125 Years of Golf in America: New Mexico November 27, 2019

The USGA was founded on Dec. 22, 1894. With the 125th anniversary coming at the end of 2019, every week throughout the year we're highlighting how all 50 states, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, make the game we all love a great one in the United States. 

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Lopez Took the Game by Storm in Hall-of-Fame Career

By Rhonda Glenn

Nancy Lopez has always been a fan favorite for not only her talent, but her gregarious disposition. (USGA/Jason E. Miczek)

This story by the late Rhonda Glenn, written for the USGA website in 2012, has been updated for the “125 Years of American Golf” series.

 

On a fresh October morning, as Nancy Lopez answered the doorbell of her house, a small fluffy dog darted through the door and into the front yard.

“Hello!” Lopez said, and dashed after the dog. She scooped the wayward pooch into her arms and walked back toward the house. Lopez, whose flashing smile has charmed the world of golf for more than four decades, seems as easily familiar as your next-door neighbor.

At 15, this daughter of an auto body repair shop owner won the 1972 U.S. Girls’ Junior. Six years later, she became the toast of the golf world.

In 1978, her rookie year, spectators surged after her in Los Angeles as she won her first official LPGA tournament. Lopez was fresh, exciting, a charmer with a great golf game. That week, her love affair with her fans began. A week later at an appearance at a mall in San Diego, hundreds clamored for her autograph in a line stretching out of the small store, down the length of the mall and out into the parking lot. Between May 14 and June 18, she won all five tournaments she played. Suddenly, there was a media crush around women’s golf.

Lopez was seemingly everywhere: the cover of Sports Illustrated, on television talk shows and golf telecasts, in magazines and newspapers. She won nine tournaments that season and for the first time the LPGA had a Rookie of the Year, Player of the Year, and Vare Trophy (scoring average) winner all wrapped up in one smiling player. By the time the 1979 U.S. Women’s Open rolled around, Lopez needed armed guards to help her navigate to the first tee.

“It got to the point where the sponsors didn't want to have a tournament unless Lopez played,” said seven-time LPGA leading money winner Kathy Whitworth.

In some 30 charity appearances and golf exhibitions each year, Lopez still attracts crowds. There is little evidence of her fame in her house. A portrait is tucked in a corner of the living room and another vivid portrait hangs in the foyer. No trophies. No awards.

Dressed casually in a white shirt and white shorts, Lopez glides into her living room, as regal and graceful as when golf writer Gordon White of The New York Times dubbed her “the Spanish Queen” some 35 years ago.

Lopez is seldom in one place for long. She might be fundraising for Adventures in Movement (AIM), a charity for special-needs children which has recently expanded to help Alzheimer’s patients. Her alliances with AIM, the March of Dimes Foundation, the National Breast Cancer Foundation, and the Boys & Girls Clubs of America have endured for more than 30 years. She’s been committed to The First Tee since it began and she hosts an annual tournament to raise money for Hospice in Albany, Ga.

“We built a hospice house there, which is beautiful,” she said with pride. “I get to do a lot of that. It’s rewarding and a way to give back. If I get involved in a charity, I really want to be a part of it. I don’t want to just put my name on your pamphlet.”

Her luggage seldom stays unpacked for long. She is often on the road, making charity appearances, attending corporate outings and playing on the Legends Tour, a professional golf tour for senior women. That pace has been slowed recently by knee surgery, which kept Lopez from competing in the inaugural U.S. Senior Women’s Open in 2018 at Chicago Golf Club. She still played a role in that historic event, serving as the honorary starter on the first tee for the first two days of the championship.

Nancy Lopez receives a congratulatory hug from her mom after winning her second U.S. Girls' Junior title in 1974. (USGA Archives)

Traveling has been a part of Lopez’s life since 1977. Her Hall-of-Fame career includes 48 LPGA Tour wins between 1978 and 1997, three of them major championships. She competed regularly on Tour through 2002, and made a comeback bid in 2007-08, playing a total of nine events before retiring for good.

The daughter of the late Domingo and Maria Lopez grew up in Roswell, N.M. Her father, a personable, cheerful man who was a fine player in his own right, taught her to play the game. Her mother’s lessons in the art of living were just as valuable.

