Genuine Loss

By Jay CoffinApril 20, 2010, 10:29 pm
Greg Allen remembers Lorena Ochoa often. The former University of Arizona women’s golf coach, who now is coach at Vanderbilt, calls his two years with Ochoa some of the best times he’s had in his career.

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.

Lorena Ochoa Canadian Open
Lorena Ochoa has been one of the most likeable players on tour during her career. (Getty Images)
“She talked about how thankful she was for what we did and how thankful she was to have spent time with people who she appreciates,” Allen said. “It was a great letter. I look at it at the end of the season every year.”

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.
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Recovering Thomas thinks Match Play could help cause

By Rex HoggardMarch 20, 2018, 10:07 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – It’s been a tough couple of days for Justin Thomas, and he hasn’t played an event in three weeks.

The world’s second-ranked player had his wisdom teeth removed on March 7 following the WGC-Mexico Championship and has been recovering ever since.

“I'm feeling OK. As funny as it is, as soon as I got over my wisdom teeth, I got a little strep throat,” Thomas said on Tuesday at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play. “I was pretty worried yesterday, to be honest, how I was going to be doing, but I feel a lot better today and just keep taking medicine and hopefully it will be good.”

Thomas, who is listed in the Tour media guide as 5-foot-10, 145 pounds, said he lost about 6 pounds when he had his wisdom teeth removed and has struggled to put that weight back on because of his bout with strep throat.

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As a result, his energy levels are low, which is a particular concern considering the marathon nature of the Match Play, which could include as many as seven rounds if he were to advance to Sunday’s championship match. Thomas, however, said the format could actually make things easier this week.

“I told my dad, I only have to beat one person each day. I don't have to beat the whole field,” said Thomas, who has won just one match in two starts at the Match Play. “If it was stroke play then I may have a little harder time. But hopefully each day I'll get better and better. Who knows, maybe that will help me win a match in this golf tournament, because I've had a pretty hard time in the past.”

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Spieth thought Mickelson blew him off as a kid

By Rex HoggardMarch 20, 2018, 7:50 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – Phil Mickelson is widely recognized as one of the PGA Tour’s most accommodating players when it comes to the fans and signing autographs.

Lefty will famously spend hours after rounds signing autographs, but sometimes perception can deviate from reality, as evidenced by Jordan Spieth’s encounter with Mickelson years ago when he was a junior golfer.

“I think I was at the [AT&T] Byron Nelson with my dad and Phil Mickelson and Davis Love were on the putting green. I was yelling at them, as I now get annoyed while I'm practicing when I'm getting yelled at, and they were talking,” Spieth recalled. “When they finished, Phil was pulled off in a different direction and Davis came and signed for me. And I thought for the longest time that Phil just blew me off. And Davis was like the nicest guy. And Phil, I didn't care for as much for a little while because of that.”

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Entering his sixth full season on Tour, Spieth now has a drastically different perspective on that day.

“[Mickelson] could have been late for media. He could have been having a sponsor obligation. He could have been going over to sign for a kid’s area where there was a hundred of them,” Spieth said. “There's certainly been kids that probably think I've blown them off, too, which was never my intention. It would have never been Phil's intention either.”

Spieth said he has spoken with Mickelson about the incident since joining the Tour.

“He probably responded with a Phil-like, ‘Yeah, I knew who you were, and I didn't want to go over there and sign it,’ something like that,” Spieth laughed. “I’ve gotten to see him in person and really see how genuine he is with everybody he comes in contact with. Doesn't matter who it is. And he's a tremendous role model and I just wasn't aware back then.”

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This week, let the games(manship) begin

By Rex HoggardMarch 20, 2018, 7:47 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – The gentleman’s game is almost entirely devoid of anything even approaching trash talk or gamesmanship.

What’s considered the norm in other sports is strictly taboo in golf - at least that’s the standard for 51 weeks out of the year. That anomaly, however, can be wildly entertaining.

During Monday’s blind draw to determine this week’s 16 pods, Pat Perez was the first to suggest that this week’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play is the exception to the stoic rule on the PGA Tour.

“Me and Branden [Grace] played a nine-hole match today and were chirping at each other the entire time,” Perez laughed. “Stuff like, ‘go in the trees.’ We were laughing about it, I didn’t get mad, I hit it in the trees.”

Although Perez and Grace may have been on the extreme end of the trash-talk spectrum, it’s widely understood that unlike the steady diet of stroke-play stops in professional golf, the Match Play and the Ryder Cup are both chances to test some of the game’s boundaries.

“There’s been a couple of different instances, both in the Ryder Cup. I can't share them with you, I'm sorry,” laughed Jordan Spieth, before adding. “I think they [the comments] were indifferent to me and helped [U.S. partner Patrick Reed].

Often the gamesmanship is subtle, so much so an opponent probably doesn’t even realize what’s happening.

