14 November 2005

Ochoa backs public course


BY DAVID AGREN/Special to The Herald Mexico
El Universal
November 14, 2005

In a city park filled with mechanical rides, a go-kart track and fading athletic facilities, Guadalajara golf star Lorena Ochoa and her management team envision their field of dreams. Theirs is a plan that would not only provide a place for aspiring golfers and weekend duffers to practice their chosen sport, but would also help pioneer a new concept in Mexico: the public golf course.

"Lorena Ochoa has as a goal … to make golf more popular," said Rodrigo Suárez Gilly, a partner in Ochoa Sports Management, an organization that represents the golfer's business interests. "The only way to make the sport of golf more popular is to invite people to play."

Golf, a game accessible to the masses north of the border, remains out of reach for the average Mexican. According to Ochoa Sports Management, fewer than 20,000 Mexicans play golf. Besides the high equipment costs, virtually no public courses exist. Some private clubs allow public access during certain hours, but the green fees are often steep. Additionally, potential players usually require an invitation to enter a club.

The Ochoa Sports Management proposal would "make the sport less expensive," Suárez said. "It's having public places so that people go play not necessarily as members."


To achieve their objective, Ochoa Sports Management expects to leverage the popularity of Ochoa, one of the nation's best-known female athletes, whose sporting success has been making headlines in Guadalajara for more than a decade. She won five world junior titles before receiving a scholarship to the University of Arizona.

Ochoa dominated the college ranks, finishing atop the leader board 12 times in three years. Since turning professional, she has won more than US3 million in prize money. She currently ranks fourth on the LPGA money list.

"All the sports in this country have grown when they had a sports figure," Suárez explained, pointing to Chihuahua native and National Basketball Association journeyman Eduardo Najera as an athlete who enhanced his sport's stature here after achieving success abroad.

"If you don't have a figure, people are not interested."

As an initial target group, Ochoa Sports Management is targeting a younger, sportsminded demographic; people familiar with golf and Lorena Ochoa but who have never picked up a nine iron. And to make the game even more accessible, the group is eyeing Parque Ávila Camacho for their course, an easily-accessible tract of land near the Guadalajara-Zapopan municipal boundary, a chip shot away from the exclusive Guadalajara Country Club, where Ochoa learned to play.

Other plots of land surrounding the Jalisco capital piqued their curiosity, but a long journey to the suburbs would drive up the cost for potential golfers.

"The idea is that someone can play 18 holes for US20," Suárez said.

Guadalajara public officials, however, have so far been cool to the idea. Still, Ochoa Sports Management wants civic involvement.

"It's not a profitable investment for a private company to install a public golf course," Suárez explained. "It might be something profitable in the long term."


Private clubs have sprung up all across the country over the past 25 years. Puerto Vallarta and Cabo San Lucas have become popular golf destinations. Golf legend Jack Nicklaus has designed 12 courses in Mexico. Many of the new developments don't permit non-members to tee it up or freeze out potential players with high prices.

"Hardly anyone has the chance to play golf," said Gustavo Pérez García, an 18-year-old golfer, who plays at the Chapala Country Club in San Nicolas de Ibarra, Jalisco.

Pérez previously worked as a caddy at the club, which allowed him an opportunity to access the nine-hole course. Nowadays, a group of members sponsor him, providing Pérez the chance to practice and participate in tournaments when not working at the country club.

"It's a lack of money that keeps people from playing," he explained, adding that few of his neighborhood friends, who grew near the golf club, have ever tried the sport.

Published in the Miami Herald, Mexico Edition.

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