Nancy’s vaunted competitive streak may seem at odds with her gentle manner that lights up the faces of her fans. While Domingo Lopez urged his daughter to “smile” and “be happy” on the golf course, her mother’s tenacity also became a part of Nancy’s character.

“She always told me that if you did something, you should do it right or you’re wasting your time,” Lopez said. “When I’d make my bed in the morning, if I didn’t make it up right, she’d unmake it. If I made a grade of C in school, she’d put me on restriction. She was like a sergeant in the army. She was tough. She was strict. At that time, I probably didn’t like her a lot, but my mom was trying to be my mom and not my friend.”

Those lessons from her mother were passed along when she told her three daughters, “You’re not going to like me right now, but you will later.”

Lopez’s highly competitive nature revealed itself when she was a junior golfer. “I just want to win,” she told her father.

And win she did. Early in the summer of 1972 she won the Women’s Western Golf Association Girls’ Junior. A month later, Nancy and her mother were on a bus to Jefferson City, Mo., for the U.S. Girls’ Junior. By age 15, she was a veteran competitor who had won the New Mexico Women’s Amateur at the age of 12, the youngest champion in the state’s history.

At that 1972 U.S. Girls’ Junior, Lopez raced through her early matches. By the time she made the final, she had won four matches playing a total of only 55 holes. Then she met Cathy Morse, of Rochester, N.Y., which would be an entirely different encounter.

Morse won the first three holes of the 18-hole final but by the turn, Lopez had squared the match. The match was still square when they reached the par-4 16th hole, a 315-yard dogleg. Morse made a birdie to go 1 up. Then Lopez’s competitive spirit kicked in and she won the 17th with a birdie and the 18th with a par to win the match and the championship, 1 up.

Despite valiant efforts, 48-time LPGA Tour winner Nancy Lopez came up agonizingly short of capturing the U.S. Women's Open. (USGA/Robert Walker) 

“I loved the competition,” she said. “I loved junior golf. It was fun because I was from Roswell, New Mexico, and here I’m getting this wonderful opportunity, and I was really appreciative to have that opportunity. I just remember how much I wanted to win.”

And win she did. Long before she was the famous Nancy with the big smile, she was little Nancy, junior golfer, who by 1974 had won her second national championship medal in the Girls’ Junior by defeating Lauren Howe, 7 and 5, at Columbia-Edgewater Country Club in Portland, Ore. One year later, she tied for second as an amateur in the 1975 U.S. Women’s Open behind Sandra Palmer at Atlantic City (N.J.) Country Club.

Many know of what happened next – her storied career; carrying the LPGA on her shoulders; her family; her awards – but there are smaller private moments that are also noteworthy:

The 1997 U.S. Women’s Open: She had never won that title and was making a run. The 16th hole of the final round. She is two strokes behind Alison Nicholas. This is her best chance. A disabled man steps out of the throng of fans. He has a handful of ball-point pens, which he is selling. He approaches Nancy as she strides down the fairway. He wants to give her a pen. She turns. Flustered, he drops the pens. “That’s all right,” Lopez says. She kneels in the grass and carefully picks up the pens. Two holes later, she loses her last best shot at the Women’s Open title by one stroke, finishing as runner-up for a fourth time, one off the record shared by JoAnne Carner and Louise Suggs.

The 2000 U.S. Women’s Open: Lopez walks off the 18th green after the second round. She has shot a 74 and is tied for 44th place, 10 strokes off the lead. Again this year, she will fail and she knows it. Tired and discouraged, she trudges toward the clubhouse. She is met by a group of eight fans. One is a teenager. One is in a wheelchair. The rest are middle-aged. They approach her shyly. “Hello,” she says, and stops. They ask how she played. “Not very well,” she says. They listen and make soft, sympathetic sounds as she speaks. After some 15 minutes, she turns to go. One woman reaches out and pats her shoulder. As a group, they walk toward the parking lot. They have seen who they came to see. There is only one.

The great player Mickey Wright had this to say about Nancy Lopez: “I first played with her in 1978 at Moss Creek. She shot an 80, and I came in and told everyone who would listen that I had just played with the classiest player I’d seen come along in a long time. Her composure that day foretold what the next 10 to 15 years would produce. Nancy had ‘It.’ There will never be a smile like Nancy’s again. She literally lit up the galleries. She was a joy to play with.”

125 Years of Golf in America