Lorena Ochoa has always been in a hurry. In only two years at Arizona she broke a slew of NCAA records, including winning eight of 10 tournaments as a sophomore. She joined the LPGA in 2003, at age 21, and by '07 had reached No. 1 in the World Ranking. Last Friday, an emotional Ochoa, 28, announced she was stepping away from the game. Married in December, she is eager to spend more time with her family—husband Andrés Conesa has three kids from a previous marriage—and to devote more energy to her foundation, which is dedicated to improving the lives of children in her native Mexico.
Ochoa's early exit was not entirely unexpected. She has always said she saw herself playing for 10 or so years, and her listless performances at the start of this season (four starts, with her only top 10 finish a fourth at the Kraft Nabisco Championship) made it clear her heart was no longer in grinding through far-flung tournaments away from her hubby, who is based in Mexico City as the CEO of AeroMexico. But Ochoa's departure is a blow to a sport still reeling from the Tiger Woods sex scandal. Ochoa was more than a dominating player; she was one of the game's most winning ambassadors—a sweet, compassionate, graceful young woman who doubled as an explosive, utterly fearless champion. In recent years the LPGA has added three tournaments in Mexico built on Ochoa's status as the national sweetheart. Only one is sure to endure; Ochoa has said she will continue to play in her eponymous invitational in Guadalajara, and she sounded open to the possibility of accepting the occasional sponsor's invitation elsewhere. It's easy to imagine her filling Byron Nelson's old role of part-time player and full-time inspiration.
With 27 victories (including two majors) and four player of the year awards, Ochoa has easily fulfilled the qualifying criteria for the LPGA Hall of Fame, but she has not put in the required 10 seasons on tour. She can still gain entry to the Hall after five years of inactivity through a vote of the Veterans Committee, which seems likely.
Ochoa will always be remembered for her easy smile and one of the most natural, athletic swings to grace professional golf. Her departure from the game only confirms what we've always known: Ochoa is more than a golfer, and she is always true to herself.