The Villages, Fla. – 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’s 13 years old and she can’t hear!” she called as she raced after the wayward pooch, scooped it into her arms and walked back toward the house where she spends several months a year. It’s a pleasant stucco house, more cheerful looking than grand. A careful arrangement of pumpkins and stalks of autumn leaves lend the front porch a festive air. Inside, a soft beige living room is brightened by plump red couches facing a big-screen TV, which is tuned to a 24-hour news channel.
Nancy 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 a store 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.
|Nancy Lopez at the prize ceremony after winning the 1972 U.S. Girls' Junior. (USGA Museum)
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 winner all happily 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 an interview.
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.
“You want a Coke?” she calls from the kitchen. “Some water?”
Dressed casually in a white shirt and white shorts , Lopez, 55, 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.
She settles into a comfortable chair to talk about her life today, which has taken some surprising turns. Her 27-year marriage to 1986 World Series MVP Ray Knight, with whom she has three daughters, ended in 2009. The sale of their house in Albany, Ga., was a distressing event.
“That was my grandchildren’s home,” she said. “That was my life. I hated moving out of that house. I cried and cried and cried. But I had three beautiful daughters and I’m glad I had that marriage because of those three girls.”
Though she wears her heart on her sleeve, there is a line that reporters do not cross with Lopez. Unlike media coverage surrounding the divorces of other sports celebrities, the breaking apart of the Knight-Lopez union was left alone.
Now on her own, Lopez is seldom in one place for long. Today she is in The Villages wrapping up fund-raising for AIM (Adventures in Movement), 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 some 30 years. She’s been committed to The First Tee since it began. This was her 26th year hosting a 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 fun, though. 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.”
Home is now Auburn, Ala., where her youngest daughter Torri attends Auburn University and where Nancy cooks meals for Torri’s college friends, answers mail, pays bills and tries to work in a dinner with a neighbor she particularly enjoys. Her luggage seldom stays unpacked for long. Thirty weeks of the year she is on the road, making charity appearances, attending corporate outings and playing on the Legends Tour, a professional golf tour for senior women. Still popular wherever she appears, Lopez is trying to shore up her daughters’ inheritance by making two or three corporate outings a month.
“I only have five or six years left to do this because I have bone-on-bone in my left knee,” she said. “I’ll (eventually) have to have knee replacement.
“I figured I might as well do what I can, while I can, because I want to be able to leave my kids my life,” she said. “I don’t want to spend it all, because who knows where we’re going to end up. I try to be very modest with what I do. I’m not a frivolous spender. I do love nice things, now that I’m used to that lifestyle, but if I don’t need it, I don’t buy it. I think about my kids, my grandkids. I want to live like everybody else, paycheck to paycheck. Now, I do make bigger paychecks, but I have bigger bills. So I have to work harder and longer because I want to be able to keep the homes that I have and try and figure out my life now.”
Traveling has been a part of that life since 1977. Her Hall-of-Fame career includes 42 professional wins, but there was one thing she never really did, which was play many of the nation’s greatest golf courses.
“I’m trying to play courses I’ve never played before, which is a lot,” she said. To that end, she can now strike Cypress Point, Bandon Dunes and Whistling Straits from her list.
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 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. “I just want to win.”
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.
“[The bus driver] wouldn’t check my bags,” she said. “I had to put my bag underneath our feet. We got to Jefferson City at about 3 in the morning and we called for a cab. The hotel was around the corner! My mom was not a world traveler at all.”
She has fond memories of that Girls’ Junior: Practicing chip shots in the hotel hallway with Myra Van Hoose; with Van Hoose breaking up a party of contestants and caddies by calling their party room, saying, “This is a USGA official and any players that are in that room will be disqualified!;” boarding the contestants’ bus and seeing Laura Baugh wear rollers in her hair until she got to the golf course.
Lopez spent much of the week resting. She was in bed by 9 p.m., reading. It paid off. At 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 the 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.
“I just remember knowing that she was going to be tough to beat,” Nancy said.
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 cut the corner, “over a cemetery” Lopez recalled, and ended within 10 yards of the green. 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.
“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 girl golfer, who by 1974 had won her second national championship medal in the Girls’ Junior.
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.
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 has 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, and I congratulate her on her wonderful career.”
The career is not quite over. Golf is still a part of her life. This past Sunday, she had wrapped up the USA defense of the ISPS Handa Cup at the Reunion Resort and Club in Kissimmee, Fla., an event for senior women professionals. She played the anchor match for the USA team. With Nancy still on the course, the USA needed two points to clinch a tie. She defeated Gail Graham and got the two points. The USA retained the Cup. She still wants to win.
Nancy Lopez looks toward the future with great joy. Her first grandchild will be born in December. It is a girl. Her name will be Molly.
“I never taught my girls to play golf, they all played softball,” she said, after mentioning the impending birth.
She is thoughtful as she gazes out a window. “I think I am going to take Molly to the golf course,” she says, and smiles. “Yes, I’ll do that. Molly and I will go to the golf course and I will teach her to play golf.”
Rhonda Glenn is a manager of communications for the USGA. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.