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Ochoa not yet attracting new people to golf

As good and marketable as she is, could Lorena Ochoa's status as the No. 1 woman golfer in the world attract more Hispanics to golf?

As good and marketable as she is, could Lorena Ochoa's status as the No. 1 woman golfer in the world attract more Hispanics to golf?

Perhaps, if Ochoa stays on top long enough, but as yet locals in the golf community aren't seeing what might be called a "Tiger Effect."

Remember those days a decade ago, when Woods first burst onto the PGA Tour scene, won the 1997 Masters by an astonishing 12 shots and rocketed to No. 1? Suddenly, it seemed every kid in the land - particularly kids of color - wanted to check out golf, in person or as spectators at tournaments.

So far, aside from individual anecdotes, it's tougher to determine whether there is a similar, measurable effect by Ochoa.

"We've seen no marked increase," said Geoff Surrette, executive director of the Philadelphia Section PGA.

Just two weeks ago, the section staged its annual Play Golf America day at a driving range and par-3 facility in Norristown, aimed at introducing potential golfers, young and old, to the game. "We had maybe 300 folks," Surrette said. "We had some girls but no great new influx of girls."

At the First Tee of Philadelphia, based at FDR Golf Course in South Philadelphia, executive director John McDonald said the number of kids participating in the program has remained constant at about 2,600 since it opened in 2004; of those, about 46 percent or 47 percent are girls.

"We had a real heavy involvement of kids of color from the beginning," said McDonald, adding that the number of Hispanic participants has consistently lagged behind African Americans.

One recent summer, there was a spike in the number of Asian children who were part of a recreational program in Chinatown, an increase he suspected was attributable to teen phenom Michelle Wie.

"You do hear the kids talk about Lorena and about how good she must be," McDonald said. He suggested the U.S. Golf Association might consider updating its First Tee banners, which are prominently displayed and promoted, to add Ochoa along with Woods and Wie.

As for tournaments and ticket sales, it's also hard to quantify.

"I think we are seeing that slightly," said Peter Wilder, director of business development for the McDonald's LPGA Championship, reluctant to overstate the case.

There seems to be a more definite effect at the first major of the year, the Kraft Nabisco Championship in Rancho Mirage, Calif., where the Hispanic population is much larger and where Ochoa won this year.

"Absolutely," said Dennis Belcastro, the tournament chairman. "Lorena has a great following. And the crowds tend to build with anticipation, depending on how she is performing."

Reliable, up-to-date information about the number of minority golfers, including Hispanics, is hard to come by. The most recent study, an effort by Golf 20/20 and the First Tee that was conducted by the National Golf Foundation, dates to 2003, Ochoa's rookie year on the LPGA.

Back then, the study said, only 5.4 percent of Hispanic Americans played golf, lagging behind whites (14.5 percent), Asian Americans (13.7) and African Americans (7).

The study said "interest in playing" golf remained fairly constant with age but, not surprisingly, it increased with income, topping out at 32 percent among Hispanic households earning $75,000 or more.

That increase would not surprise Miriam Lopez, a financial planner in North Jersey and an officer with the Women's Golf Association of New Jersey.

Growing up in Washington Heights, a heavily Hispanic neighborhood in upper Manhattan, Lopez knew and cared little about golf. When she did get exposed to the game, working as a waitress at a private club in North Jersey during college, she wasn't impressed.

"I hated golf and anybody who played golf," said Lopez, acknowledging her feelings stemmed at least in part by how she felt she and other Hispanic employees were treated.

Years later, she is addicted to golf. Like so many other aspiring executives, Lopez took up golf at age 40 to advance her career, only to discover the game had appeal beyond what it could do for her professionally.

Miriam Lopez, for one, believes that if Ochoa remains No.1 and in the spotlight, she can't help but lure more Hispanics to the game.

"I think she will," Lopez said. "It won't be overnight. I think the growth will be slow. But look at what the Koreans have done. You go to the driving range here in North Jersey and you see a line of Korean girls practicing. That could happen."