Sometimes when you scrawl your name into the record book the achievement is amplified by the names next to yours. And sometime when success arrives the thrill of victory is intensified by the obstacles overcome. Both were true for Gaby Lopez on Saturday when her one-stroke victory in the Blue Bay LPGA united her with the legendary Lorena Ochoa as the only tour winners from Mexico after Gaby persevered in a gutsy final-round showdown with the two top players in the world.
Before the round, Lopez made it clear she was playing for her country as she dressed in the national colors of Mexico and after she held off Rolex No. 1 Ariya Jutanugarn, the 25-year-old product of the University of Arkansas dedicated the trophy to her grandfather, Jose Lopez, who died earlier this year.
Taking a one-stroke lead over Jutanugarn into the final round, thanks in part to a hole-in-one on No. 17 in the third round, a feat congratulated by Ochoa on Twitter, Lopez widened the margin to four strokes as they entered the back nine after Ariya stumbled to a 40. Then, as Jutanugarn was making a run with three birdies, Lopez went on a back nine roller coaster ride, making four birdies and four bogeys, including the final two holes.
Still, Lopez managed to close out a 73 that left her and eight-under-par 280 with Jutanugarn at 281, Celine Boutier at 282, Danielle Kang and Sei Young Kim at 285, Jennifer Song at 287, Moriya Jutanugarn and Rolex No. 2 Sung Hyun Park at 288. Defending champion Shanshan Feng entertained her home country crowd on Hainan Island, China, at 289, good for ninth place.
“I've played with Ariya and Sung Hyun before,” Lopez said. “Probably this was the biggest challenge that I've ever faced on the golf course, being in the same group as world No. 1 and world No. 2. I was just very fortunate and very lucky to have that challenge, to face it, knowing I had to play my best game because they were going to play good. I knew they were going to hit some great shots and I had to keep up with them.”
Lopez is leaving China with not only her first LPGA trophy but also with renewed confidence, seeing her bogey-bogey finish as a learning experience
“At the same time [this] just tells me that I could be in the same level [as Jutanugarn and Park],” she said. “I'm working, I'm practicing, and doing lots of hard stuff to one day be up there in the world rankings with them. It's been a tough year firstly because I got an injury at the beginning of the year that took me out of play for about six weeks. I thought that this day actually was going to come a long time from now.”
Ochoa, who retired in 2010 at the age of 28 with 27 LPGA trophies on her mantle, including two major championships, was the best player in women’s golf for several years. Her impact on golf in Mexico was massive and in U.S. cities with large Mexican-American populations fans would turn out in huge numbers to follow her, waving the flag of Mexico. Lorena was also known for visiting Mexican workers at tournaments and thanking them for their hard work and for representing their country so well.
One of those inspired by Ochoa was Lopez. “Lorena has been my mentor every since I turned pro,” Gaby said. “You know, she's been my inspiration for my whole life. I'm just very, very happy that I'm getting another win for Mexico. That's why I wear green, white, and red on Sundays, because I've been dreaming of this moment my whole life. Representing Mexico, it's probably the biggest honor.”
Like Ochoa, who retired to start a family and focus on the philanthropic work of her pioneering foundation, which helps children get an education, Lopez is motivated by a love of country and a devotion to family.
“My grandfather, Jose Lopez, the thing he liked most was golf,” Lopez said about the passing of a key figure in her life. “Being his first grandchild, just very, very special to, I don't know, I guess give this to him, you know. I think I'm speechless because he's been with me all week for sure. I wanted to give this to him whenever I have a chance, but I'm just really, really happy that he was with me all week.”
For Lopez, Blue Bay was what she hopes is the beginning of the next phase of her career. “I been working really hard the last couple years,” said Lopez, whose rookie year was 2016. “ I guess just staying very aware of what I've been learning, very aware of what I've been doing with my mind, with my body, and I guess the sum of a lot of the things, little things that make the big picture.”
That big picture started to form in her mind when she was a junior golfer watching Lorena Ochoa gather in LPGA trophies. And now she has a trophy of her own, dedicated to her grandfather and inspired by Lorena – perfect bookends for a year of heartbreak and exhilaration.