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May 2, 2010

On and Off the Course: Ochoa’s departure to impact LPGA

TERRE HAUTE — LPGA Commissioner Michael Whan already had a tough job, trying to promote the LPGA tour and keep the 25 events that they have on the schedule, but that job was made tougher last week when the tour’s No. 1 player announced her retirement from the game at the ripe old age of 28.

Whan is putting a positive spin on her departure though. In an e-mail sent to players after Lorena Ochoa’s announcement April 23, he said that Ochoa “made the LPGA better AND she’ll make the LPGA better when she’s not playing. So I don’t consider Lorena’s departure from us a loss. It’s only been a gain.”

Easy for him to say, but the proof is yet to be seen. Ochoa was a charismatic and fierce competitor whom the crowd could relate to because she tended to wear her emotions on her sleeve. She also was known for not ever ducking out of an interview and always signed autographs.

Why would someone seemingly at the top of her game, and ranked first in the world, decide to retire? Well, for one thing, she wanted to go out on top. When asked at her press conference how she would feel when she gets passed as No. 1. She smiled and replied, “I will never be passed. I retired as No. 1. I will always be No. 1.”

It was 3 years to the date of her retirement announcement since she had overtaken Annika Sorenstam as the No. 1 player. (When Annika retired she was ranked 3rd in the world, partly due to a season battling neck problems.)

Other reasons had to do with changes in her priorities, most likely because of her recent marriage to Andres Conesa, an Aeromexico executive with three children between the ages of 7 and 14. After she won the Navistar LPGA Classic in October of 2009, it made her think about everything more.  After that tournament she spoke with Andres and said, “I am ready to start a new life.” 

She found, even at that tournament, that golf didn’t bring the same joy that it always had. “If you make a bogey or make a birdie and feel the same, or if you win a tournament and don’t feel that adrenaline rush and all the excitement, then you need to realize that something is wrong.”

There were other signs after that, pointing the way to her eventual retirement. Her game wasn’t up to her standards, and she was showing her temper, slamming clubs and throwing balls. She said she felt she needed to be brave to see those signs, and make her decision. She said, “It is more something that happens inside, it is more something that is in your heart. “

She played her last tournament in at Tres Marias in Morelia, Mexico. Ochoa has established herself as one of Mexico’s greatest sport icons, and is ranked as one of her country’s five most successful athletes of all time.

Lorena intends to remain active in golf, to some extent. She will host and play in the Lorena Ochoa Invitational in November. She plans to practice and work out so she can participate in corporate outings, and is not ruling out playing via sponsor’s exemptions in a few tournaments in a couple of years. She plans to put more energy into raising awareness of her foundation, which helps disadvantaged children in Mexico.

Ochoa and Sorenstam have been the only No. 1 players on the LPGA tour for the past decade. There is no clear favorite waiting in the wings to claim the new spot at the top. In the current Rolex Rankings Jiyai Shin from Korea is No. 2, Yani Tseng, from Taiwan is No. 3, and Suzann Pettersen, from Norway, No. 4. 

Then  5-to-10 are Ai Miyazato, Cristie Kerr, Anna Nordqvist, Karrie Webb, and Michelle Wie. Jiyai Shin’s rookie year on the LPGA tour was 2009, when she won the both the Rolex Player of the Year and the Louise Suggs Rookie of the Year. She could be a new sensation, but she’s also a new name.

Even the PGA Tour gets better TV ratings when well known pros are winning. If the LPGA offers a bunch of unrecognizable names at their tournaments, they’ll have more trouble getting viewers to watch, patrons to attend the tournaments, and thus have an even harder time holding onto sponsors.  The LPGA is going to need some great play and great personalities to generate some excitement for their tour.

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