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A classy exit for Ochoa

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A classy exit for Ochoa
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Lorena Ochoa signs the guitar of golf course gardener Salvador Romero in Guadalajara, Mexico

The story that stands out about Lorena Ochoa isn't about golf, about the four consecutive Player of the Year Awards from 2006-09, or about the No. 1 world ranking, or the 27 career wins by age 28, or the NCAA-record eight consecutive victories at Arizona, or the fact that she already had enough wins two years ago to get to the World Golf Hall of Fame.

If you want to have an idea why Ochoa, perhaps Mexico's most famous athlete, is retiring from golf, smack dab in the prime of her career, maybe you should know that at most every LPGA event she plays in the U.S., Ochoa hosts a meal and a meeting with the heavily Spanish-speaking maintenance crews at the host golf courses.

Lorena Ochoa has always been different. And that's a compliment.

On a Tuesday, or a Wednesday, of tournament week, Ochoa seeks out the very unfancy sheds behind the fancy country club facades, and embraces the blue-collar workers of Latin descent. She feeds them, she jokes with them, she takes photos with them.

They love her back, and Ochoa, so quiet and shy with the press, is in her element.

There's something there, in that anecdote. Ochoa has always said she wanted to retire in two or three years, to put in the requisite 10 years to qualify for the Hall of Fame. So retirement at a young age isn't shocking. Retirement two or three years early is a bit of a shock.

But when you consider what Ochoa has always valued in her life – her close family in Mexico, her desire to be a mother, her hope to do significant charity work – the shock fades.

Tiger-like obsession with greatness isn't everyone's calling, and there's nothing wrong with that. Ochoa owes nothing to the game other than to be honest with herself, and even when she first burst on the scene with that epic college career in Tucson, she spoke of fulfilling days she spent climbing mountains with her brother, or doing triathlons, or running half-marathons.

The temptation is to wonder why she didn't burn with the fire to be a legend, to outwork everyone until she'd smashed all of Annika's records and made herself the greatest women's player in history. She had that chance, after all.

Something inside Ochoa, though, didn't need that crown to validate her life.

It would be a mistake to consider her famously kind demeanor – ''truly one of the nicest, sweetest people you'll ever meet,'' said The Golf Channel's Kay Cockerill in a phone interview – for a lack of competitive want-to. Just last month at the Kraft Nabisco, CBS cameras caught Ochoa angrily spiking a ball into the green after missing a putt, an outburst so ferocious she needed to fetch her divot-fixer and repair the ball mark. Her fourth-place finish at Nabisco wasn't up to her demanding standards.

Just two years ago, in April of 2008, Ochoa had won four consecutive starts, and was chasing the ghost of Byron Nelson. But a pair of sad family deaths – her grandfather and her uncle – derailed her, and she seemingly never recovered. She hasn't won a major since.

A theory goes that Ochoa's four starts without a win this year both angered her and awakened her. Not only was she not putting in enough dedication to get to the winner's circle, maybe she realized that her new marriage – to an older, divorced AeroMexico executive with three children under the age of 13 – had accelerated the next phase of her life – and she liked the feel of it.

In many ways, Ochoa's announcement is similar to Annika's surprising retirement. Annika, too, wanted to begin another chapter in her life, and now has a daughter. In some ways, it is different – Annika broke all the records and climbed more peaks in her sport than Ochoa; and played into her late 30s, not her late 20s.

Where does it leave women's golf? There would be those who say that Ochoa's quiet personality never sold as many tickets as a world No. 1 should. Another answer is that the game's future – Asian dominance – arrives quicker. Three of the next four top-ranked players in the world, Jiyai Shin of Korea (2nd), Yani Tseng of Taiwan (3rd) and Ai Miyazoto of Japan (5th) become the favorites at the next three majors.

The highest-ranked American, Cristie Kerr, is closer to the back nine of her career, so all eyes land on the 9th-ranked player in the world – America's Michelle Wie. We are left to wonder how badly Wie, so charismatic and talented, wants to be the best. Paula Creamer has a chance to be dominant, but is injured right now, and needs to bounce back in a massive way.

Unless Ochoa tells us differently in her statement on Friday, what we could have here is a world-class athlete seeking more fulfillments in her life. It sounds mind-blowing to those of us who would die to feel the amazing immortality a world-class athlete must feel, but it isn't unprecedented.

Jim Brown, maybe the greatest football player of all time, retired at the age of 29. Barry Sanders, one of the NFL's most electrifying running backs ever, retired at the age of 30, on the doorstep of becoming the league's all time leading rusher. On a much lesser level of fame, Oakland A's prospect Grant Desme, a rising star, stunned the organization in January when he announced he was leaving baseball for the priesthood.

In each case, something tugged at the athlete. Brown wanted to preserve his body and get into acting. Sanders admitted the losing culture of the Detroit Lions sapped his spirit. Desme heard the proverbial ''higher calling.'' As it turns out, life can produce varied storylines and motivations.

One more anecdote: A women's tournament in Korea recently was sponsored by a jewelry maker, and at a pre-tournament event, the sponsor asked the top women's players to come down the runway at a party, modeling expensive jewelry. Ochoa declined, saying it wouldn't be representative of who she was.

So, something is tugging at Lorena Ochoa, telling her to be who she is. She is heeding the tug. We'll all miss her. So will the maintenance workers at the shed.