LPGA Star Lorena Ochoa Retires at 28

Because of Lorena Ochoa, I broke a cardinal rule of sports journalism very early in my career: don’t ask an athlete for an autograph.

It was on May 21, 2006, the day Ochoa won the Sybase Classic at Wykagyl Country Club in New Rochelle, N.Y, and in my defense, it was for my mom; possibly a belated Mother’s Day present. She had already been keeping an eye on Ochoa and the fact that she had won in our hometown made my mom an even bigger fan.

I was only a teenager, and, at the time, it was the biggest event I had ever covered. I remember listening to Ochoa speak in the media room, though I was too nervous to ask a question in front of the professional writers. But Ochoa was nice enough to speak with me privately afterwards. When I was done with my questions, I asked her to sign a sheet of paper from my notepad.

On Friday, three years to the day after she replaced Annika Sorenstam as the No. 1 golfer in the world rankings, Ochoa confirmed her retirement from golf. It marks the end of a relatively short, but remarkable career for the 28-year-old Mexican.

“This isn’t a surprise because I have planned this for many, many years,” Ochoa said during a media conference call after her session with the Mexican media. “I wanted to play for around 10 years. I wanted to be able to achieve my goals to stay at the top. Then after that I wanted to move on.”

And stay at the top she did. Ochoa retires as the No. 1 player, having spent 157 consecutive weeks there since she took over three years ago. She was named the LPGA Rookie of the Year in 2003, won 27 Tour events, and collected four Player of the Year awards.

The 2006 Sybase victory was a critical one, as it was the first time Ochoa won an event in which Sorenstam participated. She took over the money lead that day, too — it was the sixth straight event she finished in the top two.

Her career took off from there. Her domination for certain stretches was just as impressive as what Tiger Woods was doing on the men’s Tour.

Ochoa excelled off the course as well. For a star athlete not to have any haters is almost unheard of, but good luck finding a golfer, media member, or golf fan who doesn’t adore Ochoa.

The big story after that win at Wykagyl — and something that was noted throughout her career — was how Ochoa represented her country with such pride and grace. She was known for interacting with fellow Mexicans, even in the middle of a round. “That’s very special for both of us,” she said on that rainy day in New Rochelle. “I represent them.”

Ochoa was a great ambassador for women’s golf, and it will be interesting to see how the LPGA copes with losing its biggest star for the second time in less than two years (Sorenstam retired in 2008). While Ochoa may have had this in mind since she turned pro, 28 is a young age for retirement from the sport. But last December, Ochoa married 40-year-old Andres Conesa, the CEO of Aeromexico who has three children from a previous marriage.

“I’m ready to start a new life,” she said. “I just want to be a normal person.” Ochoa was certainly confident in announcing her decision, adding, “There are so many other things that I’d like to do. I’m really happy today, and I’m pleased. I’m 100 percent complete.”

Only time will tell whether she’ll be at peace with her decision in a few months, or a year, or further down the road. For someone as competitive as Ochoa to step away from the game before the age of 30 is atypical, but she knows what she wants better than anyone else.

So next week’s Tres Marias Championship, in Mexico, will be Ochoa’s last Tournament, though she plans to compete annually in the Lorena Ochoa Invitational, held in Guadalajara each November. The game will certainly miss her, and I’m glad I got to cover her, even if I was a bit unprofessional.

I’m happy to report that I haven’t broken that journalism rule again. Then again, I haven’t met an athlete as captivating as Lorena Ochoa.

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