Gaby Lopez — Setting Her Sights on the Tokyo Olympics
Lorena Ochoa is to Mexican golf what Se-Ri Pak is to golf in South Korea. While the magnitude of their legacies may differ, the on-course accomplishments of Ochoa parallel those of her Korean counterpart. Ochoa became the first player from Mexico to win on the LPGA tour, to win a Major Championship (2 in total), and to become a World Number 1 ranked player with 17 tour victories. In doing so, she inspired a whole new generation of players in her native country.
Gaby Lopez, currently ranked 42nd in the Rolex World Golf Rankings, is following in her hero's footsteps. She became the second player from Mexico to win on the LPGA, and in doing so, helping to inspire the next generation of players from Mexico.
Speaking to us from her family residence in Mexico City, Lopez opened up to us about her experience in golf, her dream and ambitions, and how she is working towards accomplishing one of her biggest career goals.
As a child, Lopez was introduced to golf when she was 5 years of age. She became a devoted golfer by the time she was 12, as golf competed with gymnastics, tennis and soccer (fútbol), for young Gaby's interest. "I was so lucky to have a golfing family ... what got me with golf was that it forced me to compete with myself." However, once she set her competitive mind to it, she quickly started setting herself apart with her golfing achievements. By the time she was 16, Lopez was a seasoned competitor in the Callaway IMG World Junior Golf Championship in San Diego, winning the 15-17 division in 2010.
After winning the championship with an impressive 7-stroke margin of victory, Lopez quickly found herself in high demand, receiving 33 scholarship offers from NCAA Division 1 Universities. She eventually chose the University of Arkansas,"because of the coaches – the coaches were the most interested in me ... they came down to Argentina to see me play in an international tournament, they took the time to come down to Mexico City to meet my family, my coach and my home course. They were definitely more worried about the girl than the golfer and not as someone who would just help their program but, would help the family and the team."
After 3 ½ years of collegiate golf, Gaby Lopez turned professional with 2016 being her rookie year on the LPGA. In reflecting back on her young, professional career, Lopez tells me about her transition from university to professional golf, "my first year on tour was easiest, it was so fairy tale, with everything being new and with no fears and nothing to lose but, everything to win. When I went to college, I took college golf like it was professional golf. I took time to do the little things that I would need to do as a pro."
With a serious focus throughout her collegiate career, it is easy to see the rationale in Lopez's thinking. After all, if you focus and prepare yourself mentally for important moments such as turning professional, then even though it may be a new experience, the mental preparation helps an individual in dealing with the "ups and downs" that come with it.
After finishing third in the Rolex Rookie of the Year standings, Lopez started focusing on taking her game to the next level. Lopez entered the 2018 season with growing confidence after having put together a solid finish to her 2017 season. After a tumultuous start to her 2018 season, Lopez finally settled down, playing more consistently, making more cuts and earning more paychecks. So, as she entered the Asian swing of the LPGA tour in the last stages of the competitive season, her opportunities to notch her first win were dwindling. Yet, her week in Hainan, China would prove to be a week to remember.
The Blue Bay event proved to be one of the most memorable events in Lopez's golfing career. She recorded her first win on the LPGA, edging out perennial contender Ariya Jutanugarn by a single stroke, France's up and coming Celine Boutier by 2 strokes and American Danielle Kang and Korean star Sei Young Kim by 3 strokes. "It was such an incredible memory ... it was one of my best. I had my first hole in one (on the 17th during the third round); it was my birthday that week and it was the one month anniversary of my granddad passing away. I felt a real sense of protection when I was playing (at Blue Bay) as if he was there with me. It (winning) was something that I looked forward to during practice and throughout the year. I never thought that I would cry as much as I did on the 18th green."
Her victory at the Blue Bay tournament was also noteworthy for another reason – she became only the second player from Mexico to win an LPGA event, joining her hero, Lorena Ochoa. "Just to follow her was such an honour ... she showed us that a player from Mexico could succeed (in the LPGA), especially when she became number one for so long (Rolex World Ranking No.1 ); She is such an incredible person off the course too; Lorena has been a huge mentor for me, she is so humble off of the course" says Lopez as the reflects back on her first win and the significance of joining Ochoa as Mexican golf's LPGA winners.
As she entered the 2019 season, Lopez was full of energy and confidence and she had her best year to date on tour. "I came into the season without injury, I came into 2018 with an injury, but starting 2019, I came into it without injury. It filled me with confidence, I had some top-10 finishes, it was a very stable year." But, the finish to the season forced her to reset herself as a player and her approach to the sport. "At the end of 2019 season I had a neck injury. I had to go to the hospital and had lots of rehab ... I had to reset my body and coming from an injury was not fun ... you could not work even though you wanted to, so coming into my 2020 was hard. I was not ready to hit the ball for a month, the adversity that came up was hard, but luckily I had a great team around me, the doctors, physiotherapists, I had my coach, my family and my boyfriend – everyone around me that could push me through this period."
" . . . I do lots of wedge work, that's such an important part of my game ... the wedge game makes a big difference, what separates amateur golfers from professionals is the wedge work ... getting up and down from 120 yards and in makes the difference between first, second, third, fourth and twentieth place on tour."
After enduring a difficult and challenging off-season, Lopez entered 2020 with unsure expectations, not knowing what the new season would bring, or how she would rebound from injury. After the rehabilitation of her neck injury progressed to the point that she could return to swinging a golf club, Gaby Lopez embarked on making changes. She kept working hard on her physical rehabilitation, but also with making a change to her swing. In response to her neck injury, where she injured her right trapezius muscle (on the back, right shoulder area) she started to work on a slightly different swing path, trying to shallow her swing out as she came into the impact zone.
