Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Welcome to a special Ochoa edition of Tour Confidential. We are pleased to welcome LPGA standout Christina Kim, author (with yours truly) of the new book “Swinging From My Heels” and, more to the point, a close friend of Lorena’s. I think we all understand her reasons for stepping away, but how much does Ochoa’s sudden retirement hurt the LPGA?
Christina Kim, LPGA player: I think that Lorena’s stepping away from the game has the ability to both hurt and help the LPGA. Hurt because she is one of the most iconic players out there, but also good because now players like myself, Wie, Paula Creamer and Tseng, Shin are going to be vying for that No. 1 spot and will bring a sense of excitement to the game. Lorena has helped the game immensely but has to focus on her own life and her future.
Shipnuck: CK’s point is a good one. The LPGA already had parity, and now more so. But fans need a dominant player to identify with. It’s great that a lot of players think they can be No. 1, but it will help the tour if someone goes out and grabs the spot immediately.
David Dusek, deputy editor, Golf.com: It seems like parity is something that is strived for in sports . . . until you get it. The PGA Tour has had a succession of clearly dominant players for a while, and I think that helps to create storylines and dramas. We like seeing the best in the business do their thing, but if we don’t clearly know who that person is, I think the audience finds it a little less compelling.
Damon Hack, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: This can’t be good news for the LPGA, especially coming two years after Annika’s retirement. Ochoa was hugely popular — with the fans, media, her peers. We saw this coming, but not this early. Maybe in a year or two, but not now.
Kim: I said in my book this was bound to happen, I just didn’t see it happening so soon. I thought she would play at least 10 tournaments this year. She is widely popular, but with so many young and hungry players out there, she might be leaving the LPGA at the right time.
Hack: Good point, Christina. I talked to Amy Alcott today and she said the same thing about the chance for other players to step up. That No. 1 ranking was held by Sorenstam and then Ochoa, and now somebody new will have it. It’s a great opportunity.
Jim Herre, managing editor, SI Golf Group: Never helps to lose a top player, but in Lorena’s case I think any negative impact will be felt primarily in Mexico and possibly South America. The LPGA has been making inroads in Latin America and Lorena was largely responsible.
Kim: Agreed, Jim. We were paving the way to play more in Latin America, and now that will probably come to a halt unless Sophia Sheridan and other players from Mexico make a splash.
Shipnuck: I think three tourneys in Mexico was at least one too many. If one or two drop off the schedule, that hurts. But if they can be relocated elsewhere, I don’t think the players will mind, no?
Herre: The three sponsors are Mexican companies. Lorena made it attractive for them and for their customers.
Kim: The players would definitely be happy to relocate, that’s for sure. However, Lorena’s event is so limited that it doesn’t affect that many people. The schedule is going to hurt if and when they drop, but who knows, the LPGA product is so strong that we will be able to get more events elsewhere.
THIS RETIREMENT VS. SORENSTAM’S, AND WHO’S NEXT?
Shipnuck: Anyone who has ever come in contact with Lorena is immediately charmed, but because she didn’t crave the spotlight she never crossed over to the larger sports landscape. She will be missed by those who love the LPGA Tour, but I don’t think her departure hurts as much as Annika’s did.
Herre: I don’t think Annika ever crossed over, either, except maybe for a week at the Colonial. That’s why the LPGA needs Michelle Wie to succeed — she has the potential to become an iconic figure.
Kim: Agreed on Annika. She was huge in the WOMEN’S golf world. Not so much for the Golf world in general. There are plenty of players who can transcend the game in many ways she did not.
Dusek: Right. With all due respect to our guest, my first thought upon reading that Lorena is retiring was that Michelle Wie just had more weight put on her shoulders.
Kim: No offense taken at all! It’s the truth, but Shelly wouldn’t feel the pressure the way you think she would. She thrives on it now
Shipnuck: FYI, “Shelly” is Michelle. Also sometimes referred to by Christina as “gangly giraffe.”
Herre: Shelly? I think Michelle has a new handle.
Hack: Among the illuminating things in the Kim-Shipnuck collaboration was Wie’s emergence at the Solheim, and also how young all these players are. Christina, Wie, Creamer, Pressel, Lincicome. Their careers are just getting started. I imagine the competitor in all of them will sense the opening left by Ochoa’s departure and act
Kim: Remember, the Wiesy who people saw at Solheim is the same girl I have known for eight years. She has always been that way, and I knew from the start who she was going to be. Just sitting back and waiting, I am. That’s in my Yoda voice.
Herre: Christina, excluding yourself, rank the top 5 LPGA players, not only on their skills but on their chances to transcend the game.
Kim: Wie, Tseng, Kerr, Creamer, Gulbis. I am not saying that they have YET, but have the ability to transcend the game.
OCHOA’S FANS AND GALLERIES
Hack: We talked about Lorena’s appeal in Mexico, but her impact was also felt here in the states. Covering her in Phoenix or the Coachella Valley, for example, she pulled in large, enthusiastic crowds.
Kim: Without a doubt her presence is known wherever she goes in the golf world.
John Garrity, contributing writer, Sports Illustrated: Yes, her gallery was something special. I’ll never forget her victory parade on the back nine the last time she won the Safeway in Mesa — the families, toddlers to grandparents, waving little Mexican flags and somebody carrying that giant banner, like it was a Solheim Cup. I’ve never seen so many smiles on a golf course.
Shipnuck: And don’t forget the mariachi band when she won the Dinah. That might have been the most raucous major championship victory ever.
