Leonard Shapiro, Sports Columnist
Teeing Off

Say Hello to the Ochoa Era

By Leonard Shapiro
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, April 27, 2007; 12:50 AM

To paraphrase the bearded pitch man pushing pants and three-piece suits all over the local and national airwaves, you're gonna like the way Lorena Ochoa looks as the No. 1 player in women's golf.

Her ascent to the top spot in the world rankings this past Monday generally received dismal display in most American newspapers, perhaps a paragraph here, a brief mention there. But in her native Mexico, where golf remains a very minor sport, it was the stuff of banner headlines for the first male or female golfer from that nation ever to reach such heady heights.

Ochoa became No. 1 without lifting a golf club. There was no tournament on the LPGA schedule last week, but when the computer spit out its results this past Monday morning, Ochoa had finally overtaken Sweden's Annika Sorenstam, who had held the top spot every week since the rankings came into existence 14 months ago.

Before that, no one needed a spreadsheet or a word processor to figure out that Sorenstam was by far the best player in women's golf going back to 1995. That season, in her second full year on the LPGA tour, she led the money list and won three times, including the first of her back-to-back Women's U.S. Open championships.

For eight of the last 12 seasons, Sorenstam won the LPGA money title and also was the tour's player of the year eight different times. In a stunning stretch starting in 2000 through the 2006 season, she won 51 tournaments in seven years and posted 117 top ten finishes in 145 starts, missing only two cuts.

That's called total domination, leading many to believe she may be the greatest woman golfer of all time considering the depth of the immensely talented competition she's faced from the very best golfers literally all around the world.

But Sorenstam went from ten wins in 2005 to only three in 2006. For most anyone else, her performance last year would have been considered a banner season. For Sorenstam, it was a sign of serious slippage, and at age 37, she also now admits that while she still loves to win and compete, golf may no longer be her top priority.

Sorenstam has many other interests. She has recently opened her own upscale golf academy in central Florida. She has a wide variety of endorsements and has put together a team of business men and women to help her further her own "Annika" brand. After a messy divorce three years ago, she now has a serious boyfriend and once again is talking about starting a family, perhaps sooner or later.

While she remains a formidable player, it seems clear that she is no longer prepared to devote every waking moment to improving her game. She will continue to win tournaments, perhaps even a few more majors. But no more is Sorenstam the most feared player in women's golf, the way her friend Tiger Woods' name on a leader board seems to send chills down the necks of his flailing foes down the stretch, just the way Sorenstam's name did for so many years.

And now, she's also trying to rehabilitate a herniated disc that will keep her out of action for at least another month. Dominance is no longer synonymous with Sorenstam, and many of her peers whisper they'd be surprised to see her still playing a full schedule when she turns 40 in three more years.

Ochoa, ten years younger, also has had a spectacular rise to the top.

After a record-setting amateur career, including eight tournament wins in ten events she entered her sophomore season at the University of Arizona, Ochoa joined the LPGA Tour in 2003. That season, she was named rookie of the year after posting eight top 10s and finishing ninth on the money list. It's been a steady progression to No. 1 ever since, with six wins, six runner-ups and 20 top tens in 25 events last season, when she earned her first player of the year award.

With one victory and five top ten finishes in seven events this year, Ochoa again leads the money list and seems well on her way to another banner season. The only blemish on her sterling resume so far has been her inability to win her first major championship, though she's had several excruciating close calls.

In 2006, Ochoa eagled the 72nd hole to get into a playoff against Karrie Webb at the Kraft Nabisco in Rancho Mirage, Calif. Webb had eagled herself on the final hole, stuffing a wedge into the cup from 140 yards out in the fairway, and then won the tournament when she birdied the first hole in sudden death.

This year, Ochoa was tied for second and only a shot off the lead after 16 holes of her third round. With one botched swing off the tee, she imploded with a quadruple bogey on the 17th hole Saturday and took herself out of contention. A par on that 173-yard 17th on Saturday would have shaved four shots off her final total and at the very least gotten her into a playoff with eventual champion Morgan Pressel.

On Saturday when she posted a five-over 77, Ochoa easily could have slipped out of the scoring trailer and avoided all contact with several media members waiting outside to go have a private cry in the locker room.

Instead, after a few hugs and kisses from some disconsolate family members, she graciously agreed to answer any and all questions about her disastrous 17th hole, and shed her tears in public, with cameras recording every drop.

It reminded me in many ways of Tiger Woods class act in coming to the press tent the Friday he missed a short putt that would have advanced him to the quarterfinals of the World Match Play event two months ago in Tucson.

Woods's failure to close out his match with that botched three-footer that afternoon ultimately led to him losing his match to Nick O'Hern. But the No. 1 player in the men's world also did the right thing by standing tall and answering questions for 15 minutes before heading down the road to the airport and a tough flight home.

That's what champions usually do, and there are other things Lorena Ochoa does that also should endear her not only to the media, but her growing legion of fans back home in Mexico and virtually everywhere she now plays.

Over the last few years, Ochoa has made it a point before the start of many tournaments to visit the maintenance areas of golf courses she's about to play. At many venues on the LPGA schedule, a number of her countrymen are employed by courses to mow the grass, to rake the bunkers, to handle a wide variety of back-breaking jobs all year round.

There are rarely any cameras or reporters around when Ochoa walks from posh clubhouses to the barns and sheds hidden mostly out of public view. She shakes hands. Sometimes she stays long enough to eat lunch with the workers.

Mostly she thanks them for taking such good care of the golf course and tells them how much she appreciates what they do, especially when they slip into her gallery to occasionally wave the Mexican flag and cheer for her birdies and eagles.

At the moment, and seemingly for many more years to come, they will have plenty to cheer. Lorena Ochoa is the No. 1 player in women's golf, and don't you like the way she looks as a bright and shining example of a true champion?

Leonard Shapiro can be reached at badgerlen@hotmail.com or badgerlen@aol.com.

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