By the time late January rolled around and the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions, Lopez was very uncertain and unsure of how she would fare. Once the week ended, she had quickly exceeded her expectations with a surprising, but extremely rewarding victory, winning the event in a playoff involving Hall of Fame player Inbee Park and fellow LPGA player Nasa Hataoka.
"Coming into Orlando, I had no expectations For sure, I was looking to the first tournaments to be warm ups for me ... but my caddie noticed how well I was hitting the ball, my ball flight, and I was doing well on the putting surface," says Lopez. However, prior to Orlando she says that "I was shanking the ball, because I had to change my swing to make it more stable so I wouldn't hurt my neck again ... I did not hit the ball exactly the way I wanted (in Orlando) ... but I guess perfect golf does not always come with perfect shots. It was really neat that I have the confidence right now that I don't need to hit it at my best to win ... I think that is my takeaway – that I am emotionally and mentally stronger than I was."
Given the somewhat unexpected win in Orlando, I was curious as to how Lopez might have reacted to the LPGA's unexpected hiatus. While many of Lopez's peers were disheartened over the lockdown and the involuntary break from the game, Lopez was encouraged. It offered her a significant period of time off so that she could continue working on her game and an opportunity to cement the changes that she made to her swing. "This quarantine has been perfect for me ... being able to change my swing ... these three months ( time off ) I have continued working on shallowing the club, I have had the opportunity to spend time with my family and my boyfriend ... we're taking time to enjoy that because we are always on the road (on tour )."
She shares what her typical pre-Covid19 practice day looks like, "I practice from 7:30 in the morning to 3 in the afternoon ... I work on drills so I can have a stable feeling of what a good swing is like ... then I do lots of wedge work, that's such an important part of my game, work on some speed drills, then go to the course with my coach to hit different shots ... the wedge game makes a big difference, what separates amateur golfers from professionals is the wedge work ... getting up and down from 120 yards and in makes the difference between first, second, third, fourth and twentieth place on tour."
Future Goals and the Olympics
The Tokyo Olympics were to be held in 2020, but like so many events, it was postponed to 2021, and in doing so, it means that Lopez will have another year to cement her swing change, adjust and fine tune her game with the goal of peaking in time for the Olympic golf tournament. In 2016, she represented her home country at the Rio Olympics and it was an extremely memorable experience, "just sharing the environment, the Olympic village, different athletes, different countries, Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt next to me was pretty neat, we all talk the same language of competition, what it's like to lose in competition ... it's just very neat to represent your country at the world's biggest event." It is an experience that she looks to repeat in the Tokyo Games as she goes for the podium in women's golf.
Golf in Mexico
Another important initiative that is close to Gaby's heart is helping to bring the game of golf to more of Mexico's young people. She accomplishes this through two significant initiatives. One is working with Lorena Ochoa and her charitable organization in Guadalajara, where Ochoa's organization has built a school for underprivileged children. In many respects, it is a terrific initiative, allowing Mexico's most successful golfer, having played in a sport that is often seen as being the primary domain of the more privileged and affluent segment of society, support the development of its underprivileged children through education. And, Lopez is happy to be assisting Ochoa as best she can.
The other initiative that she supports is Mexico's First Tee program, which brings Mexico's youngsters to the golf course and practice ranges, introducing them to golf. It is an initiative that helps to familiarize children with the sport. Ochoa also hosted an LPGA event, the "Lorena Ochoa Invitational Tournament" and Lopez was an eager participant, becoming one of the fan favourites – especially with the many young girls that attended the event from all over Mexico.
As Gaby Lopez's career progresses, the focus on women's golf in Mexico will stay strong, serving as a source of motivation and inspiration to a new generation of young children. With her determination and leadership, golf in Mexico will continue to grow. Indeed, Lopez has followed in the footsteps of her hero and has taken on the role of being another fantastic ambassador for the sport.
Lightning Round Q & A
Q1: What is your "hometown"?
A — Mexico City
Q2: What University did you attend?
A — Arkansas, a proud Razorback and a degree in Communications
Q3: What is your best golf memory?
A — Representing Mexico in the 2016 Olympic Games
Q4: What is your favourite fitness activity?
A — Jumping, right now it's "bug jumping"
Q5: What is your favourite course that you have played?
A — Sahalee Country Club (near Seattle, WA)
Q6: Who is your favourite person to play a round of golf with?
A — Carlota Ciganda (fellow LPGA player)
Q7: Who is the toughest competitor in women's golf today?
A — Inbee Park
Q8: What is your most memorable golf shot?
A — My hole in one at Blue Bay (site of Gaby's first LPGA win)
Q9: If you could win one event, what would it be?
A — the Olympic Games
Q10: You get to form a foursome for a round of golf. Besides you, who would you like to play with?
A — Tiger Woods, Seve Ballasteros, and my Grandpa
WITB – What’s in your bag for 2020?
Taylormade SIM 10.5 ᵒ degree
Callaway Epic Flash
Callaway Epic Flash
Titleist 818 - H3
Titleist T-100 Forged irons
Titleist Vokey SM8
50 ᵒ 54 ᵒ 60 ᵒ degrees
Taylormade Spider X
Ball: Titleist PRO V1
#LPGA #University of Arkansas Golf #KPMG Women's PGA #Sahalee C.C. #LPGA Twitter #KPMG Future Leaders #KPMG Women's Leadership #Rolex Rankings #Mexico Golf #LPGA Instagram #aeromexico #titleist #vokey #callaway #taylormade
All photos are courtesy of Gaby Lopez.
The First Tee logo is courtesy of the First Tee of Mexico.