How Lorena Ochoa inspired a new generation of Mexican golfers

Lorena Ochoa is the first Mexican to be inducted to the World Golf Hall of Fame. Mike Stobe/Getty Images

MEXICO CITY -- Ana Menendez still remembers the first time she met Lorena Ochoa.

The Ladies European Tour pro and North Carolina State graduate was 11 years old then, an eager child in the presence of Ochoa, her idol and already one of the LPGA’s biggest stars.

“My dad took me to an autograph signing,” Menendez said. “Lorena asked me what I wanted her to sign. I had brought every single one of my caps. She smiled at me and signed them all.”

In time, Menendez found such anecdotes about Ochoa -- who on Sept. 27 became the World Golf Hall of Fame’s youngest inductee at 35 years old -- to be more common than she might have thought.

Fellow pro Gaby Lopez recalled her first experience with Ochoa in 2007, when the latter was reaching her apex and the former was a budding junior player.

“When I was 13, I had the opportunity to train with her while she was ranked No. 1 in the world,” said Lopez, the LPGA tour player and former All-SEC at Arkansas. “That moment marked my life. Just being able to get five minutes with her were enough for me to help me fulfill my dream.” Less than a decade later, Lopez would join the pro tour and represent Mexico at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Ochoa’s own journey began when she was 5 years old. She took up golf on the suggestion of her father after she healed from two broken hands.

“I joke with my doctor to this day that he gave me magic hands, bionic hands made to play golf,” said Ochoa. Three years later, she had made the junior Mexican national team and quickly became a top prospect. Her prowess as an adolescent, winning five consecutive Junior World Golf Championships, prompted the University of Arizona to give her a scholarship in 2000.

At Arizona, she won Mexico’s National Sports Award in 2001, becoming the youngest athlete in the nation’s history to receive the honor and putting her squarely in the public eye.

A dominant force in women’s golf over the past decade, Ochoa won 27 LPGA tournaments from 2004 to 2009 and two major championships, the 2007 British Open and the 2008 Kraft Nabisco Championship. She also racked up several individual awards, including a Rookie of the Year honor and four Player of the Year titles during the aforementioned period.

“I would watch her on television, watch her dominate these tournaments and want to go out and practice right away. I can only imagine there were millions of others just like me inspired by her,” said Menendez.

Throughout her playing career and after it, the only Mexican-born Hall of Famer has been an accessible figure to those looking to follow in her footsteps, through initiatives such as the Lorena Ochoa Foundation. A passion project for the Guadalajara native, the nonprofit was created to help low-income schools in and around her hometown.

“[The foundation] has been something very near to me since I was playing,” said Ochoa. “I’ve always been drawn to helping children.”

Ochoa delights in continuing her mentorship of Lopez, Menendez and other golfers, even as a retired pro.

“It fills me with hope that I can inspire them this way,” Ochoa said. “It’s a huge responsibility to know young people are watching and look up to you. I’m very proud to say I’m friends with both [Ana and Gaby] and to be able to help them any way I can.”

Though Menendez outgrew the hats, she continued bringing them to tournaments as good luck charms. When she met Lopez, the two bonded over their mutual admiration of Ochoa, as well as the time spent with her over the years. “She’s been an inspiration to me both on and off the golf course,” said Lopez.

“It’s amazing how just talking to her makes you want to be better,” Menendez concurred.

Last March in Mexico City, at the Lorena Ochoa Invitational, the young pros relished the opportunity to play a few holes with their hero before the competition began.

“I feel very fortunate to have spent time with her,” said Lopez. “Very few people understand what was behind her Hall of Fame career. I admire her in all facets because what she did wasn’t easy.”

Spending time on the links with Ochoa “was completely eye-opening,” Menendez revealed. The 25-year-old believes she has become a better player since then and has applied Ochoa’s tips and observations to her play on a regular basis.

Long after her playing career, Ochoa continues to be a massive sports figure in her country, and in the sport itself.

During her retirement announcement in 2010, at the age of 28, Ochoa cited her family as the shifting priority behind her decision to step away. At the time, she had been ranked as the top player in the world for an LPGA-record 158 weeks, a mark that still stands today.

Aside from her foundation, Ochoa dedicates ample time to her family. Shortly before retiring, she married Mexican businessman Andres Conesa in 2009 and now has three children.

Despite the fact that she has kept her LPGA license and continues to appear sparingly in tournaments since her retirement, including the one bearing her name, there has been no wavering in Ochoa’s decision to stay retired from high competition.

“I didn’t want to go on,” Ochoa said. “I realized at the time my life had changed, and golf was no longer the priority. I’m very happy to have made that decision at the right time and focus on other things.”

In Mexico, a nation with stark economic contrasts, golf remains a sport out of the reach of most children. However, players like Lopez, Menendez and Alejandra Llaneza, another Mexican on the LPGA Tour, demonstrate the influence Ochoa’s career has had on her countrywomen.

The shadow cast by Ochoa, though long, represents a welcome challenge for those she has inspired across Mexico. Lopez, a 23-year-old who is on her second year in the LPGA Tour and ranked 61st in the world, has notched two top-10 finishes this year and more than half a million dollars in earnings since turning pro.

“Though I can’t compare myself to Lorena, because we are different people playing in different times, she’ll always be a parameter and a measure of success for me and any Mexican golfer,” said Lopez.

Both Lopez and Menendez said they watched their role model on television at the time of her induction.

“I got goosebumps watching the whole thing. When they called her name, the hairs on my arms stood straight up,” said Menendez.

“We’re all here because of her. There will never be another Lorena Ochoa.”