Lorena Ochoa Couldn't Be Happier With Her Life After Golf
Lorena Ochoa is lucky she has time to entertain the question, much less actually consider the idea of returning to the LPGA Tour.
There are the 10 to 12 fundraisers she plays each year, as well as the numerous other efforts on behalf of her foundation. There are the visits with children whose lives she is clearly changing. And then there is the primary reason she retired from professional golf four years ago at age 28.
"My top priority," she calls motherhood.
On this day, shrugging off congestion and a bad cough like any mother of two is expected to do, Ochoa is hardly complaining.
And yet, happily cocooned in Mexico City with her husband, Andres, and their children -- Pedro, who will be 3 in December, and Julia, who just turned 1 -- Ochoa still finds it necessary to defend what she said in the April 2010 news conference announcing her decision to leave the tour.
"I'm 100 percent complete," she said at the time to a largely stunned audience. "It's great news, and I'm super-happy."
That she occasionally brushed away tears that day and left open the possibility she would one day return to the life in which she won 27 tournaments and two majors and was the No. 1-ranked player in the world for three years is perhaps the reason she is asked if she is still "super-happy." That the tour, its players and its fans still miss her dearly is more likely the case.
"For sure, everybody [in Mexico] thought I would play forever," Ochoa said in a phone interview leading up to this week's Lorena Ochoa Invitational, where she will play in the pro-am. "But for my close friends and family, the people around me, they knew I wanted to stop playing eventually.
"Some fans still today don't understand the reason. But I think when you're a woman and want to have a family and kids, it's obvious you have more things to think about. I was very secure about my decision and can tell you even now, with two little kids, I wouldn't change my life for anything."
Trading one full-time job for another
The LPGA Tour, while perhaps deeper in talent than it was four years ago, always has room for another radiant personality, and many, such as former star and Ochoa compatriot Nancy Lopez, still harbor hope that one of the brightest will return and reclaim a spot among the leaders.
"I just love Lorena and was disappointed more than anything when she left," Lopez said. "She had such a tremendous following who were cheated out of watching some more great golf.
"She's also going to have two children who really need to know what their mother did. ... I think it would be a shame if her kids don't see her compete and know she played and was such a great player."
Lopez, whom Ochoa calls her role model, remained on the LPGA Tour after each of her three daughters was born. Fellow Hall of Famer Juli Inkster, a friend of Ochoa's, played with her two daughters traveling along for much of her career, won four of her seven majors after the two were born and this year is one of 21 moms on tour.
But Inkster's advice to Ochoa regarding parenthood was blunt.
"I was honest with [Lorena]," said Inkster, whose daughters are now 24 and 21. "I told her if you're going to have kids, you'd better be ready because it smacks you straight in the face. It's a full-time job and golf is a full-time job."
The talk apparently was not necessary.
"Lorena does everything for the right reasons," Inkster said. "She's a person who knows what she wants, and she wanted to have a family, she wanted to stay home. ... She loved golf, but it wasn't the driving force in her life."
Waiting for Ochoa in Mexico, in addition to her husband, three stepchildren, her parents, three siblings and their kids, was the dream of having her own children, and those closest to her call her a natural at the job.
Ochoa's husband, Andres Conesa, the CEO of Aeromexico Airlines, laughs as he notes that even with toddlers his wife stresses education and, as her parents did with her, a life in which they will make their own choices, whether it be golf, tennis, horseback riding or music.
"She's not the type of mother who's worried about her kids getting wet in the rain," he said. "She's letting them grow in a very free environment but at the same time with strong values. In my view, it's a great combination."
'Godmother' to 355 other children
A great mix, as well, they agree, is a life that allows Ochoa the time to fulfill speaking engagements, meet with sponsors and -- closest to her heart next to her family -- work with the Lorena Ochoa Foundation, which devotes most of its resources to La Barranca Educational Center in Guadalajara.
"I've worked with other [charities]," Ochoa said, "but in the end, I could tell education was the only way to really change a kid's life and to break that cycle of [poverty] and the problems like delinquency that go along with being disadvantaged."
Ochoa said her school of 355 students ranging from first to 12th grade has had 10 graduating classes. Some former students have gone on to college and returned to work there.
"That's the most important thing I do [outside of home]. I love it," Ochoa said. "But I need to get the funds. We need more than 8 million pesos [about $588,000] a year for the foundation to run the full program," which includes daily breakfast, two professors per classroom, sports programs and evening workshops, and health seminars and therapy sessions for the children and their families.
The school and its students are her motivation for the tournaments, appearances, speeches and pitches to sponsors that take her away from home an average of about a week a month, though they seldom interfere with bath time and bedtime.
"I want to make sure these children [at La Barranca] receive the education they deserve," she said. "They don't have anything when they start. Some travel two hours in the morning just to get to school. It's so impressive. One boy, he started doing judo with us and made it to the Pan-American Games.
