going on. This is the LPGA Tour's "New Wave" of players, and chances are they're going to make a big splash, maybe even this week in the Kraft Nabisco Championship, and if they do, it's probably going to be in the kiddie pool.

These players are so young that at the first tee, they need their parents' permission to drive.

This group doesn't even include 13-year-old Michelle Wie, who is in the eighth grade and probably would be baby-sitting back in Hawaii if she weren't playing at Mission Hills this week.

Neither does it include 16-year-old twins, Naree and Aree Song, who ought to be at home in Florida singing nursery rhymes instead of pounding the golf ball as well as they do.

Grace Park is in the group, though, even though she's 24 now and relatively ancient. But she's already a force on the LPGA Tour, with three victories in the last three years, a heavyweight endorsement deal with Nike, 12 top 10s last year and the most photographed belly button on the LPGA Tour.

The rookie of the year last year was Beth Bauer, who's 23 now, and following up on an impeccable amateur career that included two junior golf player-of-the-year awards, an NCAA title at Duke, and two years as an All-American.

From Sacramento, there is Natalie Gulbis, only 20, and the runner-up to Bauer as rookie of the year. When Gulbis was 14, she was the youngest player to qualify for an LPGA event, a record that Wie broke last year at 12.

If that's a talent pool, then the water's deep. Then there is Lorena Ochoa, 21, the early leader as best of the bunch, whose goal is only to be the best player ever.

At least that gives her something to shoot for, which is why she turned pro after her sophomore year at Arizona, because there wasn't anything left for her to do there.

Ochoa won eight consecutive tournaments to set an NCAA record, became a first-team All-American, was named the NCAA's player of year and broke the women's scoring record. The old record was hers too, which she set as a freshman.

As a pro, she played the Futures Tour, won three times, led the money list and became exempt on the LPGA Tour. She was 21st and then eighth in her first two appearances at Mission Hills as an amateur.

You would have to say she's off to a good start in her first year on the LPGA Tour.

After 36 holes at Mission Hills, Ochoa is only one shot behind Sorenstam, who is in the Hall of Fame. Ochoa is also only three shots out of the lead and if she goes as low as she plans, then she has a chance to win ... and without a moment's delay, because Ochoa believes it's never too soon to win your first major.

It's also probably never too soon to have your own Web site, so that's why there is lorenaochoa.com, where you can find out that she already has endorsement deals with Nike, Audi, Aeromexico, Office Depot and Upper Deck.

In her hometown of Guadalajara, Mexico, Ochoa is already a big star, even at 5 feet 6. Because she's the first Mexican to earn an LPGA Tour card, Mexican television regularly follows her in tournaments and provides shot-by-shot coverage.

President Vicente Fox gave her Mexico's National Sports Award when she was 20, making her the first golfer and the youngest recipient of the award.

Add it all up and you might suggest it's all a bit much for a 21-year-old to handle, but Ochoa wants to do something important for her country, so she'll do her part. Besides that, she was raised on accepting challenges.

Father Javier, a real estate executive, and mother Marcela, an artist, influenced Lorena to test herself in other sports, often with her brothers.

Lorena went to the extreme. Extreme sports. She climbed Pico de Orizaba and reached the snow-covered peak of Mexico's highest mountain ... when she was 12.

She snowboards and wakesurfs. She has done two triathlons and two half-marathons. She has participated in two ectothons, which sound full of fun as long as the aspirin holds out -- mountain biking, hiking, swimming, kayaking and rappelling.

She likes the adrenaline, says Ochoa, explaining why she puts herself through something like this.

Her friends don't always understand the golf thing. Sometimes they ask why she plays golf, because it's such a slow sport. Ochoa says golf is the hardest sport on your mind.

Not to mention your heart, if you start pushing a few too many four-foot putts. That's not the path Ochoa is taking right now. She's just happy to be playing this major for the first time without having to worry about schoolwork.

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