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Lopez, Nancy (1957—)

Lopez, Nancy (1957—)

Mexican-American golfer. Born Nancy Marie Lopez in Torrance, California, on January 6, 1957; daughter of Marina Lopez and Domingo Lopez (owned an auto-body repair shop); attended University of Tulsa on a golf scholarship; married Tim Melton (a television sportscaster), in 1979 (divorced); married Ray Knight (a professional baseball player), in 1982; children: Ashley Marie Knight (b. November 7, 1983); Erinn Shea Knight (b. May 26, 1986); Torri Heather Knight (b. October 30, 1991).

Awards:

named All-American and University of Tulsa's female athlete of the year (1976); named LPGA Rookie of the Year (1978); won twin honors of LPGA Player of the Year and Vare Trophy (1978, 1979, and 1985); inducted into the LPGA Hall of Fame (1987).

Led otherwise all-male high school golf team to state championship; entered the U.S. Women's Open as a senior in high school, finishing in second place (1975); won the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) golf championship (1976); in her first full season in the Ladies Professional Golf Association(LPGA), won eight tournaments—a record five in a row—to break the prize money record winning by more than $189,000 (with more than $3.2 million, was second in career earnings); only golfer, male or female, to be named both Rookie of the Year and Player of the Year in the same year (1978); won the LPGA championship (1978, 1985, and 1989); her last major LPGA win was the Mazda (1993).

Born in 1957 in Torrance, California, the daughter of avid golfers Marina Lopez and Domingo Lopez, Nancy Lopez followed her parents around the Roswell public golf course throughout her childhood. When she was eight, Domingo pulled a sawed-off 4-wood out of Marina's golf bag and told Nancy to hit the ball until she landed it in the hole. On that day, recalled Lopez, "apparently I never missed, but would just step up and swing and I kept knocking that one ball on the nose and down the fairway." A year later, she played in her first tournament, winning by 110 strokes.

With her father her only coach, she was New Mexico State Women's Amateur champion at age 12. By 16, the only girl on her high school team, she led her golfing teammates to a state championship. During her senior year, she competed in the U.S. Women's Open and finished second. By then, Lopez was the top-ranked amateur golfer in the world and was given an athletic scholarship to the University of Tulsa. She finished second in the U.S. Women's Open again in 1975. In 1976, she won the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) national championship. In July 1977, Lopez joined the Ladies' Professional Golfer's Association (LPGA) tour.

All this had been achieved with monies earned from her father's auto-body repair shop. The Lopez family was far from rich, and Marina Lopez had given up her own golfing so that her greens' fees could go to her daughter. To Nancy Lopez's continuing sadness, Marina Lopez died during an appendix operation before Nancy had won her first professional tournament. "It is some consolation that she did have the joy of seeing me emerging as a star in my rookie year as a pro, and to know that I was likely to fulfill the promise she wanted so badly for me. … When I finally did go back on the tour, I won my first professional tournament." The following year, Lopez won a total of nine events. Her winnings were $189,000, breaking LPGA records. In 1979, Lopez won eight of the nineteen events she entered.

After her 1982 marriage to Ray Knight, a professional baseball player, Lopez cut back on her playing schedule and gave birth to Ashley Marie in 1983 and Erinn Shea in 1986. However, she won 12 tournaments between 1980 and 1984, topping the million dollar mark in career earnings in 1983 at the National Dinah Shore Classic. Lopez was a media star. Her popularity guaranteed endorsements and increased earnings.

In 1985, Lopez returned to the tour full time, winning five tournaments, including a second LPGA championship. At the Henredon Classic, she set a record with her 20 under par score of 268 (66, 67, 69, 66) for 72 holes. Two years later, she was inducted into the LPGA Hall of Fame and in 1989 was inducted into the PGA/World Golf Hall of Fame. In 1991, Nancy Lopez once again cut back her playing schedule when her third daughter, Torri Heather, was born.

With such an incredible career, awards were numerous. The Associated Press named Lopez Female Athlete of the Year in 1978 and 1985. She was selected Golfer of the Decade by Golf Magazine from 1978 to 1987. Four times LPGA Player of the Year, Lopez held the title in 1978, 1979, 1985, and 1988. She won the Vare Trophy three times, in 1978, 1979, and 1985. In 1987, she won the LPGA's annual Powell Award.

With all her trophies, Lopez had never won a U.S. Women's Open. In July 1997, in a bid to win the only championship that had eluded her, Lopez was beaten by one stroke by England's Alison Nicholas . Lopez's 15-foot birdie putt on No. 18 slipped an inch off to the right. Despite the fact that she was the first golfer to shoot in the 60s in all four rounds, Lopez finished second for the fourth time in 21 Opens. Near tears, she promised to keep on trying. "I think this is the beginning of many more good U.S. Opens for me," she said.

Nancy Lopez became an athletic superstar despite two hindrances to success in American society: she was born a woman and a Mexican-American. "All of us Lopezes are definitely and unashamedly Mexican Americans in Roswell, a town where that surely wasn't a social asset." She was allowed to play on the poorly kept municipal course but not at the Roswell country club, where the greens could have challenged her developing game. "Mexican Americans like my parents would not have been welcome members." She readily admits that when she did play at the club in city tournaments, "There was a polite frostiness about the whole place that made me quite reconciled to going back and playing on the municipal course."

"I'd like to leave behind me a record that would kind of demand that golfers will think of it as 'The Age of Nancy Lopez,'" she wrote in 1979. In refutation of her addendum that "it may be too much to hope for," Nancy Lopez is one of the most successful women golfers of all time.

sources:

Condon, Robert J. Great Women Athletes of the 20th Century. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1991.

Lopez, Nancy, with Peter Schwed. The Education of a Woman Golfer. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1979.

"Nicholas Denies Lopez at Open," in The Day [New London, CT]. July 14, 1997.

Woolum, Janet. Outstanding Women Athletes: Who They Are and How They Influenced Sports in America. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press, 1992.

Karin L. Haag , Athens, Georgia

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