Between 2003 and 2010 Lorena Ochoa fashioned a hall of fame golf career by winning 27 LPGA titles, including two majors championships, and three Rolex Player of the Years awards. During the final three of those seven-plus triumphant seasons, she held the world No. 1 ranking, the first and only Mexican golfer, male or female, to climb to such a height.
Then, she did something really impressive.
At the extremely young age of 28 and seemingly at the peak of her game, Ochoa retired from golf and began altering lives instead of record books. Now, as the LPGA prepares for this week’s Lorena Ochoa Invitational in Guadalajara, Mexico, it has never been more clear: The only golfer ever to upstage Lorena Ochoa is Lorena Ochoa.
“I wanted to be remembered for the things I did outside the golf course,” Ochoa said. “Not for winning tournaments.”
When Ochoa’s surprising decision was made public April 20, 2010, she indicated it was powered by the desire to start and raise a family. And she told the truth. The previous December Ochoa had married Andres Conesa, CEO of Aeromexico, and was soon expecting the couple’s first child. Son Pedro was born last December.
“It's been amazing, for sure my life changed after having Pedro,” Ochoa said. “And you know what, I say one more time, I think I made the right decision stepping away from the competition”
But 2 ½ years after her retirement, it is clear Ochoa’s calling was far greater and not nearly as private as first assumed.
“I knew she was retiring earlier than most of the players but when she started to consider the possibility seriously I was surprised,” said brother Alejandro, who serves as her manager. “Until I know the reasons and projects she had in mind.”
The reasons were complete unselfishness, benevolence, grace and virtue.
Quite, unassuming and humble throughout her career, Ochoa was just as modest with her post-golf plans, but now the reasons for her decision stand like a career grand slam of goodness.
Throwing her energies into the Lorena Ochoa Foundation, the golfer, who will turn 31 later this month, has been busy impacting lives in ways that simply cannot be adequately appreciated.
Born and raised in Guadalajara, Ochoa is the third of four children of a real estate developer and an artist. Growing up, she attended private Roman Catholic schools. On weekends her classes would visit poorer sections of the community to give out food and teach others to pray. She became a regular in a group of girls who took mission trips to the mountains each year to paint churches and play soccer.
Ochoa’s was always a giving spirit and almost immediately after finding success on the LPGA she struggled to decide how best to give back. She has talked about praying and seeking advice from priests, nuns and close friends in an effort to find the right avenue.
“It is in your heart that you want to help others and want to change somebody else’s life,” Ochoa said.
And finally the calling became obvious.
“Everything happened at the right time,“ she said.
The school named La Barranca is located near Guadalajara. It was founded in 1998 to support underprivileged children, but for all its good work, things had gotten tough.
Immediately after turning professional in 2002, Ochoa helped with financial donations, but the school was still struggling to continue its work. Now, aided by funds raised in part by this week’s tournament, the Lorena Ochoa Foundation provides 100 percent of the operating costs.
The impact on some 250 children and their families is priceless.
According to the education center’s Website only 9.3 percent of Mexico's population can read or write; only 31.6 percent of the Mexican population finishes primary school; and the average schooling of the country is just the fourth grade.
To take on these issues, the school supports underprivileged children with education based on the development of thought, expression, dialogue, art, teamwork, and social improvement within the community. Involvement by parents is required.
“I think it's nothing better than being able to help,” Ochoa said. “I think in a way it's a responsibility, you know, being a professional athlete and having the opportunity to reach out. I’ve always done this from the bottom of my heart. It's a very unique opportunity, and I'm trying to be responsible, you know, and to do it the right way.
“You can't compare winning tournaments. I think both are great, but right now, what I'm able to do is to work as hard as I can and help as many kids and as many families as I can, and that's my priority. I'm enjoying that role a lot and I'm going to continue that.”
Adds brother Alejandro: “I think at the end, Lorena will be remembered as the great player she was, but more for what she did caring for needy people of her country.”
Two years ago, after winning I.K. Kim of South Korea, was so impressed she donated half of her prize money to the Lorena Ochoa Foundation. Also, she asked for a return visit several months later to visit La Barranca and meet many of the students.
“It's nothing to compare to what Lorena does with her foundation,” Kim said of her donation. “I was really humble going there and seeing all the kids so happy. I mean, they do have a lot of good different activities for the kids and I think, you know, what she does is really -- means a lot to the kids but also to their families.”
Last year, winner Catriona Matthew called her victory an honor.
“That makes it so much more special,” she said. “Lorena is doing such good work with her foundation. You come and you think I'm not doing enough when you see all the things she does, so to have won her tournament is a special moment for me.”
But Ochoa, who now lives in Mexico City, hasn’t stopped there. Earlier this year, during the Kraft Nabisco in Palm Springs, Calif., she announced the formation of the Lorena Ochoa Golf Foundation, with an expressed purpose of providing minorities in the United States opportunities for family through health, education and inclusion programs delivered through golf activities.
The pilot program is underway in Southern California with plans to move into Texas and Florida as early as next year.
All that leaves Ochoa with little time free time these days, but she does manage to remain occasionally active in the game she loves. One of those opportunities is this week when she will tee it up competitively in the event that carries her name.
“I am very excited and a little bit nervous because it will be difficult for me to play my best golf,” she said. “But the good news is I get to come back and say ‘hi’ to all my friends and welcome all the players. I’m really excited. We’ll see how it goes.”
One thing for certain.
Ochoa will give her best.