They stayed too long.
So many of our great athletes didn’t know how to leave the stage.
Willie Mays, Johnny Unitas, Muhammad Ali and Emmitt Smith are among the legends who made us wish they could have bowed out more gracefully.
And then there’s Lorena Ochoa.
She literally left us atop the women’s game.
When Ochoa announced on April 21 that she was retiring, she was No. 1 in the Rolex Women’s World Golf Rankings.
The news stunned the world of golf. Yes, Ochoa always said she wasn’t long for the touring life, that her career would be short, that her love of family and her foundations would overwhelm her love of competition, but nobody thought she’d leave the tour at 28 years old.
“Once you reach your goals, it’s hard to find motivation,” Ochoa said when making her announcement. “You need to be brave to see that. You need to listen to your heart and make the decision. Fortunately, it was clear to me.
“I'm just ready to start a new life. I just want to be a normal person. I just want to live everyday things, to be home and to give back to my family all the time that we lost in the last few years.”
With 27 LPGA titles, two of them major championships, Ochoa left with skeptics certain that she would make a comeback beyond the cameos she’s planning to support events in Mexico. While she did come back to win the Star Trophy pro/celebrity event in China at the end of October and to host her own Lorena Ochoa Invitational in her hometown of Guadalajara last month, she told GolfChannel.com she has no plans of competing full time again.
“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’s eager to have children of her own.
“I made the right decision,” she said. “I don’t have any regrets.”
Ochoa left the game with peers marveling at more than the mark she made on the game with her shot-making. She left them marveling at the nature of her personality.
“It was very hard to dislike Lorena even though she was beating you every week,” former LPGA peer Morgan Pressel said. “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.”
Those words stand testament to what Ochoa meant to the LPGA.
“This isn’t somebody who can be replaced and forgotten,” LPGA Hall of Fame memberJudy Rankin said. “She’s an extremely special player and person.”
Ochoa left the game saying she wanted to devote herself more fully to her husband, AeroMexico executive Andres Conesa, whom she married a year ago. She also wanted to give more of herself to her three stepchildren and to the foundations she cherishes.
“She may be seeing that her most important life’s work is no longer winning golf tournaments,” Rankin said when Ochoa made her announcement.
Ochoa’s Mexican-based foundation funds a school for underprivileged children. She also started a new American-based foundation this year committed to taking the benefits of golf to Latino and others under-represented in the game.
A life outside competition began beckoning Ochoa after the frustrations of the 2009 season.
“I came home [after the season], and I recharged my batteries,” Ochoa said in her retirement news conference. “I said, 'OK, I'm going to practice hard. I'm going to make sure I work hard and get ready, and I'm going to try to play one more year,’ but I want to be honest with all of you. I went to Asia, and after two or three days of being in Thailand, it was really clear to see that I didn't want to be out there. I was thinking of other things. I wanted to get home. I wanted to start working on the foundation. I wanted to be here close to my family.”
Ochoa says she's taken advantage of simple pleasures the last eight months.
“I enjoy waking up at home and having breakfast with my husband,” Ochoa told GolfChannel.com. “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.”
This new life, Ochoa says, suits her well.
“I’m happy,” she says.
Follow Randall Mell on Twitter @RandallMell