And now, sadly, it’s time to say good-bye to Lorena Ochoa, who began every press conference of her exemplary eight-year professional golf career by offering an charmingly accented hello to everyone in the room, then always without fail added a polite “thank you” when each session ended.
A week ago last Friday Ochoa, a native of Guadalajara, Mexico, held a news conference to explain why she had decided to retire from the LPGA Tour at age 28, even though she is currently the No. 1 ranked female golfer in the world and still very much capable of dominating her game. This week, she played in the Tres Marias Championship inMorelia, Mexico, her farewell appearance as a regular LPGA player and finished xxxxxxx.
In more than 40 years of writing about sports for a living, most of the last 20 on the golf beat, I can honestly say that with the possible exception of Jack Nicklaus, I’ve never met a more gracious, world-class athlete than Lorena Ochoa.
Tres Marias tournament officials asked her who she’d like to play with on Thursday and Friday, and her choice of partners, as usual, spoke volumes – Natalie Gulbis, once her teammate at the University of Arizona and a close friend, and Japan’s Ai Miyazato. Ochoa described Miyazato as “the nicest girl on tour,” though I’d beg to disagree. Ochoa held that distinction from the day she played in her first event, and, contrary to the old Leo Durocher bromide, nice guys (and girls) definitely aren’t always doomed to finish last.
Nancy Lopez once said, in an interview with ESPN.com, that “when you meet (Ochoa) for the second time and she remembers not only your name, but also the slightest detail of the last time you spoke, you understand how exceptional this young woman is.”
As a player, it was about as exceptional as it ever gets. From 2006 through the 2009 season, Ochoa won 24 LPGA tournaments, two of them major championships, and finished second 15 times. Over the same four years, Tiger Woods, No. 1 in the men’s rankings, won 25 PGA Tour events, including four majors, with eight runner-up finishes.
In the months since his November 27 car accident, the ugly scandal that followed and his ensuing fall from personal and commercial grace, virtually every new development in Woods’ life became fodder for front-page, lead-story at 6 and 11 coverage.
Ochoa’s farewell press conference in Mexico City 10 days ago merited only a few paragraphs in most Saturday papers around the U.S., with a short highlight clip in the middle of ESPN’s SportsCenter that Friday night. She was simply overshadowed by the all-consuming NFL draft, hockey and basketball playoffs and Major League Baseball in full swing.
And yet, here was an athlete at the very peak of her skills leaving a sport she had dominated for most of the last five years, somewhat akin to the early retirements of NFL running backs Jim Brown and Barry Sanders, or baseball pitcher Sandy Koufax, all of whom walked away relatively healthy and in the prime of their athletic lives.
In golf, there can be only one comparison. The great Bobby Jones ended his competitive golfing career at age 30, not long after he had won all four major championships in the 1930 season, an unprecedented “Grand Slam” that has never been duplicated.
Like Jones, Ochoa had become the face of her sport, a crowd favorite wherever she played, and a national hero in her soccer-crazed home country. And yet, in an era when women’s sports have made huge gains in participation and popularity around the globe, women’s golf has struggled in recent years to gain a significant toehold in the American athletic consciousness.
This year, the LPGA has only 26 events, six fewer than 2009, with only 14 in the U.S. While it has become an international tour, with a dramatic rise in the number of South Korean players over the last dozen years (more than 40 now on the LPGA Tour), the American TV audience for women’s golf has fallen by two-thirds since 2006. This season, only one of the tour’s first five tournaments has been televised in this country.
A weak economy, the loss of key sponsors, the retirement of popular superstar Annika Sorenstam two years ago and a three-year reign of many errors by former commissioner Carolyn Bivens, who was fired last year, all had a hand in the Tour’s recent sagging fortunes. And Ochoa’s decision to leave the game surely won’t help.
Still, she seems to be doing it for all the right reasons. Ochoa often said that she did not anticipate playing well into her 30s. She wanted to start a family, and took the first step in December when she married the CEO of Aeromexico, a union that also included three children from his previous marriage.
Ochoa has done wonderful work back home, first starting an elementary school for 250 underprivileged youngsters in Guadalajara and opening a new high school two years ago. She also has established a foundation to teach golf to Mexican children, a program that is constantly expanding.
For many years, Ochoa quietly made it a point before tournaments to go behind the curtain to visit the golf course maintenance workers, many of them Hispanic, to tell them how much she appreciated their efforts. One year, she stopped at the California company that made her golf clubs and asked to speak with all 300 employees. She publicly thanked them, then answered questions and signed autographs, surely a self-effacing first from an athlete playing an often me-first sport.
Ochoa has said she may play a few events over the next few years, but never again on a full-time basis. Clearly, it’s goodbye to the all-consuming effort to become and remain the best player in the world, and “hey-lo” to a whole new life. Many thanks, Lorena, a true and enchanting champion in every sense of the word.