MEXICO CITY -- Though Ana Menendez and Gaby Lopez made quick exits in match play at the Lorena Ochoa Invitational last weekend, the two Mexican golfers and best friends will likely carry the experience with them for a long time.
Menendez, 25, and Lopez, 23, both grew up in awe of the tournament's namesake and aspired to one day play beside her. Though Ochoa retired in 2011, the young pros got their chance last week, before the tournament.
“It was great,” said Menendez. “The three of us played a round together and it was a dream.”
Ochoa, a 27-time LPGA tournament winner who will be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in September, blazed her path and set up a blueprint that both proteges would follow in their amateur days.
After two years at the University of Arizona, Ochoa turned pro and launched into a spectacular career that would see her hold the tour's top ranking for 158 consecutive weeks. Menendez, a North Carolina State alum, and Lopez, who attended the University of Arkansas, are just two of the up-and-comers looking to continue Ochoa's legacy at the highest level.
“We have more than 100 players playing in the United States for college golf, girls or boys,” Ochoa told the media last week. “And that’s a huge step. So we’ll see I think more professionals in the future in better positions.”
The collegiate experience in the United States is vital for many Mexican golfing amateurs, who experience a higher level of competition and training by emigrating north of the border. In Menendez's case, a trip to a juvenile golf camp in Raleigh made an impression on her, as did she on NC State coaches at the event. Years later, she would get a scholarship offer to join the university.
“I was very happy [at North Carolina State], I learned so much and had access to things that many athletes in Mexico don't usually get to experience,” said Menendez.
Lopez concurs. “Arkansas has been a huge part of my career,” she told the university's website. “I’m just really grateful because they helped me get to this point. Without them I don’t know if I would be here.”
Both have benefited from their experience in the United States, like Ochoa did, to launch into their pro careers. Lopez, ranked No. 100 by the LPGA as of May 8, seems to have the current edge over her friend in making a run to the top.
The next-highest Mexican on the ranking, Alejandra Llaneza (No. 473), also played her amateur golf in the United States, following in Ochoa's footsteps by enrolling at the University of Arizona, where she played alongside another compatriot and future pro, Margarita Ramos.
Llaneza and Lopez both represented Mexico at the Rio Olympics last year. On the men's side, 27-year-old Rodolfo Cauzabon, a three-time winner in the PGA Tour Latinoamerica, went to North Texas University, where he was named an All-American in 2013.
The NCAA system and its molding of Mexican student-athletes has had a strong effect on the nation. So much so, that some Mexican schools have held formal discussions as to joining the organization in the near future.
The latest, CETYS University in Baja California, was profiled in the New York Times as its bid to become a Division II school became public. The school, only a few miles from the California border, hopes to compete in a myriad of sports, including golf.
Though Lopez and Menendez were both beaten in the first round of the Lorena Ochoa Invitational (Menendez, ranked 518th in the world, bowed out to top-ranked Lydia Ko of New Zealand), the mere presence of the Mexican golfers was an announcement of sorts, an acknowledgement of Ochoa's influence on the boys and girls who watched her dominate during her career.
“It was an absolute honor to have played with her,” Menendez said. “She really pushed us to do our best and gave us a lot of advice.”
That experience, more so than the actual competition, is motivation enough to keep going.
“I really learned a lot [from her]. I'm coming back stronger next year,” she said.