WELL, THAT settles that, doesn't it? ¶ Over the first two months of the LPGA season there had been a few distressing signs that all was not right with Lorena Ochoa. She had let tournaments in Singapore and Mexico City slip through her grasp, and she was a nonfactor at the year's first major, the Kraft Nabisco. Setting off more alarms was Ochoa's comportment. A relentlessly cheerful woman who has made the game seem so easy for so long, she was suddenly the picture of frustration, banging around defenseless golf clubs and muttering invective that required no translation. Throw in a big life change—in the off-season Ochoa, 27, became engaged to AeroMéxico CEO Andrés Conesa, 39, who has three kids from a previous marriage—and it was probably inevitable that there would be questions about the current state of the world's most dominant female athlete.
At last week's Corona Championship, in Morelia, Mexico, Ochoa had a resounding answer for her smattering of doubters, birdieing two of the final four holes to prevail in a Sunday dogfight with a very game Suzann Pettersen. Ochoa's total of 25 under par tied her own tournament record and restored her to her rightful place atop the money list. And it was all the more satisfying because she had called her shot. In an interview with SPORTS ILLUSTRATED the day before the tournament, Ochoa said, "My game has been there all season, but I think I was trying too hard and putting too much pressure on myself to win everything. Now my mind is clearer and I'm more relaxed. If I just go out and play my game, I think I will start winning again very soon."
Ochoa announced her intentions by opening with a pair of 65s on the Tres Marias Country Club, a hilly Jack Nicklaus design that plays to 6,539 yards and a par of 73. Over those 36 holes Ochoa made 14 birdies, an eagle and no bogeys. On Friday evening her lifelong swing instructor, Rafael Alarcón, was positively giddy, saying, "I have never seen her this precise. In two days she missed one green and one fairway, and that was by maybe six feet. It's beautiful to watch."
Winning any of the three tournaments in her home country is always meaningful to Ochoa; as she says, "I have seven majors every year." Just as satisfying was trumping Pettersen, 28, who is fifth in the World Ranking and may be the only woman in golf who is as physically talented as Ochoa, and also leaving in the dust Yani Tseng, 20, the world No. 2 who tied for fifth. Before her retirement Annika Sorenstam anointed Tseng as the woman most likely to end Ochoa's long reign at No. 1. Of course that was before third-ranked Jiyai Shin, 20, had fully emerged as a dominant force. With a nod to all of the tour's ambitious young talent, Alarcón says, "Oh, yes, Lorena knows they are coming after her, and she enjoys it. It's good for her; it keeps her excited. And trust me, she will not give up the Number 1 spot without a fight."
If Ochoa was antsy about her results at the start of the year, it may have had more to do with her biological clock than World Ranking points. Her close friend Christina Kim says, "Lorena can't wait to start having children, which means she doesn't have that much time to accomplish all of her lofty goals. Every week that goes by in which she doesn't win adds to the pressure she puts on herself."
Now that Ochoa is engaged, the speculation has increased that she will scale back her schedule after 2012, when she will have put in 10 years on tour and thus be eligible for the Hall of Fame. Asked about that last week, Ochoa let out a laugh and said, "Don't try to make me retire yet—I'm still here playing! No, really, I never look that far into the future, so how can I talk about that?"
She was quick to refute any notion that her more complicated personal life has had or will have an effect on her golf. "I'm a simple girl," she said. "The wedding will be small, so the planning is nothing. Andrés knows for the next few years golf will still be my priority, and he is very supportive of that. If anything, I'm happier and more complete as a person, so that helps me play my best."
As for the potential pitfalls as a stepmom-to-be, Ochoa says she has already bonded with Conesa's children, the oldest of whom is 13. "They are a blessing in my life," she says. "My relationship with them is very uplifting. Having them come to tournaments and cheer is a big motivation for me."
That's surely the last thing the competition wants to hear. As Ochoa proved last week, she's especially tough to beat when she has a rooting section as well as a little something to prove.