The uniquely maddening feeling that came with getting beaten by Ochoa is what Morgan Pressel will always remember about their years together on tour.
“It was very hard to dislike Lorena even though she was beating you every week,” Pressel said. “Lorena’s so competitive, but she could do it with a smile on her face. She’s such a good person and one of the nicest players on tour. She seemed to be friends with everyone on tour. That’s something you don’t always see with the best players in the world.”
Dominant and still beloved by her competition.
Ruthless as a shot maker, magnanimous as a human being.
That’s the tribute fellow tour pros are laying at Ochoa’s feet as they deal with jarring if not shocking news.
“I don’t think anybody close to her or close to the tour is surprised,” Pressel said. “She’s always talked about how she wasn’t going to play forever and about wanting a family. At the same time, you hear it, and the reaction is, `Wow, is this really happening?’”
And after the `Wow,’ there’s sadness.
The world of golf hasn’t been witness to anything like this since Byron Nelson stepped away at the height of his powers a half century ago. Ochoa is just 28, the winner of 27 LPGA tournaments, including two majors. Though she’s qualified on points for the LPGA Hall of Fame, she’ll have to rely on an HOF veteran’s committee and membership vote to gain induction because she'll be lacking 10 years of service by almost three years if she retires this week.
“I’m really crushed,” Hall of Famer Judy Rankin said. “I think the world of Lorena, and I just think this is a big blow to lose the player and the person. It’s detrimental to the LPGA. This isn’t somebody who can be replaced and forgotten. She’s an extremely special player and person.”
We won’t know for certain why Ochoa is stepping away until she tells us Friday, but her fellow tour pros will be shocked if this is anything but Ochoa shifting her priority to her new family and three stepchildren, to her desire to have an even larger family and to the charitable foundations and civic projects that are so important to her and her Mexican homeland.
Why is she leaving now? Her fellow players suspect it’s stunningly simple.
“She may be seeing that her most important life’s work is no longer winning golf tournaments,” Rankin said. “That seems a real possibility.”
Tuesday’s news isn’t shocking because players have seen how Ochoa has struggled to juggle the growing priorities in her life. She married AeroMexico executive Andres Conesa late last year and moved from her home in Guadalajara to Mexico City. She became an instant mom to three children. She is building a new life with her husband, a 14-year-old son and 12- and 7-year-old daughters.
Ochoa also values her foundations, a Mexican-based foundation that funds a school for underprivileged children and a new American-based foundation committed to taking the benefits of golf to Latino and others under-represented in the game.
What separates Ochoa is how she pours herself into every endeavor she undertakes. Companies she endorses don’t get a half-hearted commitment. They get full days with Ochoa. She’s hands on with her foundations.
Insiders have seen Ochoa pulled in too many directions trying to maintain her dominance as a player. They’ve seen her game suffer and her temperament change between the ropes.
“I think Lorena’s heart and brain have been conflicted,” Rankin said.
Players have seen as much for more than a year.
“You could tell over the past year or so that Lorena’s heart wasn’t into the game the way it used to be,” said three-time LPGA winner Brittany Lincicome. “She’s such a sweetheart, but she hasn’t been her normal happy self on the golf course. She’s happy with her family and friends. You can see how she’s 100 percent happy in her marriage.”
Pressel played with Ochoa in Singapore in the season’s second event in February.
“She wasn’t as sharp as we’re used to seeing her,” Pressel said. “She seemed to get more frustrated by her poor shots, uncharacteristically poor shots. You could tell she had a lot of other things going on in her life.”
Val Skinner, the six-time LPGA winner, could see what was happening. The entire world saw it at the U.S. Women’s Open last summer when Ochoa slammed a ball in disgust into the turf coming off a green. She winged a ball in anger into a bush at the Kraft Nabisco last year.
“I have seen her more frustrated, but I also understood it,” Skinner said. “How do you add all these new elements to your life and still be the best player in the world? Lorena’s exceptional, not just a quality performer but quality person. She’s had very high standards and always been able to balance the professional and personal demands.”
If Ochoa felt herself losing her balance, she unselfishly jettisoned the burden most players struggled to give up. We’ll find out Friday, in her words, why it became necessary.