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.
Tiger's checklist: How he can contend at Augusta
PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Augusta is already on the minds of most players here at the Honda Classic, and that includes the only one in the field with four green jackets.
Yes, Tiger Woods has been talking about the Masters ever since he started this latest comeback at Torrey Pines. These three months are all about trying to build momentum for the year’s first major.
Woods hasn’t revealed his schedule past this week, but his options are limited. He’s a good bet to play at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he has won eight times, but adding another start would be a departure from the norm. He’s not eligible for the two World Golf Championship events, in Mexico and Austin, and he has never played the Valspar Championship or the Houston Open.
So there’s a greater sense of urgency this week at PGA National, which is realistically one of his final tune-ups.
How will Woods know if he’s ready to contend at Augusta? Here’s his pre-Masters checklist:
1. Stay healthy
So far, so good, as Woods tries to resume a normal playing schedule following four back surgeries since 2014. Though he vowed to learn from his past mistakes and not push himself, it was a promising sign that Woods felt strong enough to sign up for the Honda, the second of back-to-back starts on separate coasts.
Another reason for optimism on the health front: The soreness that Woods felt after his season opener at Torrey Pines wasn’t related to his surgically repaired back. No, what ached most were his feet – he wasn’t used to walking 72 holes on hilly terrain.
Woods is stiffer than normal, but that’s to be expected. His back is fused.
2. Figure out his driver
Augusta National is more forgiving off the tee than most major courses, putting more of a premium on approach shots and recoveries.
That’s good news for Woods, who has yet to find a reliable tee shot. Clearly, he is most comfortable playing a fade and wants to take the left side of the course out of play, but in competition he’s been plagued by a two-way miss.
In two starts this year, Woods has hit only 36 percent of the fairways, no matter if he was using driver, fairway wood or long iron.
Unfortunately, Woods is unlikely to gain any significant insight into his driver play this week. PGA National’s Champion Course isn’t overly long, but there is water on 15 of the 18 holes. As a result, he said he likely will hit driver only four times a round, maybe five, and otherwise rely on his 3-wood and 2-iron.
Said Rory McIlroy: “Being conservative off the tee is something that you have to do here to play well.”
That won’t be the case at Augusta.
3. Clean up his iron play
As wayward as Woods has been off the tee, his iron play hasn’t impressed, either.
At Riviera, he hit only 16 greens in regulation – his fewest in a Tour event as a professional. Of course, Woods’ chances of hitting the green are reduced when he’s playing from the thick rough, sand and trees, but he also misfired on six of the eight par 3s.
Even when Woods does find the green, he’s not close enough to the hole. Had he played enough rounds to qualify, his proximity to the hole (39 feet, 7 inches) would rank 161st on Tour.
That won’t be good enough at Augusta, where distance control and precision are paramount.
Perhaps that’s why Justin Thomas said last week what many of us were thinking: “I would say he’s a pretty good ways away.”
4. Get into contention somewhere
As much as he would have liked to pick off a win on the West Coast, Woods said that it’s not a prerequisite to have a chance at the Masters. He cited 2010, when he tied for fourth despite taking four months off after the fallout from his scandal.
In reality, though, there hasn’t been an out-of-nowhere Masters champion since Charl Schwartzel in 2011. Since then, every player who eventually donned the green jacket either already had a win that year or at least a top-3 finish worldwide.
“I would like to play well,” Woods said. “I would like to win golf tournaments leading into it. The years I’ve won there, I’ve played really well early.”
Indeed, he had at least one win in all of the years he went on to win the Masters (1997, 2000, ’01, ’05). Throw in the fact that Woods is nearly five years removed from his last Tour title, and it’s reasonable to believe that he at least needs to get himself into contention before he can seriously entertain winning another major.
And so that’s why he’s here at the Honda, trying to find his game with seven weeks to go.
“It’s tournament reps,” he said, “and I need tournament reps.”
Add that to the rest of his pre-Masters checklist.
Players winner to get 3-year exemption into PGA
Although The Players isn’t golf’s fifth major, it received a boost in that direction this week.