"They're great kids."
Almost like her own?
"It's a special feeling," she said, "more like being a godmother. I worry for them. You follow them and try to help as much as you can. What is important is they see someone behind them, caring about them, asking for results. We try to provide that for them."
Don't look for her on tour
Ochoa, who turns 33 on Nov. 15, said that, for now, she has no intention of returning to the tour full time.
"I [would not] like to play professional golf again all around the world," she said. "[We've talked] about the opportunity maybe one day in the future to play my tournament just because it's my tournament."
I [would not] like to play professional golf again all around the world. [We've talked] about the opportunity maybe one day in the future to play my tournament just because it's my tournament.Lorena Ochoa
And beyond that?
"I cannot answer," she said. "I don't know how comfortable I'll be, how I am practicing. I am taking it one year at a time. Maybe eventually I play one or two tournaments in the States just to get back and see my friends, but I'm not coming back to the tour."
Ochoa's golf playing over the past four years has been limited to the charity appearances and the occasional pro-am, one European Tour event in 2012 and fooling around with little Pedro.
"Every time I come to school, he says to me, 'I want to go to the course. I want to go to the course,'" Ochoa said with a laugh.
While she admits it is much tougher to enjoy herself playing at a different level, she insists she does not mourn the loss of world-class competition.
"I don't think I need it," Ochoa said. "Being a mother gives me so much joy, and I get so busy. I'm OK."
Her husband differs slightly with that view. "We had the chance to play a couple of weeks ago, and obviously she's not at the level she used to play," Conesa said, "but she's still very competitive and doesn't want to lose the touch she has."
Still, Ochoa was always admired as much for her genuine warmth as her golf.
Legendary are the quiet visits she would have with Mexican golf course employees before tournaments, thanking them for the condition of the course and for representing their country well. Once, Ochoa even cooked breakfast for a group of workers at the Kraft Nabisco Championship, which she went on to win that year in 2008.
Some of them responded by greeting her on bended knee. Others followed her around the course on their days off, waving Mexican flags.
Just as special was the relationship she fostered with fellow competitors, something Inkster describes as unusual for the top players in the game.
"Lorena treated everyone the same, whether they were 154th on the money list or No. 2," Inkster said. "She always felt she was competing against herself, not anybody else. She wasn't going to lose a friendship over a golf game.
"Golf was what she did, not who she was, and everybody just respected who she was as a person. Ask anyone, she was probably a better person than a golfer, and she was a damn good golfer."
So good that the idea of walking away with her skills undiminished was hard to fathom for some. In her retirement speech in 2010, Ochoa said she was "leaving the door open" to playing the U.S. Open or Kraft Nabisco in one or two years. But that didn't happen, and Ochoa now has a different perspective.
"I think once you've been there, you know how difficult it is to get to the top and how hard the practice and the travel around the world can be," she said. "Now my life is very different, and now my priority is my kids and my family and my work in Mexico."
At the time of her retirement, she had played 102 consecutive tournaments over five years without missing a cut. But more challenging than maintaining that streak might be combining it with motherhood.
Ochoa's former caddie Greg Johnston, who does not hesitate in saying Ochoa could be in the "top five or top three" if she did return, said he "wishes all the time" it would happen.
"But in 12 years [caddying for] Juli Inkster, I know what it's all about," he said. "It takes a special type of desire and family and support [to return to the tour after having children]. Not that Lorena doesn't have all that, but she chose to go in a different direction. You almost have to be selfish in a way, with the amount of time you have to put into the sport.
"Especially with children, it's not easy. She couldn't go through the motions."
In a happy stage of life
Lopez says her favorite memories in a career that spanned four decades on tour were those that involved her children.
"When I decided to have children, I thought I'd have one baby and probably retire," she said. "But once I had Ashley, my first child, I still had so much of my competitive spirit in my heart and my soul, I just couldn't walk away. I thought the same thing would happen with Annika [Sorenstam] and Lorena for four, five years after they had children."
But those who keep in close touch with Ochoa, like pro golfer Reilley Rankin, say they do not see a woman with regrets but rather one who is fulfilling a role she has long dreamed of.
"I think she's extremely happy," Rankin said. "I mean, I was sad when I knew she was going to retire, but I was very happy for her because I knew that's what she wanted and needed to do. I don't think she has looked back for a second, and I don't think she should. It's sad for the golf world, but she is someone who has always followed her heart, and that's what she's doing now."
Ochoa still gets the questions, but it is getting easier to accept her answers?
"People keep asking me, 'What's better? To win a golf tournament or be a mother?' But how can you ask those things?" she said. "It's very, very different, for sure. But the best thing in the world to me is being a mother.
"I've enjoyed both at different times and at different stages. But right now I am very, very happy."