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From top of the trees to top of the golf world
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Mexican golfer Lorena Ochoa poses on Jan. 8, 2007 during an interview with the Associated Press at the Country Club in Guadalajara, Mexico. Sheer will and grace have fueled her unlikely rise to the top of a sport still largely confined to the rich in her native Mexico. - photo by Associated Press
    GUADALAJARA, Mexico — The house where Lorena Ochoa grew up overlooks the swimming pool at Guadalajara Country Club, a playground paradise for a tiny, wiry girl with big dreams.
    She would scamper to the tops of magnolia and ceiba trees that crowd the golf course. She would swim and play tennis and hold putting contests for a peso until it was too dark to see the hole.
    ‘‘Lorena liked to play fantasy games — hit it over the tree, between the branches, over the rocks,’’ said Shanti Granada, who began playing golf with Ochoa at age 7. ‘‘She always stayed to hit practice shots, always with an extra imagination to make practice fun.’’
    From these beginnings rose the best female golfer in the world.
    Ochoa, 26, already has met the performance criteria for the Hall of Fame. She has won five times in six LPGA Tour events this year, crushing the competition by a combined 37 shots, and this week in Oklahoma she will try to win her fifth straight tournament and tie a record held by Annika Sorenstam and Nancy Lopez.
    A month later, she will be a heavy favorite to capture her third straight major.
    Heady stuff for a kid from a soccer-loving country where there are fewer than 300 golf courses. Rafael Alarcon, though, might have seen this coming.
    Ochoa was drawn to Alarcon, a local PGA golfer, when she was about 8. She would stand behind him as he hit balls, peppering him with questions and following him around the course, until he one day invited her to play.
    As the trophies piled up — Ochoa won her age division at the Junior World Championships five years in a row — Alarcon asked her once on the practice green why she wanted to know so much about the game.
    ‘‘I want to learn to beat you,’’ he recalls her telling him. ‘‘I know if I beat you, I can be the best player in the world.’’
    The day before she left Mexico for the University of Arizona, she did just that, by two strokes on the back nine.
    Now in her sixth full season on the LPGA Tour, there appears to be no stopping her.
    ‘‘Lorena is an amazing golfer and an even more impressive person,’’ said Lopez, whom Ochoa considers a role model. ‘‘She has become a true superstar ... so well liked on the tour and so successful at the same time.’’
    This is the essence of Ochoa. She has risen to the top of a sport still dominated by the wealthy in her native Mexico, where green fees often cost five times the average daily wage. Yet she is loyal to the working class who care for the golf course and to impoverished children who have never seen the game played.
    ‘‘She has always been sincere and friendly,’’ said Francisco Javier Lopez, who has worked on the Guadalajara golf course for 18 years. ‘‘Now that she’s winning and winning, she’s just the same as before, very humble.’’
    Hometown papers call her ‘‘La Reina’’ — the queen — and praise her as much for her humility as her 280-yard tee shots.
    She already has her own charity, sponsoring a school for needy children in the Guadalajara area. On the road, she often takes time to meet with Latino groundskeepers, even helping them cook breakfast just before this season’s first major championship.
    And she has vowed to quit the LPGA Tour after 10 years to start a family, always the most important part of her life.
    ‘‘My family is the one that keeps me happy. It’s my motivation,’’ she said in March. ‘‘They make me feel normal, and I love that.’’
    Ochoa’s parents — her father is a real estate developer, her mother an artist — raised their four kids in a small house overlooking the country club, just 15 minutes from the cathedral and colonial plazas of Mexico’s second-largest, sprawling city.
    She was 5 when her father put a golf club in her hand, and success soon followed — a state championship at age 6, a national title at age 7, and the first of five straight world championships a year later.
    None of that was an accident.
    Granada recalls how she and Ochoa were the only girls in a weekly golf class with 15 boys. The two played together everyday after school for the next 10 years, following a detailed practice schedule that Ochoa sketched on notebook paper and carried with her clubs.
