Nancy Lopez took LPGA by storm, but will we see another like her

Nancy Lopez, Augusta National Women's Amateur press tour Adam Hunger/Getty Images

Nancy Lopez took LPGA by storm, but will we see another like her

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Nancy Lopez took LPGA by storm, but will we see another like her

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In the year 2019, unlike previous eras, the LPGA doesn’t need saving. It’s a global tour that’s trending up and uniquely positioned to take advantage of cultural shifts. But for all the talent in the world, and it’s never been deeper – it’s hard to shake the notion that to truly elevate, the LPGA needs someone like the woman who’s sitting across from me, stirring honey into her hot tea.

If Babe Zaharias kept the LPGA in business, Nancy Lopez made it boom.

In her book, The Illustrated History of Women’s Golf, historian Rhonda Glenn said Lopez torpedoed onto the LPGA scene three years after players threatened to boycott the U.S. Women’s Open over the disparity in pay. In 1975, the Women’s Open purse was $55,000 compared to $236,200 for the men.

It was no coincidence, Glenn noted, that from Lopez’s rookie year, 1978, through her last year as the LPGA’s No. 1 player, 1985, LPGA purses jumped from $2.6 million to $8.2 million.

Nancy Lopez and her father Domingo Lopez speaks in 2013 at the World Golf Hall of Fame. (Marc Serota/Getty Images)

“There was an underlying feeling that Wonder Woman had invaded the tour,” said Judy Rankin.

Like Arnold Palmer before her, Lopez not only captivated fans, she cherished them. Her charisma, coupled with a fierce determination to win everything, made Lopez a household name in the blink of an eye.

Glenn called her a once-in-a-life-time phenomenon.

“The smile alone is a killer,” said longtime LPGA agent Jay Burton. “Think about it. Have you ever had her just smile at you? Holy smokes! You just melt.”

Fresh off a second knee replacement, the now 62-year-old Lopez can’t wait to get out with her Tempo Walk robo caddie and walk 18 holes for the first time in well over a decade. She recently spent four hours on the range getting fit for a new set of clubs – for the first time.

“The thing about golfers,” said Lopez over a leisurely lunch on the water at Sailors Return in Stuart, Fla., “is that we have this huge ego, that we can still swing like we did when we were 25.”

It’s not only that the body has changed. Lopez knew her focus had diminished in 2002 the moment she heard a porta-potty door slam at an LPGA stop in Portland, Ore.

Standing over a 30-foot birdie putt on the back of the ninth green, Lopez was taken aback by the distraction. Never before in her career had she heard such a sound, though it likely occurred on a daily basis. In that moment, Lopez realized it might be time to go home.

“You can’t teach focus,” she said. “I see so many talented players, and they stand over a putt and they hear everything.”

Lopez’s impenetrable zone is only half the story. She could turn it off too and enjoy the walk. The ability to fall in and out of the zone with ease, Lopez said, contributed to the longevity of her career.

“I think what happens is players, they’re afraid to not focus,” said Lopez. “They’re afraid to have that conversation in between shots. I truly believe that’s why they become that robot.”

Rankin, a grinder who kept to herself on the course, always admired the lighthearted way in which Lopez played the game.

“She had a golf course personality that people loved,” said Rankin, who was at the top of her own game when Lopez arrived.

Lopez and her father Domingo

Lopez and her father, Domingo. (Martin Mills/Getty Images)

Lopez’s dedication to her fans can be traced back to an indelible moment at the Glen Campbell Los Angeles Open, when a 15-year-old Lopez couldn’t wait to meet her favorite player. She joined up with a group of fans rushing to meet the PGA Tour star at the clubhouse. When asked for an autograph, the player looked around and said: “I don’t have time for this.”

“I felt bad,” said Lopez, “and he wasn’t even talking to me. I felt humiliated, downgraded, like I was nothing.”

Lopez swore in that moment that if she ever made it in this game, she’d never treat a fan that way. And while she won’t reveal the name of that PGA Tour star, even after all these years, she did say that when they see each other now, “I think he’s just nice to me because I‘m Nancy Lopez.”

At the height of her fame, Lopez averaged 500 pieces of mail a month. She answered them all. When the face of her famous Ray Cook M1 mallet putter fell in and she went through a putting slump, fans sent their own putters.

Did she try them?

“Oh yeah,” she said, smiling, “why not?”

