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Lorena Ochoa’s retirement another blow to LPGA

Lorena Ochoa has always insisted she’ll be just fine without golf.

“I prefer to be remembered for other things,” she has said. “It’s not about golf. It’s not about the game.”

But will golf be fine without Lorena Ochoa?

We may soon find out, given Ochoa’s surprise announcement Tuesday that she is retiring from the LPGA Tour, the latest in a series of recent blows that has left women’s golf reeling.

Ochoa, the LPGA’s player of the year each of the last four seasons, posted a brief statement on her website that only hinted at why she is stepping down. The golfer, who married in December, has scheduled a news conference Friday in Mexico City where she said she will share “news of a new state in her life with her sponsors, family members and friends,” according to the announcement

Earlier this year Ochoa said she planned on playing four more seasons but would retire when it came time to start a family.

An LPGA spokesman said tour officials would not comment on Ochoa’s retirement or its impact on women’s golf until after Ochoa’s news conference. But the news certainly wasn’t welcome.

“Obviously when you lose your No. 1 player it certainly is not good news,” said Charlie Rymer, an analyst for LPGA broadcasts on the Golf Channel. “It’s a tough pill to swallow. You provide a stage for your larger-than-life stars and that’s what pushes the needle in golf. There’s some negatives to that. When you put your eggs in one basket, sometimes the basket gets a little fragile and the eggs roll out.”

Ochoa’s decision to step down now, at 28, makes her the second LPGA star, after Annika Sorenstam, to walk away from the game in less than two years. Couple that with a steep decline in sponsorship, plunging TV ratings and a surviving tour roster with few well-known personalities and Commissioner Michael Whan finds himself battling to keep the LPGA relevant six months after taking the job.

The LPGA Tour schedule has only 26 official events this year, down six from two years ago. And only 14 of those will be played in the U.S.

Purses are down too, with last year’s overall prize money of $47.6 million marking a 20% decline from the year before, reversing a trend that had seen earnings grow steadily throughout the decade.

“But I think the No. 1 challenge that the LPGA is chasing is really just the malaise in the economy,” Rymer said.

Whan has helped find new sponsors to replace longtime stalwarts such as Ginn Resorts and Stanford Financial, but the LPGA hasn’t been as successful in recouping its lost television time and the broadcast fees that come with it. According to viewership numbers supplied by the Nielsen Company, the LPGA’s audience has fallen by two-thirds since 2006. Only one of the five events so far this year has been televised in this country.

And the loss of the engaging Ochoa 23 months after the retirement of the equally personable Sorenstam — an eight-time player of the year and the tour’s all-time money winner — won’t help those numbers grow.

“This is kind of a rebuilding time for the LPGA,” said Hall of Fame golfer Amy Alcott, who spent more than three decades on the tour, winning 29 tournaments. “To lose one of its great stars and great entertainers, that’s difficult.”

Both Alcott and Rymer said Ochoa’s retirement provides an opportunity for up-and-coming stars such as 20-year-old American Michelle Wie; 21-year-old Yani Tseng of Taiwan, the LPGA’s leading money winner this season; and 24-year-old Ai Miyazato of Japan, a two-time winner this year.

Ochoa, who became the world’s top women golfer in 2006, won 21 titles over the next three seasons and poured much of her earnings into charities in her native Mexico, where she has become the most recognized and revered athlete outside soccer. That has opened new doors for golf in Latin America and especially Mexico, site of three LPGA tournaments this season.

But her engagement and subsequent December marriage to Andres Conesa, chief executive of Aeromexico airline, appeared to sap much of her focus.

Ochoa, who became mother to Conesa’s three children from a previous marriage, has talked about starting a family of her own. Last year she cut her travel and competition schedule back, winning just three events. She has played four tournaments this season, finishing in the top 10 once.

In a lengthy interview with The Times at her home course in Guadalajara in 2008, Ochoa insisted her legacy would have little to do with golf.

“Being a good person. Giving back to the community and help[ing] others” were more important, she said.

“Who wins a golf tournament or leaves with that beautiful trophy is only a memory for a while. I prefer to be remembered for other things.”

kevin.baxter@latimes.com


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