Lorena Ochoa: What Does It Take To Be No. 1?

Ben GibsonSenior Analyst IMarch 3, 2009

While the world's No. 1 male golfer was making his return to the course, the world's No. 1 female golfer, Lorena Ochoa, was making her 2009 debut as well.

Granted, it may not have had the media blitz or featured the same dramatic comeback stemming from season-ending surgery.  However, unlike Tiger Woods, Ochoa brought home the gold by winning the Honda LPGA Thailand on Sunday.

Ochoa shot a six-under round of 66 on Sunday, including a front nine score of 32 to win by three shots over Hee Young Park.

At age 27, Ochoa has now collected 25 career victories, 22 of which have come since the start of the 2006 season.

With the retirement of Annika Sorenstam, the international symbol of women's golf rests squarely on the shoulders of Ochoa. The torch has officially been passed. 

In the latest world rankings, Ochoa has a six-point lead over second-ranked Yani Tseng, a young phenom in her own right.

That six-point gap is the equivalent distance between the second- and 23rd-ranked golfers in the world.

In other words, like Tiger, Ochoa is the unquestioned leader in her sport since she took the No. 1 ranking in April of 2007.

The question that remains then is, how can Ochoa become even better?

She had worked her entire life to become the top golfer on the planet and her goal has finally been achieved.

It was far from a smooth ride for Ochoa.  Much like every golfer, she needed to learn how to win, particularly in the majors.

Ochoa's had some near misses, particularly the 2005 U.S. Women's Open, where a drive in the water on 18 cost her a chance at victory, and the 2006 LPGA Championship, where she lost in a playoff to Karrie Webb after shooting a 62 in the final round.

Ochoa finally tasted major victory in 2007 in the Women's British Open at the birthplace of golf at St. Andrews, avenging a second-place loss in the U.S. Women's Open just a short time earlier.

Ochoa backed that up with a second consecutive major in 2008, a season in which she boasted 17 top-10s in 22 starts last season.

Ochoa has become a proven winner and as an icon of the game she can continue to add major championships to her collection.

However, what makes Ochoa different is that she is much more than a golfer, particularly to her home country of Mexico.

Ochoa has used her newfound celebrity status to improve the lives of her fellow citizens by building new schools in her hometown in Mexico.

Ochoa has constantly adorned herself with the colors of her country and has tried to be a role model for all the young girls growing up with big dreams.

Her insistence on charity and development, as well as her golf game, has made her a national symbol for Mexico.  Watching Ochoa's gallery shows the increasing global nature of the game that she plays.

No longer is golf restricted to the wealthy country clubs and the big name executives.  Golf is increasingly becoming available throughout the world and is becoming a viable option to millions who are falling in love with the sport.

When Ochoa takes the time to personally thank every single member of the greens crew, she is making a connection that helps set her apart from the crowd.

Ochoa's kind heart and charisma on the course has made her a fan favorite, and now she has a chance to add to her legacy.

Much like Tiger Woods, who has spent his career chasing down Jack Nicklaus's records, Ochoa has been on a similar march with Annika Sorenstam.

Sorenstam's 10 majors and 72 career victories are numbers that Ochoa will be eyeing as she enters the prime of her playing career.

For when it's all said and done, people don't remember how long you were ranked No. 1 or how many player-of-the-year awards you garner in golf, it's how many major trophies have your name inscribed on it.

Ochoa needs eight more major titles to tie Sorenstam's mark, but she is actually well ahead of the pace set by her rival.

When Sorenstam was 27, she also had two majors to her name but only 12 LPGA tournament victories.

By the way, because I know you were wondering, when Woods was 27 years old he had 34 career victories and eight majors to his name.

Still, while Ochoa's career to this very early point lies somewhere in between these two giants, there is reason to believe that 2009 may be the year Ochoa takes her already amazing accomplishments to the next level.

You may not have guessed but Ochoa's average driving distance was the longest on tour last season.  She is deceptively powerful, and as professionals have taught us lately, distance goes a long way toward victory.

With shorter distances in, Ochoa has led the tour on greens and regulations.  That consistency, combined with her command of the flat stick, allowed her to average more birdies per round than any other golfer on tour last season.

Ochoa's ability to make birdies is simply amazing. Over the past three years she has averaged nearly 4.4 birdies per round. 

As long as Ochoa can keep herself out of troubles and avoid the big numbers, she could be well on her way to a fine 2009 season.

The LPGA is in an exciting transition period.  For nearly a decade Sorenstam had represented the game beautifully, but now it's time for someone else to take up her mantle.

Being the No. 1 figure in the sport means more than just playing great golf.

It means dealing with the pressure of the most nerve-racking situations on the course with an army of cameras and Johnny Miller's watching your every move.

It means being accessible and courteous to sponsors, companies, founders, fans, and your fellow players.

It means doing something with your celebrity for the betterment of all.

It means playing with a charisma and a panache that separates you from the field.

It means knowing you're going to win as opposed to hoping you will win.

There are a slew of wonderful golfers who want and deserve this role, but no one seems to be in better position to assume this spot than Lorena Ochoa.


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