When the best women golfers in the world tee it up next week in the second major of the year, the McDonald's LPGA Championship at Bulle Rock, the sentimental fan favorite likely will be Annika Sorenstam.
Sorenstam, after all, the soft-spoken Swede who has dominated the LPGA Tour for most of the last decade, recently announced she would retire at the end of this year. In addition to other business ventures, Sorenstam plans to remarry and start a family.
But popular as she is, Sorenstam, 37, will not be the odds-on favorite to win her 11th career major in Havre de Grace, Md. That distinction belongs to the new No. 1, heir to her throne, Lorena Ochoa.
Through hard work and sheer force of will, Ochoa, 26, from Guadalajara, Mexico, has parlayed her powerful and repeatable, albeit hardly classic golf swing, into an imposing run and a record that is the envy of the LPGA Tour.
With 23 wins, including two majors, in 51/2 years on the Tour, Ochoa has become the second-youngest player to qualify for the Hall of Fame, though she cannot be admitted until 2012.
Last year, Ochoa won eight tournaments, including her first major, the Women's British Open, silencing critics who were beginning to wonder whether she could win the big one. This year, Ochoa has won six times, including her second major at the Kraft Nabisco Championship in April, plus a recent run of four in a row, prompting comparisons to Tiger Woods, like Sorenstam before her.
So far in her young career, Ochoa has won $12.2 million in official earnings from tournaments, pocketed millions more in endorsements from her pick of the choicest corporations, been named female athlete of the year in 2006 and 2007 by the Associated Press, been named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world, and become a superstar in Mexico.
Last year, in a national poll back home, Ochoa was picked as the 2007 Mexican of the Year, beating out president Felipe Calderon, 19 percent to 11 percent.
On top of that, Ochoa, a proper, well-mannered one-time Catholic school girl who remains deeply religious, is likeable and generous. She has started a foundation in Mexico to fund a school for the underprivileged. At many tournaments, she quietly visits the maintenance crew, who are often Spanish-speaking immigrants, to thank them for their hard work. Even Ochoa's fiercest rivals have nothing but good things to say about her.
The total package of good golf and winning persona is enough to remind another Hall of Famer, Betsy Rawls, of an earlier champion with a Hispanic heritage.
"I would compare her to Nancy Lopez," Rawls said. "We have good players come along all the time, but people like Lorena don't come along very often," said Rawls, vice chairman of the LPGA Championship. "She is lovable, dignified, sweet, all of those good qualities. And as far as her golf goes, she is obviously a spectacular player."
Like a lot of LPGA watchers, Rawls believes Ochoa could keep would-be pretenders to her No. 1 status at bay for years to come.
"I think she will dominate - if she wants to," said Rawls, adding, "Yes, I think she will. Her attitude is such that it will let her do that. She is so well-adjusted, she works out and stays fit. She is willing to pay the price."
Dottie Pepper, the former LPGA player turned Golf Channel analyst, agrees. "I think her desire to play, to compete and to be No. 1 is what is going to keep her dominating," Pepper said.
Another former No. 1, Karrie Webb, who overtook Sorenstam at the top from 1999-2000, believes she has the talent but that it will come down to the competitive fires that burn within.
"It's kind of a superhuman standard," Webb said. "You watch Annika dominate for however many years, five, six in a row and everyone thinks it is pretty easy to do. You see Tiger doing it as well. It is hard to do week-after-week-after week, let alone year-after-year."
Although Ochoa has suggested that, like Sorenstam, she might one day step away from the game early, she is all in for whatever it takes for now.
"She is why I'm here," said Ochoa the day after Sorenstam announced her forthcoming retirement.
"I started practicing and playing a long time ago, and I always had it in my mind that I wanted to be the best and that I wanted to dominate the game," Ochoa added. "And, of course, Annika has always been my motivation. I always try to learn from her inside and off the golf course. She is the one that really inspired me."
In an age when golf academies and swing gurus crank out young players with picture-perfect swings, it is somewhat ironic that Ochoa, like her idol Sorenstam, wins with a swing that is personalized, even slightly odd. However, with both players, their swings are repeatable and they work, plain and simple.
In the case of Sorenstam, she breaks a long-taught swing tenet by looking up from the ball toward its intended path in the instant before impact. Ochoa's unique move is to tilt her head backward in the moment before impact.
"People wouldn't call it a classic golf swing, but I don't see anything wrong with it," Rawls said.
Pepper, of the Golf Channel, has high praise for Ochoa and her longtime coach, Rafael Alarcon, for sticking with her swing. "They tweaked it, but they didn't try to fix what wasn't broken," Pepper said.
Hank Haney, Tiger Woods' swing coach, also finds nothing about Ochoa's swing to criticize or change.
"It's not like she gets up there on the tee and starts spraying it," said Haney, citing her accuracy. "The formula for multiple wins is great putting and length, and she overpowers the golf course. There is no reason in the world she can't stay No. 1."
Indeed, aside from leading the LPGA this year in wins (six) and winnings ($1.8 million), her other statistics aren't too shabby. Ochoa ranks first in scoring average (68.56), first in greens in regulation (77 percent), second in driving distance (271 yards), and fourth in putts per green (1.76).
Perhaps the remarkable aspect of Ochoa's ascension is that she began that climb in a country with fewer than 300 golf courses and only 18,000 golfers.
Granted, Ochoa, grew up in privileged circumstances in a country better known for its poverty. Her father, Javier, is a retired real-estate developer, and her mother, Marcela, is an artist. Ochoa lived in a home with a swimming pool, bordering Guadalajara Country Club, where she learned the game.
Her dad first put a golf club in her hands when she was only 5. By age 6, she had won a state championship and by 7 she had won her first national title. A year later, she had won the first of five straight world titles.
Early on, Ochoa tried her hand at swimming, tennis and basketball, but she settled on golf when her father urged to pick one sport. She soon developed the disciplined practice regimen that she continues to this day.
"Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday: putt, 4-5; approach, 5-6; driving range, 6-7," Shanti Granada, a friend who began playing golf with Ochoa at age 7, recently told an interviewer.
These days, when she is not on the golf course, Ochoa snow skis, runs half marathons, rock climbs, and is good enough on water skis to to turn flips.
As a freshman at the University of Arizona, where she spent two years, Ochoa lived off campus with a Mexican to ease the adjustment to life in a new country. After one year, she was good enough to turn pro, but she stayed in school for one more year of seasoning, winning eight of 10 college tournaments. The next year, winning the money title on the Futures Tour earned her an LPGA Tour card for 2003.
Since then, it has been mostly onward and upward for Ochoa, though there were a couple of costly and embarrassing miscues along the way, including bungling a chance to win the 2005 U.S. Women's Open by making triple-bogey on the final hole.
Lopez, the top woman player a generation ago, doesn't expect Ochoa to lose her grip or her drive any time soon.
"You just sit there and shake your head," Lopez said of the quality of Ochoa's golf. "But she has really worked hard. A lot of players get comfortable quickly, and she has definitely done that. When I played my best golf and when I was winning, it becomes automatic. Everything seems simple. When you're hitting your driver, the fairway seems wide. The greens get bigger and the holes get bigger. I remember those feelings. It just happens."