Lopez is LPGA's Knight in Shining Armor

Updated: April 14, 2005, 10:24 AM ET
By Lisette Hilton | Special to ESPN.com

"The pain that Nancy suffered as a young player, not being able to golf courses other people could play. But it certainly has molded her life in a way that she doesn't see color," says Ray Knight, Nancy Lopez's husband, on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

Nancy Lopez
Nancy Lopez's rookie season was one of the greatest in golf history.
She was Nancy with the laughing eyes. She had a smile laser-bright, she hit the golf ball off the end of the earth, and she was a cat burglar on the greens. In a sport for the privileged, she was a Mexican-American from a family of modest means.

Nancy Lopez dominated women's golf in the late 1970s and was a major force in the 1980s. There were seasons when she won more tournaments than many do in an entire career. There was one incendiary stretch when she became the first LPGA golfer to win five straight tournaments.

Lopez was an intense competitor who came into her own with a powerful, unorthodox swing taught her by her father. While she had length, touch and poise, she also had a relaxed attitude despite her fierce concentration. Her winning way with the galleries was of immeasurable help in advancing the sport with the public. Perhaps her greatest triumph is that for all of her accomplishments in a Hall of Fame career, her peers didn't begrudge her that success.

On Lopez's first full year on the LPGA Tour, Hall of Famer Mickey Wright was awed by the 21-year-old's talent. "Never in my life have I seen such control in someone so young," Wright said.

Lopez took the tour by storm, winning 17 tournaments in her first two full years. She remains the only player to win Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year and Vare Trophy (best scoring average) in the same year (1978). A four-time Player of the Year, she has 48 tour victories, including three LPGA Championships.

She was born on Jan. 6, 1957 in Torrance, Calif., and raised in Roswell, N.M., where the family moved soon after her birth. Her father, Domingo, who owned a local auto repair shop, was the driving force in Nancy becoming a golfer.

He suggested that his wife, Marina, start playing golf to ease consistent chest pains. Nancy followed her parents around their home course in Roswell. Domingo encouraged his daughter to join in the fun and gave her a sawed-off four wood when she was eight.

Although Lopez didn't have professional lessons growing up, she had the constant coaching of Domingo, who taught his daughter to "play happy." Her father was so convinced that golf was her calling that he wouldn't give Nancy any household chores, in order to preserve her precious golf hands. The family could barely afford orthodontic braces for Lopez but sacrificed so that she would have them. In Domingo's mind, the braces were important for someone who would someday be famous.

Lopez won her first peewee tournament at nine. At 12, she won the New Mexico Women's Amateur. As a teenager she won the U.S. Golf Association Junior Girls Championship in 1972 and 1974.

Being of Mexican descent, Lopez remembered experiencing racism while growing up. "I thought we weren't members of the country club because we couldn't afford it," she said. "Now I think it was discrimination."

Lopez led the otherwise all-boys high school golf team at Goddard High School in Roswell to state titles in 1973 and 1974. Remarkably, as a senior, she tied for second at the U.S. Women's Open in 1975.

The first woman to receive a full golf scholarship to Tulsa, she won the AIAW National Championship as a freshman when she was an All-American and the school's Female Athlete of the Year. She turned pro in 1977 after her sophomore year.

Nancy Lopez
Nancy Lopez finished second -- or tied for second -- in the U.S. Open four times.
In six tournaments that season, she finished second twice. Reflecting on the way she played on the tour early in her career, Lopez said that she often played in the safe, prevailing LPGA style, avoiding bogeys rather than going for birdies.

The turning point in her life and game was the death of her mother, who died unexpectedly after an appendectomy, in September 1977. Lopez said that the experience made her more mentally powerful.

Playing in 26 tournaments in 1978, the 21-year-old Lopez won nine times and led the tour by earning $189,813. Her first pro victory came in February at the Bent Tree Classic at Sarasota, Fla., when she birdied the 71st hole to beat Jo Ann Washam by a stroke and earn $15,000.

This was just a warm-up for Lopez. In May and June, she set the golf world ablaze by winning five straight tournaments: the Greater Baltimore Classic, the Coca-Cola Classic in Jamesburg, N.J., the Golden Lights Championship in New Rochelle, N.Y., the LPGA Championship, and the Bankers Trust Classic in Rochester, N.Y.

In winning the LPGA Championship by six strokes over Amy Alcott, Lopez set a tournament record with her 275 on the King's Island course in Ohio.

In 1979, the 5-foot-5 Lopez repeated as Player of the Year, as the Vare Trophy winner with a 71.20 stroke average (.56 better than her rookie year) and as the leading money-winner ($197,488). A sudden-death playoff win over Bonnie Bryant at the Coca-Cola Classic was one of Lopez's eight victories.

After those two years of superstardom, Lopez stopped dominating, although she remained one of the best players on tour. She won three times each in 1981 and 1982.

In May 1982, Lopez divorced sportscaster Tim Melton, whom she had married in 1979, and wed Houston Astros third baseman Ray Knight five months later.

In 1983, Lopez cut back on playing because of the impending birth of Ashley, the first of her and Knight's three children (all girls). Still, she won two tournaments and exceeded the $1 million mark in career earnings.

After another two-victory season in 1984, the following year Lopez won five times, including gaining her second LPGA Championship when she shot a 273 to coast to an eight-stroke victory over Alice Miller. She was named Player of the Year as she set a record with a stroke average of 70.73.

After playing in only four tournaments in 1986 because of the birth of her second daughter, Erinn, she returned to the tour the following year and won twice. Her victory at the Sarasota Classic (the same event in which she gained her first career win in 1978) was her 35th victory, which qualified her for the LPGA's Hall of Fame. She was inducted on July 20, 1987 as the 11th member.

In 1988, she was named Player of the Year for the fourth time after winning three tournaments. She won three more tournaments the next year, including her third LPGA Championship when she shot 274 to defeat Ayako Okamoto by three strokes.

In the 1990s, Lopez won only six tournaments. Her last title came at the Chick-fil-A Charity Championship in 1997. Since 1999, Lopez has played limited tournaments, due to knee and gallbladder surgeries as well as knee problems.

Where Lopez came up short in her career was at the U.S. Open. She finished second four times. The two that bothered her most were her loss to Hollis Stacy by two strokes in 1977, and in 1997. Lopez, 40, became the first woman to post four rounds in the 60s (69-68-69-69) in the tournament but still lost by a stroke to Alison Nicholas, who shot a 274.

In 2000, Lopez was recognized as one of the LPGA's top 50 players and teachers during the association's 50th anniversary celebration.

In March 2002, Lopez, 45, announced this would be her final full season on the LPGA Tour. She said she didn't want to be one of those athletes that would keep playing even though she couldn't perform on a high level anymore. Lopez also said that she needed more time to be with what had become her priority: her family.

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