When the wheels touched down at New Orleans International Airport on April 20, 2010, I powered up my phone and it exploded with messages. “Forget the Zurich Classic,” I was told by my editor. “Lorena Ochoa is retiring. Get to Mexico City.”
On April 23, exactly three years after she replaced Annika Sorenstam as No. 1 in the Rolex Rankings – a position she held for a record 158 weeks – I was among family, friends and media as Ochoa said: “After playing next week in Morelia, I am retiring from competitive golf and the LPGA.”
Lorena was only 28 – the same age as Bobby Jones when he retired – and exited the game with the same joy with which she played it.
The mood was more celebratory than sad, marking the beginning of what’s next rather than the end of a remarkable career. Cameras clicked constantly as she read her statement, its conclusion greeted by thunderous applause.
“Today is the most special day in my career,” Ochoa said, speaking in Spanish. “Every career has a beginning and an end, and we are at the end.”
Addressing her parents, she said: “You taught me to fight for my dreams.” Looking at Andres Conesa, who she married the previous December, she said, “We want to have a family. I can tell you I am the happiest woman in the world.”
Lorena has since given birth three times and when I spoke to her by phone recently my heart smiled when I heard the laughter of the little ones in the background.
As for the timing of her retirement, Ochoa said. “First, I wanted to retire as No. 1. Second, I always dreamed of saying goodbye in Mexico. Now, I want to leave and enjoy everyday life. I want to give back to my family the times I haven't been able to give them the last eight years. I am very satisfied with my achievements.”
When I was alone with her, I asked what she would miss most about the Tour.
“I’ll miss getting to the course on Monday and being out there late in the day with just my caddie as the sun is going down and the shadows come and everything is just so beautiful,” she said. “I just love that.”
Those words are a glimpse into the heart of Lorena. She loved the beauty of the game more than she loved the competition. She loved the people more than she loved beating them.
In fact, it took a while for Ochoa to learn how to win, but when she did, the floodgates opened: 27 victories, two major championships and four times Rolex Player of the Year. She departed as one of the most popular athletes in Mexico with more than two dozen TV crews on hand for her announcement.
“I will never forget the last eight years,” she said. “I wanted to play with the best players and I wanted to represent Mexico worldwide and I achieved that.”
Ochoa’s two majors came consecutively – the 2007 AIG Women’s British Open and the 2008 ANA Inspiration. The ANA win set off a wild celebration as more than two dozen family and friends joined her for the traditional dip into Poppie’s Pond.
The 2007 Women’s British Open was significant in many ways. It was not only Lorena’s first major, it was also the first professional event played by women on the Old Course at St. Andrews.
But perhaps most importantly for Lorena, who is a devout Catholic, was that earlier that year she asked her caddie, Dave Brooker, who is not religious, “How many times do I have to win this year for you to get your two children baptized?”
Brooker replied: “Just one – St. Andrews.”
As always, Lorena played for a higher cause – and won.
Now she is involved with the Ochoa Group and Ochoa Sports Management, run by her brother, Alejandro. And through the Ochoa Golf Academies, created by Lorena, Alejandro and Lorena’s longtime coach, Rafael Alacorn, they hope to grow the game in Mexico.
Her joy is the Lorena Ochoa Foundation, which began in 2004 with La Barranca, a primary school in Guadalajara with 250 underprivileged students. It’s since added a high school and has graduated more than 4,000 students.
“For me, the foundation is the most beautiful thing that my career as a golfer has given me,” Ochoa says. “Hopefully, with this we will open eyes to realize how important education is for children in our country.”
Her country was always in her heart when she competed. When the LPGA Tour played where the maintenance workers were mostly of Mexican heritage, she’d visit them on Tuesday. Those workers would show up on the weekend, waving Mexican flags, singing and chanting in Spanish. Moms pushed baby strollers as they watched golf for the first time because of Lorena.
At the ANA Inspiration, Lorena cooked scrambled eggs for workers, signed autographs and posed for photos, well aware that she is a have in a country with many have-nots.
“It was important for me to spend time with them,” Ochoa said. “I wanted to thank them for how they got the golf course in such great shape, and I wanted to thank them for being such great representatives of Mexico. They made me proud of my homeland.”
As she walked away from the game, Lorena said: “I want to thank all the Mexican people and all the fans who have been following me throughout the world. My career will be something special for those who want to reach for their special skills. If I can do it I am sure many Mexicans can do it.”
LPGA members Gaby Lopez and Maria Fassi are proof of the impact Ochoa had on golf in Mexico. The thousands of children educated through the Lorena Ochoa Foundation are proof of the impact she’s had on life in her homeland.
Ten years removed from the LPGA Tour, Lorena is a champion who has continued her winnings ways.