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Lopez brings LPGA attention, respect

The rookie was so good, America couldn't help but notice.

By BRUCE LOWITT

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 24, 1999


Nearly two decades before Tiger Woods became a pro golf phenomenon, there was Nancy Lopez.

She came along at a time when the women's tour was, for the most part, merely an appendage to the men's tour. It had no real stars, no one to captivate anyone but golf's die-hard fans. Newspaper coverage was minimal, television coverage virtually nonexistent.

What coverage there was usually played up the angle of a golfer being sexy. "I can remember the L.A. Times doing a photo shoot of one of the golfers in a bathing suit," LPGA Hall of Famer JoAnne Carner recalled. "Just crazy. Then, all of a sudden, it totally changed."

Lopez changed it.

Read a story about a women's tournament on the front page of the newspaper, or see videotaped highlights on the evening sports programs, and know that she put it there.

In 1978, as a 21-year-old, she burst onto the LPGA scene. No rookie had won more than one tournament. Lopez won four. No women's pro had ever won more than four consecutive tournaments. Lopez won five, the record-setter coming on June 18 in the Bankers Trust Classic at Rochester, N.Y. And it wasn't easy.

In the third round Lopez hit a spectator with a drive. As he lay bleeding on the ground, she stood at his side, crying. She double-bogeyed the hole and went into the final round three shots behind Jane Blalock. But Lopez shot 69 and won her record fifth in a row when Blalock missed a birdie putt on 18.

"I remember those feelings," Lopez said. "The pressure, the excitement. The crowds were tremendous. Everybody wanted to see if I could do it."

Her third victory of the year, at the Greater Baltimore Classic in May, began the streak. "When I first came on tour, I just was hoping I could win one tournament," she said. "And I think after winning that first one, it just kind of snowballed.

"It seemed a lot easier for me. Everything just seemed to go down the middle of the fairway. Everything seemed to go in the hole.

"It was a just magical year for me. There were so many people interested in what I was doing, and the attention was tremendous. I enjoyed dealing with the press and working with them, but also just playing golf and enjoying what I was doing."

The next two weeks she beat Carner, first in a playoff, then coming from two strokes back in the final round to win by three.

After a week off, Lopez came back with a vengeance, beating Amy Alcott by six strokes in the LPGA Championship to share with Mickey Wright, Kathy Whitworth and Shirley Englehorn the record of four in a row.

One week later she established a mark that still stands.

"It was a great time for me, experiencing what I did," Lopez said last year, on the 20th anniversary of the streak. "It just happened so easily. ... Everything I did was right."


-- Information from Golfweek and Times files was used in this report.

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