The PGA of America has adjusted its criteria for eligibility into the PGA Championship, extending an exemption for the winner of The Players to three years.
According to an official with the PGA of America, the association felt the winner of The Players deserved more than a single-year exemption, which had been the case, and the move is consistent with how the PGA Tour’s annual flagship event is treated by the other majors.
Winners of The Players were already exempt for three years into the Masters, U.S. Open and The Open Championship.
The change will begin with this year’s PGA Championship.
Thomas: Playing in front of Tiger even more chaotic
PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Justin Thomas may be going from the frying pan to the fire of Tiger Woods’ pairings.
Translation: He’s going from being grouped with Woods last week in the first two rounds at the Genesis Open to being grouped directly in front of Woods this week at the Honda Classic.
“Which might be even worse than playing with him,” Thomas said Wednesday.
Typically, the pairing in front of Woods deals with a lot of gallery movement, with fans racing ahead to get in position to see Woods’ next shot.
Thomas was quoted after two rounds with Tiger at Riviera saying fans “got a little out of hand,” and saying it’s disappointing some golf fans today think it’s “so amusing to yell and all that stuff while we’re trying to hit shots.”
With 200,000 fans expected this week at the Honda Classic, and with the Goslings Bear Trap pavilion setting a party mood at the 16th green and 17th tee, that portion of the course figures to be quite lively at PGA National.
Thomas was asked about that.
“I touched on this a little bit last week,” Thomas said. “I think it got blown out of proportion, was just taken out of context, and worded differently than how I said it or meant it.
“I love the fans. The fans are what I hope to have a lot of, what all of us hope to have a lot of. We want them cheering us on. But it's those certain fans that are choosing to yell at the wrong times, or just saying stuff that's completely inappropriate.”
Thomas said it’s more than ill-timed shouts. It’s the nature of some things being said.
“It's one thing if it's just you and I talking, but when you're around kids, when you're around women, when you're around families, or just around people in general, some of the stuff they are saying to us is just extremely inappropriate,” he said. “There’s really no place for it anywhere, especially on a golf course.
“I feel like golf is pretty well known as a classy sport, not that other sports aren't, but it has that reputation.”
Thomas said the nature of the 17th hole at PGA National’s Champion Course makes it a more difficult tee shot than the raucous 16th at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Typically, players like to hear fans get into the action before or after they hit shots. Ill-timed bluster, however, makes a shot like the one at Honda’s 17th even tougher.
“That hole is hard enough,” Thomas said. “I don't need someone yelling in my ear on my backswing that I'm going to hit it in the water, to make it any harder. I hope it gets better, just for the sake of the game. That's not helping anything. That's not helping grow the game.”
Those who follow golf know an ill-timed shout in a player’s backswing is different than anything a fan says at a football, basketball or baseball game. An ill-timed comment in a backswing has a greater effect on the outcome of a competition.
“Just in terms of how much money we're playing for, how many points we're playing for ... this is our jobs out here, and you hate to somehow see something that a fan does, or something that they yell, influence something that affects [a player’s] job,” Thomas said.
Rory: Phil said RC task force just copied Europe
PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Playing the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am two weeks ago, Rory McIlroy quizzed Phil Mickelson about what the Americans got out of the U.S. Ryder Cup task force’s overhaul.
McIlroy and Mickelson were paired together at Pebble Beach.
“Basically, all they are doing is copying what the Europeans have done,” McIlroy said. “That's what he said.”
The Europeans claimed their sixth of seven Ryder Cups with their victory at Gleneagles in 2014. That brought about a sea change in the way the United States approached the Ryder Cup. Mickelson called out the tactics in Gleneagles of captain Tom Watson, who was outmaneuvered by European captain Paul McGinley.
The Americans defeated Europe at Hazeltine two years ago with that new European model.
“He said the first thing they did in that task force was Phil played a video, a 12-minute video of Paul McGinley to all of them,” McIlroy said. “So, they are copying what we do, and it's working for them. It's more cohesive, and the team and the core of that team are more in control of what they are doing, instead of the PGA of America recruiting and someone telling them what to do.”