When Nancy Lopez burst onto the scene of the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) Tour during her rookie year in 1978 by winning a record five consecutive tournaments, she gave new life to the women's tour. Then-LPGA's director of publicity, Chip Campbell, told Golf World, "Thank the dear Lord, along came Nancy Lopez. She was a savior. What did Winston Churchill say, Comes the moment, comes the man? Well, comes the moment, comes the woman." With good distance off the tee and excellent putting skills, Lopez was an exceptional golfer. Also known on tour for her warmth and kindness, she embraced the fans who returned her affection tenfold.
Nationally Ranked Amateur
Nancy Lopez was born on January 6, 1957, in Torrance, California, but was raised, along with her older sister, in Roswell, New Mexico, by her parents, Domingo and Marina Lopez. Of Mexican descent, Lopez grew up in a traditional Catholic household. Her father owned an auto repair business, and her mother tended the house and the children.
Lopez began to play golf with her family in 1964 at the age of eight, using old clubs with shortened shafts. Her natural ability was quickly apparent to her father, who began coaching her. Lopez won her first tournament when she was nine years old, finishing 110 strokes better than her nearest opponent. By the age of eleven Lopez was beating both her parents on the course, and her father became committed to developing his daughter's game. The family skimped and sacrificed to afford to finance Lopez's golf.
Lopez won the first of her three New Mexico Women's Amateur Championships when she was just twelve years old, but the pressure of competition was taking its toll. "I was so scared I always threw up," she admitted to Sports Illustrated. "I carried a trash can with me. My dad told me, 'If you're going to play golf, you've got to get over being sick.' I didn't want to quit so I decided to get over it." She did and kept winning.
A nationally ranked amateur during high school, Lopez led her otherwise all-male high school golf team to a state championship. She won the U.S. Girls Junior championship in both 1972 and 1974. Lopez had her first brush with fame the following year as a high school senior when, as an amateur, she finished second at the 1975 U.S. Women's Open. Lopez enrolled at the University of Tulsa in 1975 on a golf scholarship. As a freshman she won the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women golf championship and was named the University of Tulsa's Female Athlete of the Year. In need of new challenges, Lopez turned professional after her sophomore year.
Sensational Rookie Year
Although she joined the LPGA during 1977, Lopez's first full season, and official rookie year, was 1978. "When I first came out, I pretty much felt like I was the worst player on the tour," she later explained to Golf World. "I felt like you're supposed to start at the bottom of the barrel and work your way to the top. I'd watch the other players and think, 'Gosh, my game's not even close to theirs.' My goal was to hopefully win one tournament that first year." Lopez would quickly surpass her conservative expectations to help transform women's golf into a nationally recognized spectator sport.
|1957||Born in Torrance, California|
|1964||Begins playing golf at the age of eight|
|1975||Plays as an amateur in first U.S. Women's Open, finishing second|
|1975-77||Attends University of Tulsa for two years on a golf scholarship|
|1977||Turns professional, joins Ladies Professional Golf Association Tour in midseason|
|1978||Posts record five consecutive wins during rookie year|
|1981||Marries sportscaster Tim Melton|
|1983||Divorces from Melton; marries baseball player Ray Knight|
|1997||Wins forty-eighth tournament, the last win of her career|
|1999||Undergoes knee surgery|
|2002||Retires after the end of the season|
In February 1978, Lopez won her first professional tournament by sinking a 15-foot birdie putt on the seventeen hole to claim the lead at the Bent Tree Classic in Sarasota, Florida. She dedicated her first title to her mother, who had passed away the previous fall. A week later Lopez won the Sunstar Classic in California. Then, in April she began an unbroken record of five straight tournament wins that nearly single-handedly raised the LPGA into its highest realms of popularity and profitability. Lopez won in Baltimore, Maryland, and then twice in New York, took a week off, and won her first major, the LPGA Championship in Kings Island, Ohio, in front of a national television audience. The phenomenon of her unprecedented success provoked NBC to cut into its baseball broadcast the following week to cover her fifth consecutive win at the Bankers Trust Classic in Rochester, New York.
