Ochoa Garners AP Athlete of the Year Award
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 to 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 18 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.
Copyright 2007 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
Day: Woods feeling good, hitting it long
Jason Day says Tiger Woods told him he feels better than he has in three years, which is good news for Woods a week ahead of his return to the PGA Tour at the Hero World Challenge.
Day, a fellow Nike endorser, was asked about Woods during his news conference at the Emirates Australian Open on Wednesday. "I did talk to him," Day said, per a report in the Sydney Morning Herald,"and he did say it's the best he's ever felt in three years'" Day said.
"He doesn't wake up with pain anymore, which is great. I said to him, 'Look, it's great to be one of the best players ever to live, but health is one thing that we all take for granted and if you can't live a happy, healthy life, then that's difficult.'"
The Hero World Challenge will be played Nov. 30-Dec. 3 in the Bahamas and broadcast on Golf Channel and NBC.
Day, who has had his own health issues, said he could empathize with Woods.
"I totally understand where he's coming from, because sometimes I wake up in the morning and it takes me 10 minutes to get out of bed, and for him to be in pain for three years is very frustrating."
Woods has not played since February after undergoing surgery following a recurrence of back problems.
"From what I see on Instagram and what he's been telling me, he says he's ready and I'm hoping that he is, because from what I hear, he's hitting it very long," Day said.
"And if he's hitting it long and straight, then that's going to be tough for us because it is Tiger Woods. He's always been a clutch putter and in amongst the best and it will be interesting to see.
"There's no pressure. I think it's a 17- or 18-man field, there's no cut, he's playing at a tournament where last year I think he had the most birdies at."
Move over Lydia, a new Ko is coming to LPGA
Another gifted young South Korean will be joining the LPGA ranks next year.
Jin Young Ko, the Korean LPGA Tour star, informed the American-based LPGA on Sunday night that she will be taking up membership next year. Ko earned the right by winning the LPGA’s KEB Hana Bank Championship as a nonmember in South Korea in October.
Ko, 22, no relation to Lydia Ko, first burst on to the international spotlight with her run into contention at the Ricoh Women’s British Open at Turnberry two years ago. She led there through 54 holes, with Inbee Park overtaking her in the final round to win.
With 10 KLPGA Tour titles, three in each of the last two seasons, Ko has risen to No. 19 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings.
Ko told GolfChannel.com Sunday afternoon that she was struggling over the decision, with a Monday deadline looming.
“It’s a difficult decision to leave home,” Ko said after the final round of the CME Group Tour Championship in Naples, when she was still undecided. “The travelling far away, on my own, the loneliness, that’s what is difficult.”
Ko will be the favorite to win the LPGA’s Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year Award next year. South Koreans have won that award the last three years. Sung Hyun Park won it this year, In Gee Chun last year and Sei Young Kim in 2015. South Korean-born players have won the last four, with New Zealand’s Lydia Ko winning it in 2014. Ko was born in South Korea and moved to New Zealand when she was 6.
Ko released this statement through the LPGA on Wednesday:
"It has been my dream since I was young to play on the LPGA Tour and I look forward to testing myself against the best players on a worldwide stage. I know it is going to be tough but making a first win as an LPGA member and winning the Rolex Rookie of the Year award would be two of the biggest goals I would like to achieve next year."
Piller pregnant, no timetable for LPGA return
Gerina Piller, the American Olympian golfer and three-time Solheim Cup veteran, is pregnant and will not be rejoining the LPGA when the 2018 season opens, the New York Times reported following the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship.
Piller, 32, who is married to PGA Tour pro Martin Piller, is due with the couple’s first child in May, Golf Channel’s Jerry Foltz reported.
Piller declined an interview request when GolfChannel.com sought comment going into the CME Group Tour Championship.
Piller told the New York Times she has no timetable for her return but that she isn’t done with competitive golf.
“I’m not just giving everything up,” Piller said.
As parity reigns, LPGA searching for a superstar
Apologies to the LPGA’s golden eras, but women’s golf has never been deeper.
