Pushed To The Side


Ochoa leaves the LPGA as the No.1-ranked player in the world.

The first sign something was wrong came early last year. Lorena Ochoa missed a short putt, cleaned up the mess, plucked her ball from the hole and slammed it to the ground as hard as her muscular arms could throw, leaving a dent on the edge of the green, which she promptly fixed. It was an act of frustration and anger so completely out of character for a relentlessly friendly woman who began every media interview session with a cheery, "Hello." What was going on here?

Ochoa, who at one time played the game with an aggressive passion reminiscent of a young Arnold Palmer -- complete with the powerful, unorthodox swing -- was no longer having fun on the golf course. The presumed heir apparent to Annika Sorenstam's mantle as best in the world of women's golf was seemingly unraveling. And now she is walking away from the game. The question is for how long.

Newly married and with three stepchildren, Ochoa's life has become enormously complicated the last two years. The instant family combined with the impressive charity work she does in Mexico through her foundation have provided Ochoa with not so much off-course distractions as perhaps off-course obligations she takes very seriously. It has been clear for a while now that her mind was not completely engaged with golf when she was on the course.

Since Ochoa has always said she would retire young to focus on a family and her foundation, the announcement Tuesday that she was stepping away from the game does not come as a complete surprise. The timing does, however. Ochoa has already qualified for the LPGA Hall of Fame -- except for the 10-years on tour needed. That would come for her in the 2012 season. Will she come back to fulfill that requirement?

Perhaps what we are seeing here is an attempt by Ochoa to regroup, settle into her new family and find her footing before finishing up her golf mission. The LPGA can only hope so. Certainly this is another monkey wrench thrown into the already gummed-up works for a tour trying to recover from the Carolyn Bivens commissionership and the Great Recession, falling from 34 to 25 tournaments in two years.

In Ochoa, new commissioner Mike Whan has exactly the kind of dynamic, international player he could sell to potential sponsors. An immediate question is what impact a lengthy Ochoa absence would have on the three LPGA tournaments in Mexico -- including one run by Ochoa. There is no room to lose any more events. In fact, when the number of LPGA events dips below 30 events, the tour's business model is already shaky at best.

There had been whispers about trouble in Ochoa's personal life for well over a year, pretty much ever since Andres Conesa, the director general of Aeromexico, whom she married in December, went public with their relationship by appearing at LPGA events. The relationship complicated Ochoa's life in a variety of ways.

Not only is Conesa 12 years older than the 28-year-old Ochoa, he is divorced and has three children. Ochoa and her family are devoutly Catholic and the fact she was engaged to a man who had been married before complicated her relations with her family, according to sources familiar with the situation. Late in 2008, the Vatican asked Ochoa to become a global spokesperson for Catholic women in sports. When she told Vatican officials about Conesa the offer was withdrawn, sources said, hurting her deeply.

The most startling shift in her life came after the marriage, when she moved from Guadalajara, where she grew up and where her foundation is based; to Mexico City, where Conesa lives and works, and where there is a need for constant, tight security.

Whatever joy Ochoa had been getting from competitive golf was not there last year. In June, at the LPGA Championship, she fired caddie Dave Brooker, with whom she had won 21 times in 58 starts -- another apparent act of frustration -- and settled into a remarkably inconsistent level of play for a player who had held the No. 1 spot in the Rolex Rankings for going on four years.

The dismissal of Brooker was a telltale sign of unhappiness. The two were very close and at the beginning of the 2007 season, Ochoa, concerned that Brooker's two children were not baptized, asked him how many times she had to win that year for him to agree to reconsider. Brooker said, "One. Just win the Women's British at St. Andrews." She did and the two shared an intensely emotional embrace on the 18th green at the Old Course.

It wasn't that Ochoa lost her game last year. She lost her dominance. After winning 21 tournaments in 2006-08, including back-to-majors at the 2007 Ricoh Women's British Open and the 2008 Kraft Nabisco Championship, she managed only three victories in 2009 -- a good year for most but puzzling for Ochoa, especially because of her record in the majors.

Beginning in 2004, Ochoa's second season as an LPGA member, she finished in the top 10 in 15 of 20 majors. The good news for the LPGA was that it had someone to assume the role Sorenstam played for 13 years of contending in virtually every major. But there were no top-10 finishes in 2009 and, after a T-12 at the Kraft Nabisco, no top 20s.

Ochoa started this season by finishing 18th, 38th and 52nd before a fourth-place effort at the Kraft Nabisco, where she never really challenged. An indication of Ochoa's inconsistent play last year was the fact she was tenth on the money list, yet still won Player of the Year by a single point over Jiyai Shin.

If Ochoa is walking away -- we know she is, we just don't know for how long -- it is with 27 careers LPGA victories, two major championships, four Player of the Year titles and more than $14 million in career earnings, plus millions more in endorsement deals. With that and a wealthy husband, there is certainly no financial reason for her to return to the game.

If Ochoa comes back to competitive golf it will be because her passion for the game has returned. This is a woman who for years has visited the Mexican maintenance workers on golf courses where she competed, not for publicity but to thank them for being hard-working representatives of their homeland, of which she is very proud.

Lorena Ochoa is a woman who has her priorities straight. Family and faith have always been the top two things on her list. Helping her people through her foundation has been third. Right now, for whatever reason, golf does not fit into the picture. Perhaps it will again someday. And if she does return, it will be for the right reasons.