Scott Michaux

Sports columnist for The Augusta Chronicle. | ScottMichaux.com

First impression of Ochoa stuck

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It will have been seven years on May 10, but it seems like only yesterday.

Lorena Ochoa, who plans to announce her retirement today, acknowledged fans during the Asahi Ryokuken LPGA tournament at Mount Vintage in 2003. 
  File/Staff
File/Staff
Lorena Ochoa, who plans to announce her retirement today, acknowledged fans during the Asahi Ryokuken LPGA tournament at Mount Vintage in 2003.

By legendary standard time, it was only yesterday.

On that 2003 Saturday at Mount Vintage Plantation, I got my first look at a wisp of an LPGA rookie named Lorena Ochoa. Walking the hilly front nine with only a handful of other fans, we saw the former collegiate legend and Futures Tour star put on an unforgettable show.

Her course record-tying 30 on the front came just inches from being 29 when her 7-wood from 190 yards slid across the edge of the hole on No. 9 for what would have been a double eagle. Going 6-under in seven holes, she had climbed to a shot off the lead as she stalked her first career LPGA victory.

It was mesmerizing stuff that I can still remember as vividly as if it were last weekend. Yet what I remember most was about two hours later when she walked off the course after a roller-coaster of a back nine that included three more birdies, four bogeys and a double that added up to 39 strokes and all but assured that the 21-year-old from Mexico would have to wait a little longer to taste tour victory.

Ochoa simply smiled when asked for an interview. Over the next few minutes she solidified her place among the most gracious athletes anyone will ever get the pleasure to meet.

"I'm a little bit frustrated because I could really be at the top right now," she said in her quiet, accented English. "But I'm learning. ... I really want it very bad. I don't want to hurry up things. Hopefully it's going to come at a good moment and special moment for me. I'm just trying to be patient and wait for it."

Ochoa learned soon enough. Exactly 370 days later in Franklin, Tenn., Ochoa notched the first of two wins that year. She added only one more win in 2005.

Then she picked off six victories in 2006 to earn the first of four consecutive LPGA Player of the Year awards. She added eight, including her first major title at the Women's British Open at St. Andrews, in 2007. Seven more wins came in 2008 -- including a Kraft Nabisco title nestled in the middle of a four-win streak.

Ochoa was firmly rooted as the best women's player in the world by that time, which was a big deal on May 13, 2008, when 37-year-old Annika Sorenstam announced she would retire from the game at the end of the season.

"I'm a huge competitor," Sorenstam said on the week Ochoa won her third consecutive LPGA Sybase Classic, "and right now I'm second on the money list. People that know me know I don't settle for second."

Sorenstam walked away from the tour she had carried with her dominance for a decade, leaving it in the hands of Ochoa and a new generation of greats.

Now, less than two years later, Ochoa herself is doing the same thing. In a news conference today in Mexico City, Ochoa will explain her reasons for stepping away from the game at the tender age of 28. Just last year she was still living with her parents. Now she's retiring.

That Ochoa is leaving the stage prematurely, however, is no surprise to her peers.

"Lorena is like a comet passing by," LPGA player Christina Kim said in her recently released book, Swinging From My Heels. "You better enjoy her now, because she will be gone before you know it."

Ochoa has never hidden that golf would not be the priority in her life for long. She said as much the day after Sorenstam announced her own exit plan.

"We all have a plan in our life where we want to go and how do we want to live," Ochoa said. "I said this, you know, a few years ago -- I don't want to be here forever and I want to play maybe 10, 12 years. I don't have a strict number which date I will finish.

"But I do want to go back home and just raise a family and have kids. Those are the plans. You never know what is going to happen, but I would love to just finish here and be happy with my career and then just go back to Mexico and do things that I love to do, that I miss. And life is too short to not do them."

Life changed quicker than even Ochoa expected. The deaths of some close family members in 2008 sapped some of her competitive desire. Then she got married in December to Andres Conesa, an AeroMexico executive 12 years older than she is with three children of his own already.

And so like Bobby Jones did 80 years ago, Ochoa will leave the game at the height of her career. She's No. 1 in the world with enough victories to qualify for the World Golf Hall of Fame, yet she's stepping away (at least for now) shy of the 10-year service requirement to be eligible.

The LPGA Tour will once again lose its best player and most likeable star. She will be dearly missed.

Just her presence will be missed the most. Her sweet and unfailing polite personality endeared her to everyone from the fans to the media to her peers to the Mexican members of course maintenance staffs with whom she often hosted meals during tournament weeks.

It was nice to catch a glimpse of that comet before it disappeared too soon.


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