With the game going global, with the unrelenting wave of Asian talent continuing to slam the tour’s shores, with Thailand and China promising to add to what South Korea is delivering, it’s more difficult than ever to win.
That’s a beautiful and perplexing thing for the women’s game.
That’s because it is more difficult than ever to dominate.
And that’s a magic word in golf.
There is no more powerful elixir in the sport.
Domination gets you on the cover of Sports Illustrated, on ESPN SportsCenter, maybe even on NBC Nightly News if the “D” in domination is dynamic enough.
The women’s best chance of moving their sport to another stratosphere is riding the back of a superstar.
Or maybe a pair of superstar rivals.
A constellation of stars may be great for the devoted regular supporters of the women’s game, but it will take a charismatic superstar to make casual fans care.
The LPGA needs a Serena Williams.
Or the reincarnation of Babe Zaharias.
For those of us who regularly follow the LPGA, this constellation of stars makes for compelling stories, a variety of scripting to feature.
The reality, however, is that it takes one colossal story told over and over again to burst out of a sports niche.
The late, great CBS sports director Frank Chirkinian knew what he had sitting in a TV production truck the first time he saw one of his cameras bring a certain young star into focus at the Masters.
“It’s this player coming up over the brow of the hill at the 15th hole to play his second shot,” Chirkinian once told me over lunch at a golf course he owned in South Florida. “He studies his shot, then flips his cigarette, hitches up his trousers and takes this mighty swipe and knocks the shot on the green. It was my first experience with Arnold Palmer, and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, who is this guy?’
“The thing about golf, more than any other sport, it’s always looking for a star. It’s the only sport where people will root against the underdog. They don’t want the stars to lose. They’re OK with some unknown rising up to be the story on Thursday or Friday, but they always want to see the stars win.”
And they go gaga when it’s one star so radiant that he or she dominates attention.
“It didn’t matter if Arnold was leading, or where he was, you had to show him,” Chirkinian said. “You never knew when he might do something spectacular.”
The LPGA is in a healthy place again, with a big upside globally, with so much emerging talent sharing the spotlight.
Take Sunday at the CME Group Tour Championship.
The back nine started with Lexi Thompson and Michelle Wie making the turn tied for the lead. There is no more powerful pairing to sell in the women’s game today, but there would be no duel. It would have been too far off script as the final chapter to this season.
Parity was the story this year.
Sunday in Naples started with 18 players within two shots of the lead.
Entering that back nine, almost a dozen players were in the mix, including Ariya Jutanugarn.
The day ended with Jutanugarn beating Thompson with a dramatic birdie-birdie finish after Thompson stunned viewers missing a 2-foot putt for par at the last.
The day encapsulated the expanding LPGA universe.
“I’ve never seen such crazy, brilliant golf from these ladies,” said Gary Gilchrist, who coaches Jutanugarn, Lydia Ko and Rolex world No. 1 Shanshan Feng. “It was unbelievable out there. It was just like birdie after birdie after birdie, and the scoreboard went up and down. And that’s why it’s so hard to be No. 1 on this tour. There’s not one person who can peak. It’s all of them at a phenomenal level of golf.”
If Thompson had made that last 2-footer and gone on to win the CME, she would have become the sixth different world No. 1 this year. Before this year, there had never been more than three different No. 1s in a single LPGA season.
Parity was the theme from the year’s start.
There were 15 different winners to open the season, something that hadn’t happened in 26 years. There were five different major championship winners.
This year’s Rolex Player of the Year Award was presented Sunday to So Yeon Ryu and Sung Hyun Park. It’s the first time the award has been shared since its inception in 1966.
Thompson won twice this year, with six second-place finishes, with three of those playoff losses, one of them in a major championship. She was close to putting together a spectacular year. She was close to dominating and maybe becoming the tour’s one true rock star.
Ultimately, Thompson showed us how hard that is to do now.
She’s in a constellation we’re all watching, to see if maybe one star breaks out, somebody able to take the game into living rooms it has never been, to a level of popularity it’s never been.
The game won’t get there with another golden era. It will get there with a golden player.