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Changed the Game: Lorena 'La Reina' Ochoa became an LPGA legend before walking away at age 28

Jennifer Starks
·Yahoo Sports
·4 min read
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WHM
WHM

The statement came on a Tuesday in April nearly 11 years ago: “Lorena Ochoa confirms her retirement from the LPGA.”

The celebrated player who won over the masses with her big game and infectious charm was saying goodbye to golf.

While there is something to be said about an athlete going out on her terms and in her time, it didn’t make the moment any less jarring. Ochoa was just 28 years old and had spent 158 consecutive weeks atop the rankings when she sat before a swarm of media in Mexico City and, through tears, explained why she was leaving the game. The blow of losing such a legend was undeniable.

“I’m just crushed,” television analyst Judy Rankin said then. “We won’t get to see her play golf. Mostly, we won’t get to see her.”

In eight years on tour, Ochoa delighted fans across the United States and Mexico. Yet she made no secret about her desire to one day start a family and enjoy everyday life. That need eventually outweighed whatever was left of a career that generated 27 LPGA Tour titles, including two majors.

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - OCTOBER 25: Lorena Ochoa during the Laureus Project visit to Proyecto Cantera on October 25, 2018 in Mexico City, Mexico.(Photo by Carlos Ramirez/Getty Images for Laureus)
Lorena Ochoa went out on top, retiring at 28 with 27 LPGA Tour titles. (Photo by Carlos Ramirez/Getty Images for Laureus)

Ochoa knew it was time

More than a decade later, Ochoa, now a mother of three, looks back with no regrets.

“People, they think that it was something really, really hard to do,” she said during a recent episode of the “En Fuego” podcast. “For me, it was not hard. It was something that came out easily. ... I promised myself when I see clearly that I want to get married and I’m ready to have kids, I’m going to step away. I also promised myself I’m going to play golf and I’m going to give it everything, 100 percent. But when golf is not my priority anymore, I’m going to move on because life is too short.”

A native of Guadalajara, Ochoa, 39, cultivated big dreams long before she became one of Mexico’s most celebrated athletes. She started playing golf when she was 5 and competed in her first tournament a year later. When she was 11, Ochoa approached former PGA Tour player Rafael Alarcón, whom she met at the Guadalajara Country Club, with a request:

“I want to be the best player in the world. Will you help me?”

Ochoa and Alarcón formed a lasting partnership, and when Ochoa punched her ticket to the LPGA Tour in 2003, the pair took off.

Ochoa notched her first victory in 2004, becoming the first Mexican-born player to win on the LPGA Tour. What followed was a dominant stretch that included a historic four-stroke victory at the Women's British Open at St. Andrews, a four-year run as LPGA Player of the Year and a spot on Time magazine’s 100 most influential people list alongside Oprah Winfrey and Andre Agassi. Along the way, she supplanted her idol Annika Sorenstam as the world’s top-ranked player, a position she refused to relinquish until she retired.

'A better person than a golfer'

Dubbed “La Reina” — the queen — by her hometown newspaper, Ochoa remained a humble champion who took enormous pride in her roots. Her visits with groundskeepers, many of whom were Latino, before tournaments became the stuff of legend. She’d thank them for their work, and on at least one occasion, made them breakfast.

“Ask anyone,” LPGA Hall of Famer Juli Inkster told ESPN in 2014, “she was probably a better person than a golfer, and she was a damn good golfer."

In a country where the masses had limited access to golf, Ochoa became an inspiration. She was an accessible presence to those aiming to leave their own marks on the game.

Take Guadalajara native Carlos Ortiz. In November, he became the first player from Mexico to win a PGA Tour event since Victor Regalado did so in 1978. Ortiz pointed directly to Ochoa as a source of influence and hope.

“She was on TV all the time, and in my case, she definitely inspired me and helped me believe that working hard and doing things the right way, we’re able to achieve our goals,” Ortiz told USA Today.

Ochoa’s legacy continues to stretch well beyond the ropes. She relishes the work she does for the Lorena Ochoa Foundation, a charitable organization she started in 2004 and still considers “the best thing that happened” in her career. The foundation helped establish La Barranca, an elementary school geared toward helping underprivileged students in Guadalajara. It has since added a high school, which Ochoa says has graduated more than 6,000 students.

“To be able to change their lives and their futures … it’s something very special. I’m very proud to say that,” Ochoa told “En Fuego.” “When I used to play, that was my motivation. Now that I’m here outside, that’s what I do. ... For me, that’s my motivation. It’s something special.”

Changed The Game: Female athletes who paved the way.
Changed The Game: Female athletes who paved the way.