Of all the moments Allen and Ochoa shared, he’ll never forget two very vivid occasions that he feels are the essence of Ochoa. First is a hand-written letter that she wrote to the Arizona administrators, coaches and players when she decided to leave after her sophomore year to turn professional.
The second specific moment came in 2005 when Allen took his Arizona Wildcats down to Mexico for a college tournament that Ochoa hosted. One player raised her hand and asked Ochoa what she thought was the coolest thing she had done since becoming one of the best players in the world. Of all the options, Ochoa – only 23 years old at the time – said that she was most pleased that she was able to begin a foundation to help children in Mexico.
“She is a sweet, sweet person,” Allen said. “She has a wonderful, gentle caring heart that wants to make people around her happy and better.”
You get the point. Ochoa is one of the most genuine people in the world. Not just the sports world, the entire world. She’s the real deal.
Near the top of the list of Ochoa’s admirable qualities is that when she says something, she means it. That’s what makes Tuesday’s announcement that she’ll retire from golf so difficult. We know she means it.
Good for her, bad for golf.
We don’t quite know why Ochoa is stepping away at the ripe young age of 28, we’ll know more Friday when she speaks at a news conference in Mexico City. Smart money says she’s now prepared to spend more time with her family, which Ochoa always has cherished more than birdies, bogeys and majors.
Ochoa has had one of the great competitive spirits that we’ve seen in a player in a long time, a spirit that led to 27 victories and two major championships in seven short seasons on the LPGA. She’d have been a significant factor on tour as long as she wanted to play. But that time appears done. She has clearly been struggling to balance golf with her new life and new family, having wed AeroMexico CEO Andres Conesa late last year, joining her family with that of Conesa and his three children.
Since Ochoa first came to the U.S. back in the late 1990s she had always wanted to be the best player in the world. She accomplished that in spades, having ascended to the top of the Rolex Rankings and winning the LPGA’s Player of the Year trophy the last four consecutive years. Besides, anyone who unseated Annika Sorenstam as the best player in game earns a special place in golf history. Sorenstam and Ochoa are the only two players to top the rankings since they were launched back in 2006.
This day was coming, and as Ochoa had hinted, had been coming for several years. We just didn’t expect it now. We were anticipating one more great battle for the No. 1 position in the rankings between Ochoa, Jiyai Shin, Yani Tseng and the rest of the cast. We were expecting Ochoa to make one more stand, capture several more majors then ride off into the sunset sometime in her early to mid 30s.
But when you put it all together, who wouldn’t want to go out this way? Ochoa come from humble beginnings in Mexico, dominated college golf for two years in the U.S., then dominated the LPGA for most of the seven years she spent on tour then retired at 28 with more than $14 million in career earnings that now will be used to help raise a family and hundreds of under-privileged children in her homeland.
“I’ve been in the golf industry for 33 years and I’ve met a lot of really special people in my time,” said Rocky Hambric, president of Hambric Sports Management who was Ochoa’s agent for the first three years of her professional career. “Lorena is the runaway most special person that I’ve ever known in the game.
“She had the incredible ability to be ultra competitive and super kind, warm and giving at the same time. Unless we learn the lessons her life teaches us, we’re really going to miss her in the game of golf.”
Yours truly was an LPGA beat writer for five years from 2001-2006. The last story I filed as part of those duties was for the 2006 U.S. Women’s Open, where Sorenstam won at Newport (R.I.) Country Club. The next LPGA event I covered was the 2007 ADT Championship, some 16 months after the Women’s Open. Ochoa walked up to me, gave me a hug, smiled and said, “Hey Jay, how are you? We miss you out here.”
Now it’s my turn, Lorena. We’ll miss you out here.