Poised for a Comeback


LPGA Tour _newLorena Ochoa is back.

A little more than six months after she announced she was retiring, she’s back on a sponsor’s exemption as host of the LPGA’s Lorena Ochoa Invitational at Guadalajara Country Club on the course where she grew up in Mexico.

It promises to be a wonderful week for all the fans in her homeland who can’t wait to see her compete again. And while it promises to be a special week for the former colleagues who grew to admire her, it’s also a week filled with curiosity.

LPGA observers are eager to embrace Ochoa no matter how she plays because her place in the game transcends performance now, but they’re also daring to wonder: Could Ochoa win this week?

With her victory at the Mission Hills Star Trophy celebrity pro-am just over a week ago, Ochoa raises the possibility she might be more than a polite host in Guadalajara.

While the Mission Hills event had a silly season edge to it, Ochoa walked away with a very serious prize, a $1.28 million first-place check.

It makes you wonder exactly how the time away has affected Ochoa.

Has it softened the edge Ochoa needs to win at the highest levels in competitions more serious than the Star Trophy? Or has the time away regenerated and refreshed the spirit that made Ochoa such a formidable champion?

Hall of Famer Judy Rankin wouldn’t put it past Ochoa to go out and stun her fellow tour pros for the second time this year.

While Rankin isn’t expecting Ochoa to win this week, it wouldn’t shock her.

“It would be a great story,” Rankin said. “If Lorena comes in relaxed with nothing to lose, she might blow everyone away. It seems to me her career’s not over.”

By that, Rankin doesn’t mean she’s expecting Ochoa to return to the LPGA ranks for another run. She means that Ochoa’s got the unique opportunity to play the game for fun and meaning in a way no other tour pro ever has. Ochoa has a chance to use her golf skills to make competitively meaningful cameos that continue to fuel the dreams she has for her foundations, charity projects and other humanitarian quests. Rankin sees Ochoa playing at a high level while continuing to win causes and fund dreams in exhibitions, pro-ams and even limited LPGA appearances that keep her brand strong.

Rankin wouldn’t be surprised if that’s more than enough motivation to keep Ochoa’s game at a level needed to win tour events.

“In almost every way, Lorena’s one of a kind,” Rankin said. “In many ways, she did what she could do in the game, what she wanted to do in the game. Now, I think she’s very fortunate to play and do things exactly the way she wants to do them.”

And what’s Ochoa’s vision as it relates to a return to the LPGA?

In a telephone interview just before leaving for the Mission Hills Star Trophy event, Ochoa told GolfChannel.com that she would continue to play LPGA events in Mexico for her fans there, but she would also like to play a couple more times a year in LPGA events elsewhere, perhaps on sponsor exemptions. She wouldn’t mind playing the Evian Masters, Kraft Nabisco Championship or Women’s British Open. There have been reports she might be interested in hosting an LPGA event in San Antonio, where she’s making connections with the Hispanic population there.

But a comeback?

“I don’t see it happening,” Ochoa said. “It would be great to play a couple more times a year, just to enjoy the moments, but I would never get back to playing full time.”

Ochoa says she hasn’t missed the tour’s rigors.

“I’m happy,” Ochoa said. “I made the right decision. I don’t have any regrets.”

Ochoa’s fulfilling her plan when she released a statement on April 20 relaying her intention to retire and three days later made it official in a news conference.

Ochoa, who turns 29 on November 15, took the No. 1 world ranking from Annika Sorenstam in April of 2007 and held it for more than three years. With 27 LPGA titles, two of them major championships, Ochoa said she wanted to devote herself more fully to her new husband, Aeromexico CEO Andres Conesa, and his three children, and the causes her beloved foundation supports, including a school, LaBarranca, in Guadalajara. She married Conesa 11 months ago.

“I enjoy waking up at home and having breakfast with my husband,” Ochoa said. “I spend time with friends and relatives in the afternoon. We spend as much time as we can with the children. Andres and I like to play tennis together. I’ve been able to do some horseback riding again. I’m busy with my foundation. I’m happy.”

Ochoa said she’s also kept her game sharp.

“I practice three to four hours a day,” she said. “I play a lot with friends.”

That leads to a question about this week’s Lorena Ochoa Invitational and what competitive expectations she brings. Is she playing to win? Or to have fun?

“Both,” Ochoa said. “I want to win and have fun.

“I’m going to be easier on myself this week. I’m just trying to enjoy myself, appreciate being with my friends and being with the best players in the world and being in front of my people. It’s going to be easier for me than it’s been the last couple years because I have nothing to lose and can just enjoy the moment.

“My game is good, but it’s easier to play when you have nothing to lose, when you don’t have the same pressure and you’re playing for fun. I’m playing a lot with friends.”

Ochoa said she doesn’t miss the tour. In fact, she says she doesn’t really follow what’s going on.

“Maybe every couple weeks, I check what’s happening, but I don’t follow it that closely,” Ochoa said.

Ochoa says she does miss LPGA players and the friendships she made on the tour. She misses knowing what’s happening in players’ lives beyond their scores.

“I think I’ll pick up right where I left off with players, and it will be like we just saw each other yesterday,” she said. “I’m pretty sure about that. I can’t wait to hear the stories. Instead of having to concentrate so much on the game, and worrying about rest, I’ll be able to be a little more open. I’ll get to spend more time with friends and talking to players. I’ll see everything with different eyes.”

Rankin and others can’t help wondering how that might re-generate Ochoa’s game and make the week more fun than anyone who loves Ochoa thought possible when she announced her retirement.