Lorena Ochoa, golf’s top-ranked woman, retires at 28

Lorena Ochoa at this year's LPGA Kia Classic in Carlsbad, Calif.
Kohjiro Kinno/SI

Lorena Ochoa, 28, announced Tuesday that she was stepping away from competitive golf, ending her reign as the LPGA’s top player and, arguably, the most dominant female athlete on the planet.

Typical of Ochoa’s understated sensibilities, the stunning news was delivered by way of a short press release, with Ochoa nowhere in sight. A news conference has been scheduled for Friday in Mexico City; there is already some speculation that Ochoa will enjoy a farewell appearance at next week’s LPGA event in Morelia, Mexico, which is about 40 miles from Guadalajara, where she grew up.

Ochoa’s list of accomplishments includes 27 career victories, two major championship triumphs and the last four LPGA player of the year awards. But in the last 15 months she has struggled with her consistency and on-course emotions as she has tried to juggle golf and a new marriage that brought three stepchildren. Ochoa was off to a listless start in 2010, and three weeks ago at the Kraft Nabisco Championship her frustration boiled over as she hurled her ball down onto a putting green, making a divot that required repair.

This fit of pique was at odds with a career that has always been defined by grace, class and humility, even as Ochoa smashed numerous records along the way. Born to a well-to-do family, Ochoa grew up in a house on Guadalajara Country Club, and by age 12 had already told her swing coach, Rafael Alarcon, that her goal was to be the world’s best golfer. She was imbued with a sense of the limitless by her older brothers, who forced the teenaged Lorena to compete with them in eco-thons, rugged outdoor endurance races.

Ochoa’s golf swing was not textbook, but on the course she was a picture of athleticism, a size 0 who routinely smashed 290-yard drives. After an unprecedented career at the University of Arizona, Ochoa arrived on the LPGA in 2003. After three good-but-not-great seasons she came into her own in ’06, winning six tournaments. She won 15 more over the next two years, including a career-defining performance at the 2007 Women’s British Open, where she joined Bobby Jones, Sam Snead, Jack Nicklaus, Seve Ballesteros and Tiger Woods as another golf genius who has conquered the Old Course at St. Andrews.

For all of Ochoa’s lofty accomplishments, she became a cross-cultural icon because of her humanitarian works and because all of her success never changed her shy, sweet nature. Ochoa was famous for popping into the cart barns at tournament venues to offer encouragement in Spanish to the greenskeepers, and at the 2008 Kraft Nabisco she even helped cook them breakfast. Even as she was on her way to earning nearly $15 million (third on the LPGA’s alltime money list) she lived with her parents in Guadalajara, where a wild night out meant a dinner party with friends topped by her only vice, chocolate cake. Ochoa always remained deferential to her father, happy to fulfill her traditional role in a patriarchal society; when Javier visited her tournaments it was not uncommon for him to hold his daughter’s hand as they walked to the first tee and then send her off with a kiss on the cheek and the sign of the cross on her forehead.

Ochoa’s simple life grew richer but more complicated when she was courted by Andres Conesa, a top executive at Aeromexico, one of Ochoa’s sponsors. They became one of Mexico’s most scrutinized couples, and she resettled in Mexico City, removed from her lifelong teacher and the course she grew up playing. They were married in December 2009 in a small, private ceremony, a life change that clearly forced Ochoa to rethink her commitment to golf.

In the past she often spoke about her desire to have children and devote more time to her eponymous foundation, which was created in 2004 to foster educational opportunities in Mexico. Ochoa’s passion has long been La Barranca, a school for children ages 6 and up in Guadalajara, which Ochoa has built and continues to fund. In the planning stages is another school that would educate kids and adults. As conceived, the Lorena Ochoa School would have computer workshops and art classes, sports facilities and gardens, social workers and psychologists.

Ochoa’s spectacular talent and starpower will be sorely missed by the LPGA, but her retirement will not end her public life. She means too much to too many.

“I love golf, I love competing, I love winning,” Ochoa told me in 2008. “I have worked very hard to get to this point and I am definitely enjoying it. But there will be a time to stop, to concentrate on other things that matter. I look forward to that. I look forward to a life that is a little more simple. I like that word. Yes, simple. That is what I look forward to.”

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