    ‘‘Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday: Putt, 4:00-5:00; Approach, 5:00-6:00; Driving range, 6:00-7:00,’’ Granada recalls, diagramming a replica of the schedule on the country club’s ferny terrace. ‘‘Everything was perfectly structured.’’
    From a young age, Ochoa learned to seek challenges and conquer her fears. She climbed Mexico’s highest volcano at age 12 and completed a three-day mountain ‘‘ecothon’’ of biking, kayaking and swimming at 14.
    Ochoa’s father hated his kids to sit around, so she dabbled in everything, including swimming, tennis and basketball. But when he told her to pick one sport, she chose her clubs.
    Most days after early mornings on the golf course, her father would pop her on the back of his moped and speed her to the Torre Blanca Catholic girls’ school, dressed in a blue plaid jumper and motorcycle helmet.
    Cameras showed up there in the fifth grade, as Ochoa continued winning Junior World Championships. Yet despite the attention, teachers remember a steady, dynamic and fun-loving perfectionist who never sought special treatment and was good at every sport she tried.
    Ochoa’s only teen rebellion was to sneak in to play basketball and volleyball — discouraged by her father, who asked gym teachers to keep her concentrated on golf.
    ‘‘One time she jammed a finger, and it swelled up fat and black and blue. We said, ’Quick! Ice! Quick! Before her father gets here!’’’ Ochoa’s high school gym teacher, Abigail Faviola Vasquez, recalls. ‘‘She was always a really positive, natural leader, and when she’d come to play, her enthusiasm was contagious. You could tell she was meant for great things.’’
    Before leaving for Arizona, Ochoa asked Alarcon if he would one day be her coach. But first, she worked her way through college alone.
    She sometimes struggled to understand professors or write papers in English, but found her stride on the golf course, winning 12 of 20 tournaments in two years and twice earning NCAA Player of the Year honors.
    ‘‘I just remember seeing this little bitty thing and wondering how in the world she can hit the ball so far,’’ college coach Greg Allen said of the 5-foot-6 Ochoa. ‘‘She had a quiet confidence about her. The belief she has in who she is just sets her apart.’’
    Ochoa, who lived with a Mexican family off-campus as a freshman, was good enough to turn pro after one year but stayed on a second season to mature, winning eight of 10 tournaments. She then clinched the Futures Tour money title to earn a ticket to the LPGA Tour in 2003.
    Alarcon and Ochoa then got to work, outlining a five-year plan that included becoming No. 1 in the world.
    Along the way, she has hit some bumps, squandering a chance to win the U.S. Women’s Open in 2005 by hooking her tee shot into the water on the 18th hole and making a quadruple bogey. That same year, she blew a three-shot lead to Sorenstam in Phoenix, a devastating loss.
    But she saw the mistakes as a chance to get better.
    ‘‘She’s so good at learning from experiences and adversity and turning it into a positive,’’ Allen said. ‘‘She’s such an emotional person — she laughs, cries — but she has really learned to control those things, and that has helped her finish down the stretch.’’
    A Catholic, Ochoa prays daily and crosses herself before every round, often on the first tee. Friends say that faith feeds her confidence, keeping her calm and balancing her other interests in life.
    ‘‘The best thing about Lorena isn’t what she does on the golf course,’’ Allen says. ‘‘The way she cares about people and wants to make their lives better, that’s who Lorena really is.’’
    At La Barranca, the Guadalajara elementary school she sponsors, low-income students race to hug her when she visits.
    Interest in Ochoa is exploding across Mexico, as thousands of kids and adults crowd courses in ribbons and baseball hats, chanting ‘‘Lo-re!’’ and running from hole to hole alongside her. This fall, she will become the youngest player to host her own LPGA event there, the Lorena Ochoa Invitational.
    Ochoa and her brother already have opened two academies to train instructors and hope to help build public courses, an effort to make golf more accessible.
    ‘‘The country looks to Lorena because they’ve identified with her career and what’s important to her,’’ Alejandro Ochoa says. ‘‘She’s an inspiration to keep going, never quit and, despite the circumstances, stay humble and tied to your goals.’’

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