Jason Day, for example, is a two-time winner of this event and although he was reluctant to go into details about all of his “tricks,” he did explain his mindset if he finds himself trailing in a match.

“Always walk forward in front of the person that you're playing against, just so you're letting them know that you're pushing forward and you're also letting them know that you're still hanging around,” Day explained. “People feed off body language. If I'm looking across and the guy's got his shoulders slumped and his head is down, you can tell he's getting frustrated, that's when you push a little bit harder.”

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Some moments are not so innocent, as evidenced by a story from Paul Casey from a match during his junior days growing up in England.

“I remember a player’s ball was very close to my line, as his coin was very close to my line and we were still both about 10 feet away and he kind of looked at me,” Casey recalled. “I assumed he looked at me to confirm whether his marker was in my line and it needed to be moved. I said, ‘That's OK there.’ So he picked [his coin] up. And then of course he lost his ability to understand English all of a sudden.”

While the exploits this week won’t be nearly as egregious, there have been a handful of heated encounters at the Match Play. In 2015 when this event was played at Harding Park in San Francisco, Keegan Bradley and Miguel Angel Jimenez went nose to nose when the Spaniard attempted to intervene in a ruling that Bradley was taking and the incident even spilled over into the locker room after the match.

But if those types of encounters are rare, there’s no shortage of mind games that will take place over the next few days at Austin Country Club.

“It's part of it. It should be fun,” Spieth said. “There should be some gamesmanship. That's the way it is in every other sport, we just never play one-on-one or team versus team like other sports do. That's why at times it might seem way out of the ordinary. If every tournament were match play, I don't think that would be unusual.”

It also helps heat things up if opponents have some history together. On Tuesday, Rory McIlroy was asked if he’s run across any gamesmanship at the Match Play. While the Northern Irishman didn’t think there would be much trash talking going on this week, he did add with a wry smile, “Patrick Reed isn’t in my bracket.”

McIlroy and Reed went head-to-head in an epic singles duel at the 2016 Ryder Cup, which the American won 1 up. The duo traded plenty of clutch shots during the match, with Reed wagging his finger at McIlroy following a particularly lengthy birdie putt and McIlroy spurring the crowd with roars of, “I can’t hear you.”

It was an example of how chippy things can get at the Match Play that when McIlroy was asked if he had any advice for Spieth, who drew Reed in his pod this week, his answer had a bit of a sharp edge.

“Don't ask for any drops,” laughed McIlroy, a not-so-subtle reference to Reed’s comment last week at Bay Hill after being denied free relief by a rules official, “I guess my name needs to be Jordan Spieth, guys,” Reed said on Sunday.

Put another way, this is not your grandfather’s game. This is the Match Play where trash talking and gamesmanship are not only acceptable, but can also be extremely entertaining.

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Romo set to make PGA Tour debut at Punta Cana

By Will GrayMarch 20, 2018, 6:43 pm

While much of the attention in golf this week will be focused on the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play in Austin, Tony Romo may send a few eyeballs toward the Caribbean.

The former quarterback and current CBS NFL analyst will make his PGA Tour debut this week, playing on a sponsor invite at the Corales Punta Cana Resort & Club Championship in the Dominican Republic. The exemption was announced last month when Romo played as an amateur at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, and he's apparently been hard at work ever since.

"I'll be treating it very serious," Romo told reporters Tuesday. "My wife will tell you she hasn't seen me much over the last month. But if you know me at all, I think you know if I care about something I'm going to commit to it 100 percent. So like I said. you'll get the best I've got this week."

Romo retired from the NFL last year and plays to a plus-0.3 handicap. In addition to his participation in the Pebble Beach event, he has tried to qualify for the U.S. Open multiple times and last month played a North Texas PGA mini-tour event as an amateur.

According to Romo, one of the key differences between pro football and golf is the fact that his former position is entirely about reactive decisions, while in golf "you're trying to commit wholeheartedly before you ever pull the club out of your bag."

"I'm not worried about getting hit before I hit the ball," Romo said. "It's at my own tempo, my own speed, in this sport. Sometimes that's difficult, and sometimes that's easier depending on the situation."

Romo admitted that he would have preferred to have a couple extra weeks to prepare, but recently has made great strides in his wedge game which "was not up to any Tour standard." The first-tee jitters can't be avoided, but Romo hopes to settle in after battling nerves for the first three or four holes Thursday.

Romo hopes to derive an added comfort factor from his golf in the Dallas area, where he frequently plays with a group of Tour pros. While Steph Curry traded texts with a few pros before his tournament debut last summer on the Tour, Romo expects his phone to remain silent until he puts a score on the board.

"I think they're waiting to either tell me 'Congrats' or 'I knew it, terrible,'" Romo said. "Something along those lines. They're probably going to wait to see which way the wind's blowing before they send them."

Romo will tee off at 8:10 a.m. ET Thursday alongside Dru Love and Denny McCarthy.