The week following her record five straight wins, Lopez played in the Lady Keystone Open in Hershey, Pennsylvania, traditionally a smaller LPGA event, but made into an all-out media affair by Lopez's presence. Overwhelmed by press interviews, television appearances, and sponsor-backed events, she played terribly, shooting over par all three rounds. Yet Lopez, who had developed a wonderfully friendly relationship with the media, also had a special rapport with the fans. As she walked to the eighteenth green she was fifteen strokes behind eventual winner Pat Brady, but still the gallery roared. Cynthia Anzolut, who ran the Lady Keystone Open, told Golf World, "I think they still thought she could win it. She walked on water as far as they were concerned.… The people just loved her."
Exhaustion wasn't the only thing distracting Lopez in Pennsylvania. One of her hundreds of interviews during the week was with a young sportscaster named Tim Melton. By the third round, Lopez was deeply in love, and the two were married six months later. Lopez was on the top of the world. "I couldn't think ahead," she recalled in Sports Illustrated. "I was just so excited. I was being interviewed by so many people, and all of a sudden I was making so much money. I was in awe, and I was enjoying it all so much." After ending her five-tournament winning streak, Lopez followed with seven top ten finishes, winning two more tournaments before the season's end. In all, during 1979 she won nine tournaments and took home over $200,000, setting a record for LPGA earnings.
She was named as both the LPGA Rookie of the Year and the LPGA Player of the Year and, with a per-round average of 71.76, won the Vare Trophy, given annually to the player with the lowest scoring average. She was also named the Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year. Lopez continued her storybook career into her second year on the tour, winning a remarkable eight of nineteen tournaments. She was once again named the LPGA Player of the Year and again won the Vare Trophy.
Slumps Then Rebounds
By 1981 Lopez's life, namely her marriage, was crumbling around her. Her relationship with Melton was not withstanding the demands of travel and her celebrity status. She gained weight, and at just five-feet, four-inches, she ended up at over 160 pounds. After three years of marriage, Lopez and Melton divorced in 1983. During these difficult times, she found a friend in her future husband, baseball player Ray Knight.
Lopez first met Knight while on tour in Japan at the same time that Knight was playing in a goodwill exhibition game. Later, after Melton took a job in Cincinnati, he and Knight, who then played for the Cincinnati Reds, became friends. In an odd coincidence, Melton was hired by a station in Houston about the same time that Knight was traded to the Houston Astros. Eventually Lopez and Knight, who was working through his own painful divorce, became close companions. "We started talking about my problems with my marriage, and we realized that we were alike," Lopez explained to People Weekly. "He had been devastated. So was I. I was playing poorly, and Ray could relate to that because he went into a hitting slump when he got his divorce. I really needed somebody because my family wasn't there. The only thing I could rely on was Ray as my friend, helping me through tough times." Friendship eventually turned to romance, and the two were married in October 1983.
Although she won a dozen tournaments between 1980 and 1984, Lopez's megastar status faded. Her naturally smooth swing abandoned her, and suddenly her game was not coming easy. Lopez's unhappiness prior to her divorce was being played out every weekend on the golf course. The tides turned for Lopez after her marriage to Knight and the birth of their first daughter in 1984. In 1985, she won five tournaments including the LPGA Championship and won Player of the Year honors as well as the Vare Trophy for the third time in her career. Sitting out all but four tournaments in 1986 to have her second child, Lopez returned to the tour full-time in 1987.
Related Biography: Baseball Player Ray Knight
Ray Knight was born and raised in Albany, Georgia, in a close-knit family. His father, who supervised the recreational facilities for the parks department, began playing baseball with him when he was just two years old. Knight joined the Cincinnati Reds farm system after attending Albany Junior College. Replacing Pete Rose at third base in 1979, he was named the team's most valuable player.
Traded to the Houston Astros in 1983, Knight struggled with injuries. While playing in the minor leagues he had been hit by pitches twice. One pitch broke his cheek bone; the other hit him in the temple and he spent four days in intensive care. By 1986 Knight had undergone five surgeries and had suffered kidney stones, a variety of pulled muscles, and bone chips in his throwing arm. To top it all off, in 1984 he began suffering bouts of vertigo. Benched then traded to the New York Mets in late 1984, Knight struggled through 1985. In 1986 a change in his stance at the plate revived his bat, and he earned comeback player of the year honors. He was also named the most valuable player of the 1986 World Series, in which he batted .371 with one homerun and five runs-batted-in.
