MORELIA, Mexico – Michael Whan had several weeks to come up with a plan to talk Lorena Ochoa out of retiring after this week’s Tres Marias Championship.
The LPGA commissioner offered one last pitch on Wednesday to the 28-year-old Mexican, who has been ranked No. 1 for three years but is leaving to raise a family and elevate the profile of her charity foundation.
“I told her I’m going to send her some Brett Favre videos,” said Whan, sitting next to Ochoa. “It’s never too late to come back.”
Ochoa laughed, patted Whan on the shoulders and continued saying goodbye.
Ochoa announced last week she was retiring as an active player, which many expected – just not this soon – after her marriage in December to Aeromexico chief executive Andres Conesa.
She’ll play a few selected tournaments, but a full-blown return seems unlikely.
Despite golf’s low profile in Mexico, she is ranked among the country’s five most successful athletes joining baseball pitcher Fernando Valenzuela, boxer Julio Cesar Chavez, 400-meter runner Ana Guevara and soccer player Hugo Sanchez.
“I’m not going away because I am not playing good golf,” Ochoa said, “I’m going away because this is the right time for me. I’ve achieved my goals, I’m happy and I want to leave as No. 1.”
Ochoa said she intended play this season, but in Asia early in the season she found herself unmotivated in two tournaments. Her decision came quickly after that.
“I feel light. I feel happier,” she said. “It’s been easier the last couple of weeks.”
Ochoa has won 27 LPGA events, including two majors, has been No. 1 for three years and has been honored four straight years as the LPGA’s Player of the Year. The has also won this event three times, including last season.
She leaves a reputation for kindness and humility in her wake and steps away as the one of the most popular players on tour.
“Lorena is a better person than a golfer,” said tour player Reilley Rankin, who described Ochoa as her “best friend out here.”
“I think we all knew it was coming within a couple of years, but to be honest with you I don’t think Lorena knew it was coming this soon,” Rankin said. “She has just always been so real and very well-balanced, and as soon as that balance in her life was a little off she was aware of it.”
Player after player offered stories about Ochoa being down to earth.
Rankin described traveling with Ochoa on the Future’s development tour and buying fishing poles to kill time as they racked up thousands of highway miles.
“We went and bought poles one week and we just found a place to fish every week – me and my dad against Lorena and her brother. “We had an on-going contest who caught the most fish.”
Christina Kim recalled being paired with her a few years ago in the tournament Ochoa’s hosts annually in her hometown of Guadalajara.
“They were holding up babies at the edge of the ropes, just like the Pope,” Kim said. “I’ve been saying for years she going to be canonized one of these days.”
Hawaii-born Michelle Wie, part of a long list of players who could eventually take over the No. 1 ranking, said she respected Ochoa for being true to herself.
“It’s fast,” Wie said of the retirement. “I kind of respect her for that, though. It was a good move. She has to do whatever makes her happy. And she left on top and that I respect too.”
Ochoa will tee off on Thursday and Friday with American Natalie Gulbis and Japanese Ai Miyazato. Ochoa asked specifically to play with both of them.
Gulbis and Ochoa grew up in junior golf together, and Miyazato has won two of the first four LPGA events this season and is also in that group that could eventually claim No. 1.
“I think she’s the nicest girl on tour,” Ochoa said of Miyazato. “She’s my favorite. I admire her, how she handles her career with all the pressure from Asia, from Japan. It’s going to be a couple rounds that I’m going to remember forever, so it’s nice to be with them.”
Miyazato knew nothing of Ochoa’s choice until she was told Wednesday on the practice range.
“I feel really happy about that. It is an honor to be able to play with her in her last tournament,” Miyazato said. “She is always the same, on the same wavelength if she is playing good or not so good. It is tough to be like that.”
Just behind Ochoa in the rankings are: No. 2 Jiyai Shin of South Korea, Yani Tseng of Taiwan, Suzanne Pettersen of Norway, Miyazato and American Cristie Kerr at No. 6. Wie is No. 9.
Despite Ochoa’s dominance, no Mexican player is anywhere close to the top tier. Behind Ochoa is Sophia Sheridan ranked No. 344 and Tanya Dergal at 737. Many eyes will be on two Mexican 13-year-olds playing the tournament – Ana Paula Valdes and Marijosse Navarro.
Ochoa is sure to get a giant reception. A 15-foot-by-15-foot canvas sign hanging in front of the massive flagstone club house reads: “Welcome to your home Lore. Thanks for all you have given us.”
Tournament officials said they expected attendance of 40,000, almost double the 25,000 of last season at the Tres Marias Golf Club, a mountainside course cut by deep valleys and spectacular scenery.
Ochoa said she had given away about 200 tickets to friends and family.
“I can tell you right away it is going to be tough dealing with all the emotions. For sure there are going to be a lot of tears – joy tears,” Ochoa said. “For me, this is the best moment in my career.”