2005: A mother’s touch

Ma Lopez, otherwise known as Nancy, is the perfect captain for the United States team in the Solheim Cup.

I’ll go out on an R-flex limb, predicting, with proper respect to all past captains, that Lopez will be the best captain in the history of the event.

Why? Because the wet-behind-the-ears women of the U.S. team are a family in search of a mother. Because nobody in golf has a better sense of family than Lopez.

Sure, you could label her a leader instead of a mother. But Ma Lopez is the right person, with the right background, to unite a young team.

I wish I could be a fly on the wall when Lopez addresses her players. She can be emotional. She can be compassionate. She can be a superior mother, which is much different from Mother Superior. There will be no knuckle rapping on her watch, just a blanket of insight and encouragement.

No loud football speeches here; she doesn’t need them. Her players, their zest for international play measuring about 120 compression, will be ready to run through a titanium wall for her.

I have tremendous respect for Lopez. Golf fans hear her as a television commentator on LPGA broadcasts, but off-camera she is much more interesting.

Her thoughtful nature and slow speech patterns are best suited for times when she is unhurried. Television is for sound bites and talking in bursts, and Lopez is more of a slow hand at communication.

She is calm and earnest and believable, which is perfect for all these Bambis on the U.S. Solheim Cup team.

You can call me an apologist for women’s golf if you like, but my contention is that the LPGA has become one big family. On the other hand, the PGA Tour lost this quality a long time ago. The men are loners, the women are family.

I could state the case that women are more sensitive than men, but the family concept on the LPGA was born of necessity – an underdog sports league, constantly struggling to find more sponsors and more spectators.

Family long has been a prevailing theme for Lopez, 48. She lost her mother when she was 19. Marina Lopez died unexpectedly after her appendix burst.

That’s when her dad, Domingo Lopez, who owned an auto body shop in Roswell, N.M., showed the world he was the greatest golf father of the century. He was always there, watching his daughter dominate women’s golf in a way that stunned golf fans.

“I was kind of a tag-along child,” said Lopez, reflecting on her roots in golf. “Both my parents played. I started when I was 8. I never had a lesson on any part of my game. My dad would tell me not to miss the ball, and off we would go.”

Here’s a clue to her golf talent: At 12, she won the New Mexico Women’s Amateur. At the University of Tulsa, she claimed the women’s national collegiate individual title. She finished second – twice – in the U.S. Women’s Open as an amateur.

The family persevered after Marina’s death. Father and daughter grew closer, following the same script, relying on each other, declining to accept any outside advice about her golf swing.

After two years at Tulsa, it made economic sense for Lopez to turn pro. There was thunder on the LPGA horizon, and Lopez disappointed no one. She won nine times in her rookie season, including five in a row. She backed that up with eight victories the next year.

In 1978, at Bent Tree Golf Club in Sarasota, Fla., I saw Lopez win her first professional tournament. She had just turned 21.

In 1997, at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club in North Plains, Ore., I saw her endure a painful loss to Alison Nicholas in the U.S. Women’s Open.

Lopez would never win again on the LPGA.

In the 19 years between those two events, I saw her win many times. Lopez recorded 48 victories on the LPGA, added 49 runner-up finishes, and, oh yes, married major league baseball player Ray Knight and gave birth to three daughters.

The victories were nice, but it was the family that framed her life.

Don’t even ask how many times she might have won with complete dedication to golf, without this magnet-to-metal connection with her family. The question is meaningless. If it came to a decision between family and golf, the choice always was family.

Half her career victories, 24, came in a four-year period between February 1978, and March 1982.

Then Lopez married Knight on Oct. 29, 1982. Knight would finish his major league career with 13 seasons as a player and two as a manager.

As if to answer the obvious question – “Shall we play golf on our honeymoon?” – Lopez won the Mazda Japan Classic in Kyoto, Japan, nine days later, earning her 25th LPGA triumph.

After that, mixing family and fairways, juggling babies and birdies, she won 23 more times. She was a friendly, talkative winner, but she was even better as a loser.

She never won the U.S. Women’s Open. In 1997, destiny seemed to be on her side until Nicholas sank a full wedge shot for an eagle in the final round. Despite posting four rounds in the 60s, Lopez lost by one.

And how did she respond to her last great defeat? She stayed around for hours, talking with the media and socializing with tournament sponsors. The only man I ever saw do this in a major championship was Dave Stockton, and he won.

Was Lopez the best ever? No, that would be Kathy Whitworth or Mickey Wright, although they did not emphasize family as Lopez did.

Was she the most influential ever? Yes. The modern explosion of talent on the LPGA can be traced largely to parents who were inspired by Lopez.

Lopez lost her father three years ago, but his influence remains clear.

“Family is the central part of my life,” she said, “and I always think of the LPGA as my other family.”

Will the United States win this Solheim Cup? Yes, because nobody messes with the birdie-making, history-shaping family of Ma Lopez.

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