Knight played in Baltimore in 1987 and in Detroit in 1988 before retiring. He served as the manager, albeit with little success, of the Reds for two seasons, 1996 and 1997. After his retirement he spent more time on tour with Lopez and served as her caddy for a time.
In 1987, Lopez earned her thirty-fifth tournament title at the Sarasota Classic, where she had her first career win in 1978, qualifying her for the LPGA Tour Hall of Fame. She was inducted as the Hall's eleventh member on July 20, 1987. The following year Lopez won three tournaments and was, for the fourth time in her career, named Player of the Year. She also topped $2 million in earnings, only the fourth LPGA player to do so. In 1989 she again won three tournaments and in 1990 became only the second player in LPGA history to earn more than $3 million. Sitting out most of 1991 to have her third child, Lopez returned in 1992 to win two tournaments.
Moves Toward Retirement
As Lopez moved through the 1990s, age, injuries, and shifting responsibilities began impacting her game. After winning one tournament in 1993, Lopez did not finish first again until 1997, when she posted her forty-eighth, and last, career win at the Chick-fil-A Charity Championships. One of the most celebrated women in golf, Lopez never won a U.S. Open championship, although she finished second four times in her twenty-one appearances. In 1997 she missed a fifteen-foot birdie putt on the eighteenth green in the final round and lost by one stroke to Alison Nicholas, despite being the only woman to break 70 in all four rounds, posting scores of 69-68-69-69.
Lopez underwent knee surgery in 1999 and gall bladder surgery in 2000, which limited her play through the next several years. During 2002 she failed to make a single cut. With nagging knee problems and three growing daughters at home, Lopez retired after the 2002 season. She ended her career as a perennial fan favorite, with forty-eight tournament wins and over $5 million in earnings. Lopez has been credited for the increased popularity of the LPGA, which has resulted in an astonishing increase in purses. In 1978 Lopez was awarded $22,500 for her LPGA Championship victory. Twenty years later, first place netted $195,000—approximately what Lopez made during her entire nine-win rookie year. Lopez and her family live in Albany, Georgia, her husband's hometown.
SELECTED WRITINGS BY LOPEZ:
(With Peter Schwed) The Education of the Woman Golfer. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979.
(With Don Wade) Nancy Lopez's The Complete Golfer. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1987.
Awards and Accomplishments
|1976||Named All-American and University of Tulsa's Female Athlete of the Year|
|1978||Wins LPGA Championship; named LPGA Rookie of the Year|
|1978-79||Named LPGA Player of the Year; awarded Vare Trophy|
|1985||Wins LPGA Championship; named LPGA Player of the Year; awarded the Vare Trophy|
|1987||Inducted into the LPGA Hall of Fame|
|1989||Wins LPGA Championship; inducted into the Professional Golf Association (PGA) World Golf Hall of Fame|
|1997||Receives the Hispanic Heritage Award|
|2002||Receives PGA of America's PGA First Lady of Golf Award|
The Complete Golfer. New York: Galahad Books, 2000.
The Complete Marquis Who's Who. 54th ed. New York: Marquis Who's Who, 2001.
Great Women in Sports. Detroit: Visible Ink Press, 1996.
St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. 5 vols. New York: St. James Press, 2000.
Sports Stars. Series 1-4. Detroit: U•X•L, 1994-98.
Deford, Frank. "Hello Again to the Group." Sports Illustrated, (August 5, 1985): 58.
Diaz, Jaime. "Time for the Pat and Nancy Show." Sports Illustrated, (February 9, 1987): 84-5.
Lemon, Richard. "On the Beach No More, Nancy Lopez and Ray Knight Score a Tie for Golf and Baseball." People Weekly, (April 25, 1983): 85-88.
Moriarty, Jim. "Nancy's Last Dance." Golf World, (July 12, 2002): 54.
Newman, Bruce. "The Very Model of a Modern Marriage." Sports Illustrated, (August 4, 1986): 34.
Shipnuck, Alan. "Open and Shut." Sports Illustrated, (July 21, 1997): 44.
