For all the hardships the LPGA endured last season, the year ended with so much promise.
In a painful year of transition, with the forced ouster of a commissioner and dreary news of lost title sponsorships, there was hope in the season’s final chapters.
Michelle Wie turned confidence gained in her tour de force performance at the Solheim Cup into a rookie breakthrough with a victory at the Lorena Ochoa Invitational in the second-to-last event of the season.
Ochoa fought off Jiyai Shin’s challenge to claim her fourth consecutive Rolex Player of the Year title in a competition that raged until the final hole of the year’s final event.
Anna Nordqvist showed her rookie breakthrough winning the McDonald’s LPGA Championship in June was no fluke with terrific closing skill to win the season-ending LPGA Tour Championship.
Suzann Pettersen returned to winning form claiming the CN Canadian Women’s Open last September.
Michael Whan brought a wave of positive new energy with his hire as the new commissioner.
The 2010 season opens with a focus on building on that upturn in momentum.
Between the ropes, the season begins with one question.
Does Lorena Ochoa still hold dominion over this tour?
Ochoa is the defending champion at the season-opening Honda PTT LPGA event at Siam Country Club’s Old Course in Chonburi, Thailand, but she arrives with a sense of vulnerability.
The fact that Shin came so close to ending Ochoa’s Player-of-the-Year reign only ratchets up the intensity of so many players who would like their shot at being No. 1.
“During the offseason, all we think about is catching Lorena and being No. 1,” said Wie, who turned 20 last October. “I have such great respect for Lorena. You’re always going for the top. There’s a lot of great players out there, and it’s tough. That’s why we work so hard.”
Count Paula Creamer among those eager to challenge Ochoa. Creamer, 23, is finally healthy after 15 months of physical woes that included stomach ailments and a thumb injury that’s just now fully mending.
“Lorena is the No. 1 player in the world, and there are so many people that want to be in that spot,” said Creamer, who is looking to add to her eight LPGA titles after a winless ’09. “She knows that. People are coming after her.”
Ochoa, 28, showed how important her place atop the game is to her holding off Shin in a dramatic duel at the LPGA Tour Championship, and yet she didn’t win the event. She won just three times last year after winning 21 times overall in the three previous seasons.
There were moments of uncharacteristic frustration in Ochoa’s struggles last season, especially at the majors, where she was shut out. She winged a ball in disgust into the bushes at the Kraft Nabisco Championship in April and fired a ball into the turf coming off a green at the U.S. Women’s Open in July. The outbursts seem mild on their surface, but they were revealing given Ochoa’s even-tempered nature. While there was speculation that the imminent change in her personal life was affecting her emotionally, Ochoa never acknowledged as much last season.
Ochoa’s life changed dramatically in December. She married Aeromexico executive Andres Conesa 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 and a 14-year-old son and 12- and 7-year-old daughters.
“They are at a fun age,” Ochoa said. “We go and play, sometimes golf, sometimes tennis. We like to spend some time together.”
With sponsors Ochoa has always tended to so conscientiously, it begs a question of how she’s going to balance it all. She takes all her responsibilities so seriously, how will she handle the new juggling act? Will she remain devoted to being the best in golf, or are her priorities changing?
“I think if you are happy, it's a lot easier to play good golf,” Ochoa said.
Ochoa acknowledges wanting children of her own, but . . .
“I think I still want to wait a little bit,” she said. “I'm going to keep playing for a few years, and then after that we'll make a decision.”
Ochoa can feel the competition pushing her to keep improving.
“I know that the competition is getting tougher and tougher,” she said. “But at the same time, I never pay too much attention to other players. I always try to focus on my game and to see where are the things that I can improve and work on. This has been the case this year, just trying to improve on my short game and my putting. Believe me, I have enough motivation. I want to stay at the top and practice very hard every day to be up there.”
Fellow LPGA pros will see how talented Ochoa is as a juggler of priorities this season. Juli Inkster showed that you can have it all, that you can raise a family and nurture a Hall of Fame game, but Inkster never rose to No. 1 in the world.
Annika Sorenstam, who reigned as No. 1 before Ochoa came along, knows the challenges ahead of Ochoa better than anyone. Sorenstam stepped away from the game to focus on family and her businesses last year. She’s a mom to 5-month-old Ava Madelyn McGee.
Sorenstam isn’t sure she could have been as committed to being No. 1 in golf if she were raising a family.
“I don’t know if I could handle that myself,” she said. “To be the best player in the world, it’s a full time job, especially the way the competition is today. You are traveling around the world more, on top of that you have sponsor obligations and practice. I admire moms on tour because now I can see what they have to go through. It’s not easy. I admire them.”
There’s much admiration for the class Ochoa’s shown in her reign as No. 1. If she can keep her reign going in this new phase of her life, the respect will reach new heights.