SirakApril 26, 2010

'I Am Ready To Start A New Life'

The thrill of competition waning and the joys (and challenges) of raising a family and doing good through her foundation increasingly compelling, Lorena Ochoa calls it a career at 28

The taxi driver likely spoke for an entire nation. "Lorena Ochoa, goodbye to golf?" he asked in limited English, guessing why his passenger to Benito Juarez International Airport was at the Centro Banamex convention center in Mexico City. "Adios, eh?" he said, shaking his head sadly. Then the driver added, "Ella tiene un buen corazon," kissed the tips of two fingers and gently touched the crucifix dangling from the rearview mirror. His words perhaps best explain why Ochoa will retire from the LPGA after this week's Tres Marias Championship. "She has a good heart," is how they translate, and in the end, this was a decision of the heart.

More than a year ago, a vision came to Ochoa -- a vague notion of what life would be like away from professional golf. In October that outline took on more detail in Prattville, Ala., and after talking to her husband, Andres Conesa, during their honeymoon in December, the vision came into full focus in February, half a world away from home in Singapore.

"The truth is I was ready to play one more year," Ochoa confided away from the overflow news conference where she told an adoring nation she now has more time to spend with them. "I wanted to do it right, and I wanted to play good. I practiced really hard in the off-season and worked out and felt good with my swing. And then it was really funny, I went to Asia and it just hit me: 'This is not what I want.' "

While the decision to retire -- announced April 23, three years to the day after she grabbed the No. 1 spot in the Rolex Rankings from Annika Sorenstam -- took some by surprise, it was not a shock to those on tour closest to Ochoa, who at 28 is nine years younger than Sorenstam was when she stepped away.

Sky's The Limit: Ochoa celebrating her 2007 Ricoh

Women's British Open title at the Old Course, the first

of her two major championships, with caddie Dave

Brooker (Richard Martin/Getty Images).

"Lorena has always said she preferred not to mix her personal life with her professional career, so with her marriage to Andres, as well as conversations we have had, I'm not surprised to hear this news," said Paula Creamer, among those in a scramble for the No. 1 spot (see Tour Talk, page 57).

"We talked in Singapore," said a tour source speaking on condition of anonymity. "She asked how [my spouse was] and our kids. The conversation turned to her stepson and mine and soccer and how she enjoyed going to the park and kicking the ball. The look on her face told me she didn't like [being at the tournament]."

Among the reasons Sorenstam won 72 tour events and Tiger Woods has captured 71 is because winning never got old for them. Every victory was instantly erased and the next challenge viewed as a clean slate upon which to sketch greatness. That desire is a gift given to the greats. Ochoa had it in compiling 27 career victories, especially while winning 21 times in 63 events spanning 2006-08. Then, for a variety of reasons, the passion began to fade.

Ochoa's life became more complicated two years ago when she went public about her relationship with Conesa, a divorced Aeromexico executive with three children. The relentlessly upbeat Ochoa became a different person, slamming clubs and throwing balls. "It was coming," said the tour source. "All evidence points to this. Her game wasn't up to her standards, and her temper was getting the best of her." Others noticed the change; eventually so did Ochoa.

"I think sometimes you need to be, I guess 'brave' is a good word, to see those signs," she said. "You can very easily ignore them and blame your coach or blame your swing or blame everybody. It is more something that happens inside, it is more something that is in your heart." And when Ochoa looked into her heart, she found golf did not bring the same joy as before.

"If you make a bogey or make a birdie and feel the same, or if you win a tournament and don't feel that adrenaline rush and all the excitement, then you need to realize that something is wrong," Ochoa said. "Winning in Alabama last year [the Navistar LPGA Classic, Oct. 4] really made me think about everything more. After that, I took the time to talk to Andres and I said, 'I am ready to start a new life.' "

For more than a decade, Sorenstam or Ochoa has been the clear No. 1. Now there are a slew of contenders but no heir apparent. Nearest her on the ranking are: Jiyai Shin of Korea (No. 2); Yani Tseng of Taiwan (3); Suzann Pettersen of Norway (4); Ai Miyazato of Japan (5) and Cristie Kerr (6). Michelle Wie (9) and No. 11 Creamer, who is recovering from thumb surgery and expects to be back in June, also have the game to rise to the top spot.

Ochoa's gentle but dynamic personality and aggressive style of play made her a perfect face for the tour. Also, in an era of mass-produced swings, her distinctive head-bob stood out. The next No. 1 will also have a tough act to follow outside the ropes: Ochoa never dodged an interview, always signed autographs and provided a shining example of how to give back to her community.

While no longer an active LPGA member, she will remain active in golf. She will host -- and play in -- the Lorena Ochoa Invitational in November and will practice and workout so she can participate in corporate outings and, in a couple of years, compete a few times on sponsor's exemptions. She says playing in the 2016 Olympic Games is too far away to think about.

Ochoa wants to have children, but says she is adjusting to having three stepchildren between the ages of 7 and 14. She will work more with her foundation, which helps disadvantaged children in a country with many who fit that description. "I want to go and play with the kids at the [foundation] school," she said. "I want to be involved and help the poor here in Mexico."

The part of Ochoa's life that is ending contains many specific memories -- winning at St. Andrews, the jump into the pond at Kraft Nabisco with two dozen family and friends -- but the lasting image is much broader. "It's more the process," she said when asked what she will miss the most.

"I was talking yesterday with Andres, and I told him, 'You know what I used to love was to be there on a Monday or Tuesday afternoon when the course was kind of empty, but you already see the whole setup and you practice on your own and spend time on the green, talking to your caddie and just the two of you enjoying the moment,' " she said wistfully. "Those moments were really special."

Asked how it will feel when she is passed as No. 1, Ochoa smiled. "I will never be passed," she said. "I retired as No. 1. I will always be No. 1." The only other player to hold the top spot since the ranking was created in '06, Sorenstam, was No. 3 when she stopped playing. Ochoa wanted to go out as No. 1, and she wanted to say goodbye in her beloved Mexico. She did both.

Integral to a great shot is total commitment. Ochoa applies that focus now to her life away from golf. "Once you feel like your priorities change, you need to be smart," she said. "I think it is a huge mistake [to stay too long], and I see that clearly with players before. I wanted to do it right, be very decisive and follow my belief, so this was the perfect time."

For nearly a decade Ochoa has been Mexican golf. Now she merely wants to be a Mexican. "I want to just enjoy being a normal girl," she said. "When I first started talking to my family and sponsors and they supported me [in retiring], I felt so light. I'm happy and there is no stress. It's time to enjoy this new stage of my life."

These things have become clear about Ochoa over her pro career: She always learned from her mistakes -- suffering painful losses before figuring out how to win -- she always played with passion, and she always cared about people. That's why it is more than likely she will be as great a champion away from golf as she was in it. This normal girl has an abnormally good heart.