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Lorena Ochoa of Mexico makes her tee shot on the second hole at Priddis Greens during practice for the Canadian Women's Golf Open in Priddis near Calgary, September 2, 2009. (TODD KOROL)
Lorena Ochoa of Mexico makes her tee shot on the second hole at Priddis Greens during practice for the Canadian Women's Golf Open in Priddis near Calgary, September 2, 2009. (TODD KOROL)

Lorne Rubenstein

Ochoa's surprise retirement a blow to the LPGA Tour Add to ...

Lorena Ochoa always said there was more to life than golf, and she'd hinted many times at an early retirement. But a statement yesterday from her management company that she will retire at the end of this season, or perhaps earlier, does come as a shock.

"I'm surprised," Lorie Kane, a four-time winner on the LPGA Tour from Charlottetown, said yesterday in a telephone interview. "I didn't think she'd pull the plug right now. It's definitely another blow to the tour."

Kane was referring to Annika Sorenstam's retirement two years ago at 37. Ochoa is just 28, and she's been the top-ranked player in the game since she took over the spot from Sorenstam three years ago. Sorenstam won 72 LPGA Tour events, including 10 majors. She wanted to start a family with her husband, Mike McGee. She has since given birth to a daughter.

"I understand completely what she is going through because I have just gone through this myself," Sorenstam wrote in her blog yesterday. "Though I was older than Lorena, it is still hard to play and play at the level you demand of yourself when your heart and mind are somewhere else. While the LPGA will certainly miss her great play, warm demeanour and smile, I am personally very happy for her."

Ochoa has won 27 LPGA tournaments, including two majors. At the same age, Sorenstam had won 16 LPGA events, also including two majors. So it's reasonable to suggest that Ochoa's best golfer was ahead of her.

That's a reasonable notion only if Ochoa were able to retain her enthusiasm and commitment to tournament golf. It could well be that Ochoa's best days are behind her. Her play has tailed off after 2006, 2007, and 2008, when she won six, seven, and eight times, respectively. Ochoa won three times last year and has yet to win in four tournaments this year.

Ochoa may well have already achieved her primary goal. She told her instructor Rafael Alarcon when she was 12 that she wanted to become the world's best player. Alarcon, the winner of the 1979 Canadian Amateur, helped her achieve that status. She remains the No. 1-ranked golfer, notwithstanding the leakage in her game.

Maybe it's enough for her that she did reach, and has held, the No. 1 spot. I sensed her reluctance to drive herself hard for a long time when we spoke almost exactly two years ago for a profile I was writing. She spoke almost as a casual observer about her career and the distinctive head bob in her swing that she and Alarcon realized didn't matter because of how solidly she hit the ball.

Ochoa spoke with passion when she discussed her work off the course. Her deeply felt commitment to helping kids in her native Mexico came through, much more than did any enthusiasm for pushing herself to the limit in golf. She spoke about La Barranca, a school she started and funds in Guadalajara, where she was born. She's since started a high school.

"I love to see the kids, that they are really taking advantage of their opportunities," Ochoa told me. "You can see that you are changing their lives, either with golf or no golf. It's about giving them the right education so that they can prepare for the future and help people around them."

Ochoa's tone in that clear statement indicated that golf alone could not hold her interest. Soon she met Andres Conesa, an executive at Aeromexico, one of her sponsors. They married last December, and with the union came his three children. She takes an active role in their lives. Ochoa had also spoken frequently about wanting her own children. And in a conversation with Kane, she said she couldn't wait to show off her wedding photos.

Meanwhile, Ochoa has not seemed all that happy on the course recently. She's been easily frustrated.

"Lorena has been a little more emotional on the course," Kane said. "Maybe she's been a tad distracted by how happy she is off the course. Maybe she's not been up to the task of preparing as hard as you have to. That's not a knock on her. I wish her all the best."

On the course, Ochoa for a few years made the game seem almost laughably easy. Her swing had, well, swing, and it had rhythm. There was nothing forced about it, no sense of a hit. Moreover, she was a creative golfer, willing to hit all sorts of different shots. Her fluid style put one in mind of the great Bobby Jones, who himself was 28 when he retired in 1930 after winning the then-Grand Slam - the U.S. Open and Amateur, and the Open and Amateur Championships in Britain.

Ochoa's win in the 2007 Women's British Open was considered a gigantic achievement, and if the golf world didn't know how exceptional a player she was, they knew then. She won by four shots on the Old Course at St. Andrews, where the [men's]Open Championship will be held in July. She won wire to wire.

The next week, Ochoa won the CN Canadian Women's Open. She then won the Safeway Classic in Portland, Ore. the following week, for three consecutive victories.

"Lorena brought so much life and energy to the game," said Sean Van Kesteren, the Canadian Women's Open tournament director. "She endeared herself to everybody. Her retirement certainly has to hurt the LPGA Tour. As for our tournament, we'll learn its effect in four months [when the tournament is held at the St. Charles Country Club in Winnipeg]"

Ochoa dominated women's golf as Sorenstam had. And, as it's turned out, she was harbouring some of the same thoughts and feelings that Sorenstam had as she ascended to the game's top rung.

Ochoa's official announcement will come at a news conference Friday in Mexico City. Some observers are speculating that she will retire as soon as next week, when an LPGA event will be held in Morelia, 70 kilometres from Guadalajara.

The LPGA will definitely miss Ochoa. How could it not, in any time, let along these difficult economic times when the LPGA needs its stars? The LPGA now has to absorb the loss of Ochoa on top of Sorenstam. That's tough.

"Two No. 1s have retired at an age that would be seen as very young," said Kane, 45. "Annika and Lorena bring people to tournaments and TV. Now we don't have them."

 

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