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Ochoa Named Athlete of the Year
Courtesy: Arizona Athletics
Release: 12/30/2006
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Courtesy: Arizona Athletics
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By DOUG FERGUSON
AP Golf Writer

 

 

Lorena Ochoa learned at an early age to aim high and not be afraid to fail. She was 12 when she trained six months to climb the snow-covered top of Pico de Orizaba, Mexico's tallest mountain at 18,405 feet. When she was 5, Ochoa fell some 15 feet from a tree and broke both wrists, leaving her in a cast from her shoulders to her fingers.

 

"They said the doctor gave me magical wrists, some magic in my hand," Ochoa said.

 

Those hands delivered sheer magic on the golf course in 2006 when the 24-year-old Mexican overcame past failures to win six times and end Annika Sorenstam's five-year reign as the best player on the LPGA Tour.

 

Ochoa swept all the major honors on the LPGA and picked up another award at the end of the season with a landslide victory as the AP Female Athlete of the Year.

 

[Ochoa played golf at the University of Arizona in 2001 and 2002, each year earning National Player of the Year honors. The winner of the last three years' AP award was former Arizona Wildcat golfer Annika Sorrenstam.]

 

"That was my goal in January, just to be the best player on the tour," she said recently. "I always knew I could do it. I think I've been raising my level of golf, and also more mature now inside the golf course and outside, too. It helps."

 

She received 220 points in voting from sports editors around the country, double the point total of French tennis player Amelie Mauresmo, who captured Wimbledon and the Australian Open.

 

Tiger Woods was voted AP Male Athlete of the Year, the first time since 1993 that the male and female athletes came from the same sport (Michael Jordan-Sheryl Swoopes in basketball). And it was the first time since Babe Zaharias and Byron Nelson in 1945 that golfers swept the AP athlete awards.

 

Maria Sharapova, who won the U.S. Open in tennis, and Lisa Leslie, who won her third MVP award in the WNBA, tied for third with 60 points. Rounding out the top five were French Open champion Justin Henin-Hardenne and Hannah Teter, a snowboarding gold medalist at the Turin Olympics.

 

Ochoa has a passion for outdoor adventures, such as mountain climbing, and she brings a fearless attitude to golf. She has emerged as one of the most dynamic players, going after the flag every chance she gets.

 

"A lot of people get in that zone and they start freaking, but she just keeps plugging away, and I don't know if you can teach that," Juli Inkster said. "She doesn't really worry about anybody else. She just tries to go as low as she can. That's a great mentality to have."

 

It was the fourth straight year a golfer has won AP Female Athlete. Sorenstam won the award the previous three years.

 

There was no inkling that stardom would shift in women's golf at the start of the year when Sorenstam went to Ochoa's home turf and won her first start of the year at the MasterCard Classic in Mexico.

 

And there was no indication Ochoa had learned from her past failures at the first LPGA major of the year at the Kraft Nabisco, when she lost a three-shot lead in the final round. But she showed her fight that afternoon, hitting a 5-wood over the water to 6 feet on the final hole for an eagle to force a playoff.

 

Karrie Webb won on the first extra hole, but simply getting into a playoff sent Ochoa soaring. She went wire to wire in her next start to win the Takefugi Classic in Las Vegas. The next two months, she finished first or second in six tournaments.

 

Ochoa poured it on at the end of the year.

 

She won for the first time before her home crowd in Mexico, then seized control of the points-based LPGA player of the year award with a momentous duel in the desert against Sorenstam in the Samsung World Championship. The Swede had a three-shot lead going into the final round, but Ochoa fired at flags and closed with a 65 to win by two.

 

"She has blossomed to become a great player," Sorenstam said. "She is hitting the ball longer. She is hitting it straighter. She's putting extremely well. It's fun to see. She is such a nice person, and it's nice to see good things happen."

 

Ochoa grew up in Guadalajara and was 5 when she begged her father to take her to the golf course with her brothers. Three years later, she won the first of five straight titles in her age group at the Junior Worlds in San Diego.

 

"I don't know if she was born with a little bit of desire and a lot of talent, or a little bit of talent and a lot of desire," Kevin Hansen, the former head pro at Guadalajara, once said. "But it's a combination you cannot believe."

 

Intensely proud of her heritage, Ochoa reaches out to the Mexicans she sees at golf tournaments, many of them working on maintenance crew, all of them stopping to watch whenever she goes by.

 

"I'm very proud to be Mexican, and every time I see some Mexicans on the course, it could be the workers, or Mexicans that live here ... it gives me extra motivation," she said. "It makes me want to do things better and play good for them."

 

The only thing lacking from her stellar season was a major championship. But there is a feeling that will change soon.

"When you make those mistakes your first year or second year, you get them out of your way and then you make good things come," Ochoa said. "I'm a positive person, and I learn a lot, and it's not going to happen again, those bad shots. I didn't win any major, but I think I'm ready for them."

 

?© 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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