Four years ago, in the craggy foothills above the Coachella Valley, Annika Sorenstam and Lorena Ochoa were paired in the final round of the Samsung World Championship, and there was a feeling that something wonderful was happening.
Annika was the quiet LPGA legend who had taken on the men with humor and grace, Lorena a joyful star whose galleries teemed with rippling Mexican flags. Anyone with a ticket or press badge understood: these two will be going at it for a long time.
And then, suddenly, they weren't.
Two years after Sorenstam stepped away from competitive golf at age 37, Ochoa announced on Tuesday her intentions to do the same at 28, a second lightning strike for a tour that can hardly afford to lose star power.
"It doesn't surprise me that Lorena's retiring, but the timing is quick," says Hall of Famer Amy Alcott. "I consider Lorena a friend, and the thing I've always liked about her is that she is more than a golfer. She has a country behind her, and that's a lot of pressure, just as Annika had. They're really icons. It reminds me of the great Will Rogers quote: 'It's great to be great, but it's greater to be human.'"
Sorenstam and Ochoa were great and human, Annika so shy as a junior golfer that she three-putted to avoid giving a victory speech, Lorena so bubbly that she would begin her LPGA press conferences which many professionals dread with a melodious "Hello" for the assembled reporters. As with Sorenstam, rumors persisted for months that Ochoa would one day leave professional golf to start a family. The scuttlebutt only increased when she was married in December to a businessman who already had three children, and spoke of one day having children of her own.
Over the years, the stars of the LPGA Tour have taken different approaches to balancing golf and family. Juli Inkster forged a remarkable career traveling with her children in tow. Catriona Matthew won the Women's British Open 11 weeks after giving birth. Others, like Sorenstam and Ochoa, chose a different route.
"I think life is too short, and I always say that I want to play golf and be there 100 percent and be very competitive, and my goal is to stay in that No. 1 position as long as I play," Ochoa said at the first major of 2010, the Kraft Nabisco Championship in March. "And then just [at a] different stage for my life, I want to be home. I want to be with my husband. I want to every day do things and be at one place, not traveling with a suitcase."
Says Alcott: "In life, I feel like if you don't make changes, changes are made for you."
Even if she never strikes another ball in competition, Ochoa's legacy inside and outside the ropes is secure. Her foundation, which she started in 2004, helps marginalized children and teenagers develop into productive young people. She also supports La Barranca Educational Center near Guadalajara, where more than 300 children receive an education, healthy food and exercise.
While she wowed the public with her smile and her dominance, Ochoa had showed more frustration on the golf course recently than she ever had, even spiking her ball on the green after a bogey at the Kraft. If Sorenstam left the game buoyed by recent triumphs, including a memorable 2006 United States Women's Open title at Newport Country Club, Ochoa has steadily seen her grasp on the No. 1 ranking loosen. Clearly, she has had a lot on her mind, and the golf has not looked as fun. But, then again, it was never the birdies and bogeys that defined her.
"She's far more than just a golfer putting numbers up on the board," Alcott says. "She's been a great role model for young girls, and that's what I admire the most about Lorena. Lorena, to me, is all about her corazon. Her heart."