Stachura, Mike. "The Class of '78.#x201D; Golf World, (November 24, 2000): 30.
Voepel, Mechelle. "Lopez Always a Winner to Fans Despite Having No Open Trophy." Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, (July 3, 2002).
Voepel, Mechelle. "Lopez's Great Run Began 20 Years Ago." Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, (May 13, 1998).
"Nancy Lopez." American Decades CD-ROM. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, 1998. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Detroit, Mich.: The Gale Group, 2003. http://www.galenet.com/servlet/BioR (January 8, 2003).
Sketch by Kari Bethel
Lopez, Nancy: 1957—: Golfer
Nancy Lopez: 1957—: Golfer
Hall-of-Fame golfer Nancy Lopez, who began playing golf at an early age, has won numerous championships including the LPGA Championship. Lopez has received many awards and is known for her phenomenal early rise to fame. Her enduring skill on the course, and her open and friendly demeanor has garnered her many fans across the nation.
An Early Success
Lopez, who grew up in Roswell, New Mexico, began playing golf at the age of eight, with her father, Domingo Lopez, an avid golfer, as her coach. Four years later, when she was twelve, she won the New Mexico Women's Amateur tournament. Lopez told Richard Lemon in People Weekly, "I was so scared I always threw up. I carried a trash can with me. My dad told me, 'If you're going to play golf, you've got to get over being sick.' I didn't want to quit, so I decided to get over it."
Lopez also faced other obstacles to her progress. Because her family was of Mexican descent, her parents were not allowed to join the Roswell country club and she had to play in Albuquerque, 200 miles away. A writer for Latino Sports Legends commented that her intense competitive drive and "the fact that she was a Mexican-American winning so many tournaments did not sit well with others, but that didn't discourage her."
In 1972 and 1974 Lopez won the USGA Junior Girls Championship. In 1975 she won the Western Junior three times, as well as the Mexican Amateur. Her high school did not have a girls' golf team, so she played on the boys' team and helped them win two state championships.
Lopez attended the University of Tulsa for two years in 1976 and 1977; during her time there, she won the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women National Championship and was a member of the U.S. Curtis Cup and World Amateur teams. In 1976 she was named 1976 All-American and also won the university's Female Athlete of the Year award. After two years at the university, Lopez decided to leave to pursue a professional golf career. Although her career was an instant success, her mother died from a heart attack before ever seeing Lopez win a professional tournament. Lopez's father encouraged her to continue playing despite this tragedy.
At a Glance . . .
Born Nancy Lopez on January 6, 1958, in Torrence, California; married Tim Melton, 1978; divorced, 1981; married Ray Knight, 1982; three children: Ashley Marie, Erinn, Torri. Education: Attended University of Tulsa 1976-77. Religion: Southern Baptist.
Career: Professional golfer, 1978-.
Awards: Rookie of the Year, 1978; LPGA Championship, 1978, 1985, 1989; 48 LPGA Tour Victories; Curtis Cup Team, 1976; Vare Trophy; 1978, 1979, 1985; Leading Money Winner, 1978, 1979, 1985; Bob Jones Award, 1988; LPGA Hall of Fame, 1989; Hispanic Heritage Award, 1997.
Became Professional Golfer
In 1977 Lopez tied for second place at the U.S. Women's Open as an amateur; that same year, she was named LPGA Rookie of the Year. Although she turned pro later that year, her official LPGA rookie season was 1978. In that first season, Lopez won an astonishing five tournaments in a row and was the LPGA Champion. She told Mechelle Voepel in the Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, "It just happened so easily; it seemed like everything I did was right. It was just a year that was magical for me." Lopez won against major players of the day, including Hall of Famers JoAnne Carner and Kathy Whitworth, veterans Jan Blalock and Donna Caponi, as well as younger players Pat Bradley, Hollis Stacy, Jan Stephenson and Amy Alcott. She told Voepel, "I did feel like I was in contention every week. I wasn't afraid to be aggressive; I wasn't really afraid of anything at that time." She also told Voepel, "I was just playing because I loved it. But I think now I can look back at that and say, 'Boy, did I have a great year and it was something that people will always remember.'"
