JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — At the height of her stardom, when Lorena Ochoa was piling up victories during her rise to No. 1 in the world, she began every press conference by looking out at a room full of reporters and sweetly saying, "Hello."
That's why it's so hard to listen to her say goodbye.
Ochoa had been dropping hints the past couple of years about wanting more out of life than trophies. The 28-year-old Mexican is devoted to building a school for needy children in her hometown of Guadalajara. She got married in December to Aeromexico executive Andres Conesa, who has three children from a previous marriage, and Ochoa wants children of her own.
The statement Tuesday — "Lorena Ochoa confirms her retirement from the LPGA" — was no less jarring.
"I am just crushed," said Judy Rankin, a Hall of Famer and television analyst who has spent countless hours in private with Ochoa and has found her to be no different than the gracious, courteous player she sees in public.
"We won't get to see her play golf. Mostly, we won't get to see her," Rankin said. "Everybody likes her a lot — you can hardly not like her. She's one of those people who brightens your day when you see her, and she does that for lots of people. Aside from the fact she's an extraordinary golfer, it's the person who is really going to be missed.
"She's unlike any star athlete I've ever known."
Find another star athlete who has lunch every Monday at golf tournaments with the Mexican workers on the maintenance staff, a small gesture to touch their lives. On the eve of the 2008 Kraft Nabisco Championship, which she went on to win, Ochoa helped cook breakfast for the grounds crew, her way of saying thanks for keeping the course in great shape.
At a dinner three years ago in South Carolina, founding members of the LPGA Tour asked Ochoa to sign the dinner menu. Ochoa made sure such an opportunity was not wasted — not only did she sign, she made sure she got their autographs. Then, she asked to have her picture taken with them "to keep for memories."
Then there was the time Ochoa drove from Orlando to St. Augustine when practice was rained out because she wanted to visit the World Golf Hall of Fame. She walked up to the window without fanfare and bought her ticket, and only later did someone recognize her and alert the staff she was there.
Ochoa might not make it back.
She will not discuss details of her retirement until a press conference Friday in Mexico City. But if she steps away for good, Ochoa will be giving up her spot in the Hall of Fame. She reached the minimum points requirement two years ago and only needs to complete 10 years of LPGA Tour membership for induction. This is her eighth year.
"As it relates to the Hall of Fame, her career record will be such that she qualified on points but fell short of the 10-year criteria," said Jack Peter, chief operating officer of the World Golf Hall of Fame. "That's the first time this has ever happened."
Ochoa did so much in so little time, which is not unusual in women's golf.
She won only three times her first three seasons on the LPGA Tour, then was practically unstoppable. She won 21 times over the next three years, including her first major at St. Andrews and another at the Kraft Nabisco Championship. Ochoa has gone 102 consecutive tournaments without missing the cut, a streak that began nearly five years ago.
But she looked ordinary at times last year as romance and wedding plans began to occupy her thoughts and time. And it boiled over this year when she angrily spiked her ball to the ground after a three-putt at the Nabisco.
"There has been an unusual frustration with her golf," Rankin said. "I think in someone like Lorena's case, she's so dedicated to what she does that part of the frustration is she wasn't giving 100 percent, even though she meant to. Other things clearly were more important. People may think you're talented if you wind up on top of the heap, but it's a huge commitment to get there."
Annika Sorenstam felt the same way when she walked away two years ago, fulfilling a pledge to stop when she couldn't give it her all.
"Though I was older than Lorena, it is still hard to play — and play at the level you demand of yourself — when your heart and mind are somewhere else," Sorenstam wrote on her blog. "While the LPGA will certainly miss her great play, warm demeanor and smile, I am personally very happy for her. The most rewarding days are ahead of her."
Tough times await the LPGA Tour.
It's one thing to find another replacement.
Finding another person like Ochoa? That might not be so easy.
The LPGA Tour suffered through a tough economy, although new commissioner Mike Whan has done well to rebuild trust and respect with title sponsors. The tour has 25 events (14 in the United States), and while it badly needs someone to deliver star power, it also needs a star to follow Ochoa's example of combining great play and a sparkling personality with grace, dignity and a big heart.
"It's a big blow for the LPGA, an empty space that's going to be difficult to fill," Rankin said. "There are other stars, and they will take their place. But you can't take her place."