Lopez got marked up a lot by autograph-seekers. Before there were Sharpies, fans would sand the dimples off a golf ball to get them signed with an ink pen.

“I remember being in New York and the fans were jumping on top of the police officers to get to me,” she said. “They really wanted your autograph, but it was scary.”

After a few of the crazies followed Lopez back to her motel, she started having her caddie sit outside her room for an hour or so to make sure she was safe.

Lopez won a staggering nine times, including five consecutive, in her first full season on the LPGA. To prove it was no fluke, she took eight titles the following year.

While the world fell in love, there was jealousy in the ranks. It was hurtful, Lopez said, but looking back there wasn’t time for her peers to get to know her. They simply knew her as the player who beat them most weeks. Even if she wasn’t on top, or close to it, the press wanted her. Lopez didn’t agree with it, but understood the role that media played in her fame.

“I’m sure there was bitterness there too,” she said. “I’m second and third and they’re talking to Nancy and she’s 20th.”

Paula Creamer didn’t have to play in that era to understand the Lopez effect. Captain Lopez took Creamer under her wing when she was a rookie on the 2005 Solheim Cup team

“She can flip a room in a second,” said Creamer, “and it’s so powerful and so neat to watch.”

Lopez after winning the 1985
LPGA Championship. (Martin Mills/Getty Images)

Juli Inkster, one of the most beloved American players to follow Lopez, understands the value of keeping the legend connected to current stars. She’s a staple in Inkster’s lineup of Solheim assistants. Available for hugs, advice and a reminder of how good they have it.

“You have a lot of great players,” said Inkster of the current landscape. “But they kind of want to just play golf and go home. I know Nancy always kind of gave it the extra for her fans. She did not take her fans lightly.”

Lopez sees that same level of commitment in Lexi Thompson, who understands the importance of signing on a bad day.

Lopez didn’t have to read Thompson’s candid post on her struggles with body image to understand. Today’s technology-driven world has changed, of course, but the pressure hasn’t.

Lopez might not have heard the porta-potty doors over a putt, but she did sometimes hear murmurs in the crowd about her fluctuating weight. Even now, she said, it impacts her confidence. People not only expect her to hit the ball like she did as a rookie, but still look the same too.

Lopez fumed when Thompson got hammered with a four-stroke penalty at the ANA Inspiration two years ago, calling anyone that mattered to voice her complaints. It reminded Lopez of the 1985 LPGA Championship at Kings Island, when she was hit with a slow-play penalty on her 17th hole in the first round. She shot 65 with the two extra penalty strokes.

“They took the best score of my career away from me,” said Lopez, who still believes that the tour was making an example of her. “I felt really betrayed by the LPGA, like I think (Lexi) felt.”

A furiously determined Lopez went on to win the championship, asking the crowd, “Does anyone know what time it is?” as she tapped in on the 18th green.

1987: Nancy Lopez was a dominant figure in all of sports during the 1970s and '80s. She captured 48 LPGA Tour titles, including three majors. (Associated Press)

Nancy Lopez was a dominant figure in all of sports during the 1970s and ’80s. She captured 48 LPGA Tour titles, including three majors. (Associated Press 1987)

Domingo Lopez taught his daughter how to play golf, and even now, Nancy marvels at the way her father, an auto-body repair shop owner, knew what to say. He’s not only responsible for the putting stroke that broke so many hearts, but for a strong mind that could handle success as easily as defeat. Lopez credits her father and God-given talent for helping her to popularize the women’s game.

“Too many parents, and you can print this,” said Lopez, “make their children afraid to fail. … My dad, if I didn’t play good, and he was there, he would come up and hug me all the time. He wouldn’t say, ‘You need to go practice harder. You can’t do anything tonight. You’re just going to go back to the room.’

“If you say it the way I’m saying it, those parents know who they are. You don’t have to say their names.”

In addition to family pressure, Lopez also wonders if the prize money – while still nowhere near where it needs to be – keeps players from wanting it more.

“When I observe the players of today,” she said, “the really great players that win and are champions – the motivation of winning, I think they have it. But I think players in my heyday, we had it more because we had to play good, and we had to win to make a decent living.”

And then, of course, there’s the rest of the world. Lopez didn’t have to contend with an onslaught of talent that expands the globe. Though we’d all like her chances.

Will there ever be another Nancy Lopez? That’s like asking if there will be another Palmer.

Perhaps it’s asking for too much.Gwk

(Note: This story appeared in the March 2019 issue of Golfweek.)

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