In addition to being noted for her talent, Lopez quickly attracted the attention of fans, who appreciated her friendly demeanor. Lopez told Voepel that when she was fifteen, she had attended a men's pro tournament, where she hoped to get an autograph from a well-known player. She and another fan were waiting in line when the player snarled, "I don't have time for this," and walked away. Lopez vowed that if she ever became a pro, she would never act like that. It's a vow she has kept throughout her career.
Lopez met her first husband, sportscaster Tim Melton, in June of 1978, at the end of her phenomenal 1978 winning-streak. They married shortly afterwards and she continued to play well, winning eight of the nineteen tournaments she entered. However, her marriage to Melton was stressful, partly because of her long absences from home to play in tournaments and partly because, as she told Richard Lemon in People Weekly, "We just grew apart," and in 1981 they divorced. At the same time, her game had been also been deteriorating. Although she won a dozen championships from 1980 through 1984, Lopez felt flat. She told Frank Deford in Sports Illustrated, "Suddenly, I couldn't hit the ball where I wanted to, and I'd been able to do that since I was twelve. There were times when every day I'd go back to the hotel crying."
Won Her Third LPGA Championship
After her divorce, Lopez began dating baseball player Ray Knight, whom she married in October of 1982. Their harmonious relationship led her to tell Bruce Newman in Sports Illustrated, "I think if professional athletes were all married to other professional athletes, it would make for better marriages. Athletes are better suited to each other." Her second marriage was more harmonious than her first, and Lopez and Knight eventually had three daughters.
In 1985, the second year she won the LPGA Championship, Lopez was named Golf Magazine 's Player of the Year. Lopez told Deford that her new family life had contributed to the improvement in her game: "Maybe I'm playing so well again just because I'm happy. More than anything else, it's probably because now I have peace of mind, so I can just go off and play golf." In 1989 Lopez won the LPGA Championship for a third time and was inducted into the LPGA Hall of Fame.
The 1990s were difficult for Lopez, who did not win from 1994 to 1996. In April of 1997 she began playing well again again, and in that year she had her lowest stroke average (70.70) since 1989. At the U.S. Women's Open, Lopez came in as runner-up for the fourth time in her career. Typically, fans did not ask why she had come in second; Lopez told Voepel that instead, they said, "Oh, we loved watching you play!" and noted, "It sounded like I won, basically, because people were so supportive." Golf star Laura Davies commented, "Nancy is obviously the most popular player that's ever been in our game." In 1997 Lopez was given a Hispanic Heritage Award for her contributions to Hispanic culture.
Experienced Health Problems
In the late 1990s Lopez began experiencing severe pain in her knees, partly as a result of overuse, and partly from arthritis. She underwent surgery, physical therapy, and began using a knee brace during play, According to Leonard Shapiro in the Washington Post, Lopez said her knees were often stiff in the morning, but after she walked for a while, they loosened up. She played in a limited number of events in 1990 after undergoing knee surgery.
In 2000 her play was limited because she underwent gall bladder surgery. Her season-best finish was a tie for ninth place. In recent months, Lopez has worked to promote public awareness of arthritis, as well as cardiovascular disease, which runs in her family. She, and other golfers, play against each other to raise money for the American Stroke Association, a division of the American Heart Association. In addition, through changes in her own diet and exercise habits, she has reduced her own risk factors for cardiovascular disease. In 2001 Lopez and Knight opened Ashbrook Quail Preserve, a 600-acre tract of land in southwest Georgia that offers hunting and fishing tours for eight guests at a time. The preserve has a lodge, cabin, three stocked fishing ponds, hunting dogs, horses, and vehicles; Lopez, who loves to cook, plans to assist in the kitchen of the lodge.
Golf Magazine, December, 1985, p. 49.
Golf World, October 5, 2001, p. 36; November 9, 2001, p. NA.
Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, May 13, 1998, p. 513K6710.
People Weekly, April 25, 1983, p. 85.
Sports Illustrated, June 10, 1985, p. 56; August 5, 1985, p. 58; August 4, 1986, p. 34; February 9, 1987, p. 84.
Time for Kids, October 3, 1997, p. 8.
Washington Post, June 3, 1999, p. D06.
Latino Sports Legends, www.latinosportslegends.com