Shipnuck: Christina, I know you’ve been paired with Lorena south of the border. What’s the atmosphere like when she’s playing in front of her countrymen?
Kim: Playing with Lorena in Mexico is amazing. We were in Guadalajara and mega shots out of the lead, and there were still rows of people, three deep, all down the fairway on either side, waiting to see her. The leaders? They had three people watching. Insanity.
Shipnuck: I remember covering her at a tourney in Mexico City three years ago, and people were handing her babies to kiss and slipping her rosaries. She was being treated like the pope.
Herre: As someone who prefers fish on Fridays, Alan, what you saw is a Catholic thing.
Shipnuck: No, it’s a Lorena thing. I’ve never seen anyone slip Paddy Harrington a rosary. As for the fans in Mexico, they may get another chance to see her. I talked with an LPGA official earlier today who said he’s 99% sure Lorena will play next week in Morelia, as a chance to say goodbye. Given how beloved Lorena is in Mexico, that’s gonna be one of the golf events of the year.
Kim: I wouldn’t be surprised at all if she were to play. Its a wonderful way for her to say her goodbye.
THIS SEASON AND HER DECISION TO WALK AWAY
Shipnuck: CK, had you seen anything out of Lorena this year that was different? She did just finish fourth at the Dinah. I’m wondering if you have any insight to this decision’s tipping point.
Kim: Well, I know that she was not as happy to be in Asia as she has been when Andres is around. She missed him, as any newly married woman away from her hubby would (I am assuming). But it has been a little like this for a while. Threats to the family, turmoil within it, it weighs down on a human being, no matter who you are.
Herre: Yes, and it showed on the course from time to time. We always knew Lorena was ultra competitive, but she seldom showed out while playing, which has happened a few times recently. It’s always kind of a shock to see it because of her almost saintly persona.
Hack: I was also surprised to see some of Lorena’s flashes of anger on the course. But hearing Christina talk about threats and turmoil gives that some perspective. She has not been her normal bubbly self. But, clearly, things haven’t been normal.
Garrity: I saw Lorena struggle at the Kia Classic at La Costa a few weeks ago. She double- or triple-bogeyed the ninth hole from right in front of the green. Bladed one across the green, hit a very poor chip from behind the green. She wasn’t herself at all. She didn’t lose her temper, but you could tell her mind was not in the game.
HALL OF FAME?
Shipnuck: What do we think about Lorena and Hall of Fame? She has the requisite points but will not have put in the required 10 years. Should an exception be made, or is that a bad precedent?
Herre: Bad precedent. Why would they do that?
Hack: I’ve always seen the 10-year rule and points system as ways of chickening out. Have a panel — of writers, ex-players, historians, whoever — vote, and that’s that.
Garrity: Totally IN for the Hall of Fame. If they have to rewrite the rules for
Lorena, fine; they’ve done it before. (How come the LPGA Hall of Fame keeps
making rules that exclude their biggest stars?)
Kim: I have no clue what the “right” thing to do is. Lorena will obviously go down in history as one of the greatest players of our era, but Laura Davies has the years and so many international wins that Lorena doesn’t, and she’s two points away from the Hall. What is “fair”?
Shipnuck: I’ve never understood requiring a minimum number of years. If you rack up enough points, I think that ought to be enough. It’s more impressive to do it in 8 years than 10.
Herre: I think the LPGA was trying to reach a compromise. Traditionally, HOF designation is an end-of-career honor, yet the established criteria, another source of endless debate, allowed some players, like Annika, to qualify too early.
Hack: She’s a Hall of Famer like Koufax, Jim Brown, Clemente, and others gone too soon, for whatever reason.
Dusek: To have a Hall of Fame with clear requirements, but then create a special exemption, would be a bad thing. Our memories and thoughts of Ochoa’s place in golf history will not be swayed one way or the other. She is/was a great player and won a lot of events. She is choosing to leave the game to focus on other things. Fine. But sorry, the price for that is NOT getting in the HOF.
Hack: Me and my pals growing up always used to say re: borderline Hall of Fame cases, “Can you write the history of the game without them?” Can we write the history of the game without Lorena Ochoa? I don’t see how we can.
Kim: I agree with much of what is being said about the 10-year rule, but I also think that being a HOF member means you have to duke it out and show the strength to live for the sport for 10 years. It’s a tragedy that has to be endured, in my opinion, to achieve what only the most elite can.
Shipnuck: I love it — bonus points for a few extra years of suffering!
Dusek: Every round I play is full of suffering, but I’m no Hall of Famer.
BALANCING FAMILY AND GOLF, FINAL THOUGHTS
Shipnuck: It’s interesting that the two greatest players of our era both walked away because of family considerations. CK, how much pressure do players feel to achieve a lot early in their careers so they can still fit in a husband/kid later on, if that’s something they desire?
Kim: Depends on the person, obviously. For a PGA Tour player it is a bit different. They don’t have to go away for months to MAYBE come back as good as they were pre-pregnancy. But, I can’t speak on behalf of other players. Look at how Inkster did it. She got better. Some don’t. For me personally, golf is a sanctuary, golf is my career, and I will fit in a hubby/family when I am ready.
Shipnuck: I will say it’s a sad day for golf. Lorena brought so much class, grace and dignity to the sport, coupled with a spectacular talent. I will miss her as a buoyant person I was always happy to see, and as a player who could absolutely overwhelm a golf course.
Kim: Agreed, Alan. She is the epitome of grace under fire, elegance, and is a true sports (wo)man. She gave so much to the world, without asking for anything. I still think she’s gonna be canonized one day! Mark my words!
Herre: It only take three miracles