On Friday, LPGA luminary and 4-time Rolex Player of the Year Lorena Ochoa made official what we in the sports world learned via press release April 20th: her surprising retirement from the game at age 28. In a dizzyingly ascendant seven-year career on the LPGA Tour, Lorena went from promising upstart and challenger to Annika Sörenstam, to the world’s preeminent player and – perhaps most impressively – one-name status among even the game’s most casual observers.
After taking up the game at age 5 in her native Guadalajara – and almost instantly establishing herself as a wunderkind – Lorena decided to make golf her vocation at the tender age of 11, telling local pro Rafael Alarcon that she wanted to be “the best player in the world.” She would immediately embark on that journey, winning 22 state and 44 national events in Mexico as a junior golfer before enrolling at the University of Arizona (Annika’s alma mater) in 2000.
Lorena turned pro after her sophomore year, dominating the Duramed Futures Tour in 2002 before earning LPGA Rookie of the Year honors the following year. She won early and often, however her first Major victory proved elusive as Lorena came up tearfully short on a growing number of occasions. Finally, her mental fortitude and dedication to constant improvement of her game paid off when she captured the 2007 Women’s British Open with a riveting wire-to-wire victory on the Old Course at St. Andrews, the fabled “Home of Golf.” On cue, she followed that up with her 2nd Major win in spring 2008 at the Kraft Nabisco Championship. Lorena’s emergence as the world’s #1 women’s player dovetailed seamlessly with Sörenstam’s announcement in May 2008 that she would step away from the game at season’s end to begin a family.
Almost poetically, Lorena’s career trajectory continues to follow the great Annika’s, as she now announces her intention to start a family with her new husband, Andrés Conesa Labastida (CEO of Aeroméxico), and pursue interests outside of golf. In light of this, many connected with the game will now attempt to put her on-course career to-date in historical perspective, however Lorena’s career and impact are so much greater than her 27 wins. She has long carried the banner for her native Mexico, her golf bag embroidered with the Mexican flag and her cap emblazoned with the logo of Banamex (the Mexican national bank). Moreover, Lorena’s national pride is more than thread-deep, as she has made raising golf’s profile in Mexico her top priority, hosting first the Tres Marias National Championship (formerly Corona Championship) and now the Lorena Ochoa Invitational.
To say that Lorena’s impact on golf in Mexico approximates that of Tiger Woods in the US would not be an overstatement: Mexico now boasts some 50,000 golfers and 220 golf courses, while the number of Mexican journalists covering the sport has increased from a paltry 8 in 2000 to over 100 today, and participation in junior golf has grown 25% since 2006.
Fittingly, Lorena’s grace and social conscience are only matched by her unsurpassed work ethic. After ringing the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange in May 2008, she famously remarked, “That was fun…now it is time to go to the golf course” – her one true sanctuary. World Golf Hall of Famer Johnny Miller has said more than once that as his children grew, it became harder to leave home to compete in tournaments. We must understand though that it’s exponentially harder for female athletes to balance their athletic careers with their family lives, since they BIRTH the babies. Given that, I applaud great champions like Annika and Lorena for seeking peace and fulfillment beyond the fame and fortune their golfing achievements have afforded them – especially in Lorena’s case, because as it stands, she falls agonizingly short of the 10-year playing requirement for Hall of Fame induction.
As for the state of the women’s game, Lorena leaves at a tenuous juncture for the LPGA, as it struggles with departing sponsorship and a barely half-filled tournament schedule. This may soon turn though, as the pipeline of young talent has arguably never been stronger, with current stars Paula Creamer, Ai Miyazato, Anna Nordqvist, Suzann Pettersen, Jiyai Shin, Yani Tseng and Michelle Wie ready to assume the mantle. Perhaps even Annika and Lorena will one day return to active competition and author dazzling second acts as playing mothers – à la Juli Inkster.
Until then, I’m sure the next phase of Lorena’s life will be as smooth as her picturesque follow-through, and just as beautiful to behold.