Lorena Ochoa didn’t have a blueprint for becoming the best in the world, and she certainly didn’t have a role model. Mexico had yet to produce anything resembling a world-class golfer, and Ochoa did not look like one at age 12.
So it was surprising when she told her coach she wanted to be No. 1.
“At that time, with the way I was playing, and being in Guadalajara, it was a little bit crazy to think that way,” Ochoa said toward the end of a historic season. “But I did it. It took me a long time, but I did it.”
It might have seemed like a long time from when she was 12, but she took only five years on the LPGA Tour to establish her reign.
She replaced Annika Sorenstam at No. 1 in the women’s world ranking. She captured her first major championship at the Women’s British Open, making history as the first female to win a professional event at St. Andrews. And she capped off the year with a fearless shot that defines her style, becoming the first LPGA Tour player to top $4 million in one season.
Maybe it wasn’t such a crazy dream.
Such was her dominance that for the second straight year, Ochoa was the overwhelming choice as the Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year. It was the fifth straight year a golfer has captured the Female Athlete award, the longest streak of any sport.
Ochoa received 71 votes from members of The Associated Press, equal to the combined total of the next seven athletes below her on the list.
She joined Sorenstam, Kathy Whitworth, Mickey Wright and Babe Zaharias as the only golfers to win the award in consecutive years.
“Being compared with such exceptional players makes me feel honored,” Ochoa said in an e-mail from Mexico, where she is spending a hard-earned vacation. “My main goal is maintain myself as the No. 1. Therefore, I can promise to keep improving.”
Justine Henin, who won her third straight French Open title in tennis, was second with 17 votes. Rounding out the top five were New York Marathon winner Paula Radcliffe, Tennessee basketball player Candace Parker and Allyson Felix, the second woman in history to win three gold medals at the World Track and Field Championships.
Tom Brady, who led the New England Patriots to 14 consecutive wins and was on pace to break Peyton Manning’s single season touchdown pass record of 49, was the AP Male Athlete of the Year. Brady received 51 votes, 18 more than runner-up Roger Federer, the Swiss tennis star who won his 5th consecutive Wimbledon and 4th consecutive U.S. Open, his 11th and 12th Grand Slam titles.
Never afraid to fail, Ochoa has been scaling heights since she was a girl.
She broke both wrists when she fell 15 feet from a tree at age 5. When she was 12, she trained six months to climb the snowcapped top of Pico de Orizaba, Mexico’s tallest mountain at 18,405 feet.
Her rise to No. 1 also was hard work.
Twice she had a chance to reach No. 1 by winning tournaments, but a triple bogey in the third round derailed her bid at the Kraft Nabisco Championship, and a double bogey on the final hole cost her the title at the Ginn Open.
The 26-year-old Ochoa became No. 1 during a week off in April. In her first tournament as the LPGA’s top player, with a frenzied gallery in Mexico ready for a coronation, she finished two shots behind unheralded Silvia Cavalleri.
Even more pressure came in the majors, the only achievement Ochoa was missing.
After blowing her chances at the Kraft Nabisco, Ochoa was tied for the lead in the U.S. Women’s Open with five holes to play until two poor tee shots left her short again. But she buried those demons for good at the Women’s British Open, where a gritty chip on the dangerous Road Hole secured a four-shot victory.
“There were a lot of people saying that I wasn’t good enough, or that I couldn’t win a major, or when am I going to win a major,” Ochoa said. “And I always have taken all of the comments and understood very well because I didn’t win. I just think now it’s a big step forward. I did it, and there’s no more to say.”
But she didn’t pack it in.
Ochoa will soak in a view from the top of a mountain, but her eyes are quick to scan the horizon for the next mountain to climb. She won her next two starts on the LPGA Tour and finished the season with eight victories, finishing out of the top 10 only four times.
“I don’t like to look back,” she said. “I was always very motivated to become No. 1 because of what it meant and because of all the effort and passion I have put in during my life to golf. Now that I am No. 1, I’m even more motivated to keep giving my best.”
Sorenstam was injured for about half the season, but even the Swede wonders if she could have stopped Ochoa.
“I have a lot of respect for Lorena,” Sorenstam sad. “I think she’s a fantastic player. She deserves to be No. 1. She’s playing consistent every week. She’s playing as good as anybody can play.”
Still, she is not perfect, which showed in two collapses at majors, and another that almost cost her $1 million. A four-shot lead was trimmed to one at the ADT Championship, and Ochoa found her tee shot on the 18th so buried in Bermuda rough that she could only see half the ball as she sized up her 161-yard shot over the water.
She hit her approach to 30 inches, the signature shot in the best season of her career.
“I think she’s been the best player,” Karrie Webb said. “I don’t think any of the players question that.”
Playing golf is only part of what makes Ochoa a superstar. At a gathering of LPGA Tour founders, Ochoa politely asked each for an autograph.
And after winning $1 million from the final event of the year, Ochoa pledged $100,000 for flood victims in Mexico and set aside a large amount to help build schools for the needy children in her town.
Two of her cousins made a documentary of Ochoa this year, bringing a hand-held video camera to all the tournaments. They live in the United States, and often tried to expand Ochoa’s vocabulary.
Instead of saying she had a good day during the U.S. Women’s Open, she said it was “delightful,” and then looked to her cousins to make sure she used the word properly.
Perhaps the next word to learn is sensational. Her play has been nothing but that for the last two years.