MEXICO CITY – Her voice breaking and eyes watering, Lorena Ochoa said goodbye to golf.
She made her farewell Friday after a career in which she reigned as No. 1 for three years, won two majors and 27 tour victories and was honored for four straight years as the LPGA Tour’s Player of the Year.
She also was not alone in being swept up in the moment. Her father, Javier, dabbed away tears with a tissue at the retirement news conference. Her brother and manager, Alejandro, broke down in his remarks.
The 28-year-old Ochoa has never forgotten her Mexican roots, her family and her friends. That grounded sense of self was not lost on those all across golf.
“We all know that Lorena’s golf has spoken for itself,” LPGA Tour vice president Jane Geddes said, sitting alongside Ochoa. “But what has always been the most impressive to the players is the way in which Lorena was able to balance her rise to greatness with such humility.”
Ochoa made her surprise announcement Tuesday. On Friday, she filled in the details.
She will step away as an active player after the Tres Marias Championship next week in Morelia, Mexico. She left the door slightly ajar to play a few more tournaments, including her own Lorena Ochoa Invitational each November in her hometown of Guadalajara.
But a full-blown return seems unlikely. She wants to raise a family – she was married in December to Aeromexico chief executive Andres Conesa – and run her charity foundation.
“What I am trying to say is that the door is open in a way,” she said. “The opportunities may come to play one or two tournaments in two years or three years but not a full season. No.”
Ochoa said she had planned to play the entire 2010 season. Two tournaments in Asia earlier this season changed her mind.
“I realized maybe I didn’t have the necessary motivation and that I wanted to start a new life and come to Mexico and do different things with the foundation,” she said. “I have achieved all I needed to achieve in sports. Now is time to change, I’m going to keep working very hard, but at home.”
With her husband seated in the front row, she spoke of the demands of the game – the tough schedule, the difficulties of staying No. 1. But she broke down when it came time to actually utter the words that she was leaving.
“Today begins a new stage,” she said, her voice choking, her eyes misting. “Today is the most special day of my career. Every career has a beginning and an end. Ours has come.”
Seconds later in the 12-minute farewell, she backed away from the microphone to compose herself.
“I can’t continue,” she said, pausing before resuming and offering encouragement to her compatriots.
“If I did it, I am sure many other Mexican men and women can do it, too.”
Alejandro teared up in his speech. He recalled traveling with his sister and their father on the Futures Tour.
“It was fun, it was exhausting going from town to town,” Alejandro said. “Neither me or dad will ever drive so many miles again. And dad will never again iron as many of your uniforms as he did in those days.”
Chance Cozby, the director of tournament player relations for one of her sponsors – PING – recalled Ochoa visiting the company’s factory and befriending the workers.
“She said she wanted to go meet all the employees,” Cozby said. “We’ve never had a player ask that. She went up and down the factory floor and introduced herself to everyone and took pictures. She came back a few months later and met for three hours with 1,000 employees. She took pictures and signed autographs for everyone. We were truly amazed.”
Her brother also recalled that Lorena had failed her English exam for the University of Arizona, delaying her entry by a year.
“You had to wait another year until you passed the test,” he said, ribbing her slightly.
Her long-time instructor Rafael Alarcon nearly wept as he finished his farewell.
“Nothing you did was as adventuresome or daring as telling me at 13 that you wanted to be the best player in the world. Lore, you did it,” Alarcon said. “The way you’ve lived your life and they way you have played golf, you have been an example to follow. Not just in Mexico but everywhere in the world where you have left a footprint.”
Over and over, Ochoa said the “time was right” for leaving, going out on top and at home in Mexico.
“I took the decision because all the elements fell into place,” she said. “I wanted to retire as No. 1, which I have been fortunate to be for three years. Secondly, I always dreamed of saying goodbye in Mexico, at home with my people. Finally, I want to live and enjoy the little things in life. I couldn’t do this if I kept playing.”
“I leave happy with what I have achieved and proud to be where I am,” she added. “I leave with my head high and with all the memories – of my tournaments, my friends, and the things I have done.”
Ochoa leaves just two years after former No. 1 Annika Sorenstam stepped away from golf to start a family, again depriving the struggling LPGA Tour of its top star.
Ochoa, who joined the LPGA Tour in 2003 after two seasons at Arizona, falls short of the 10-year playing requirement to be eligible for the Hall of Fame. Geddes said Ochoa deserved to be in the hall and could still make it.
She said Ochoa could be considered by a veterans committee, which has less stringent requirements. Otherwise, she said Ochoa would need to play three more seasons – a minimum of 10 tournaments each season – to reach the 10-year requirement.
“If she doesn’t come back and play and finish up those 10 years – and she can still can do that – she would be eligible in the veterans category,” Geddes said. “The veterans is a little more open-ended and a little more flexible. There is no doubt that she is a Hall of Fame player.”