Nancy Lopez Knows Exactly How Nelly Korda Is Feeling During a Record Streak

The Hall of Famer was a sensation in 1978 and can relate to the pressure now on Korda.

The attention can be a bit overwhelming, perhaps even daunting at times. But Nancy Lopez doesn’t mind. She’s handling it with the same vigor today that she did all those years ago, embracing the onslaught with the same positive approach she employed when she was a wide-eyed 21-year-old rookie on the LPGA Tour.

Lopez is getting a lot of calls these days to talk about Nelly Korda, the winner last Sunday at the Chevron Championship, her second major title and her fifth consecutive victory on the LPGA Tour.

It matched a record set by Lopez in 1978.

“When I first started watching her, I remember shaking my head thinking what a great player she is and if she ever figures out how good she is, she’s going to dominate this tour,” Lopez says. “And it's coming true. I hope she keeps doing what she is doing.”

Lopez was taking a bunch of calls one day earlier this week from her Florida home. Korda’s recent success has elicited memories of a young player from New Mexico who not only took the women’s game by storm 46 years ago but also became a national sports story.

Sports Illustrated put her on the cover of its weekly magazine as Lopez piled up victories, nine in all and a record five straight. The streak was later matched by Annika Sorenstam in 2004-05 and by Korda on Sunday, and it remains the LPGA record for consecutive victories in events entered.

Nancy Lopez 1978 Sports Illustrated cover
Nancy Lopez's remarkable 1978 landed her on the cover of SI. / Harry Benson/Sports Illustrated

“There was a lot of pressure and of course once I started winning and the press kept asking me those questions,” Lopez says. “The thing about me was I wasn’t shy. I think Nelly is a little shy. I loved her energy on Sunday. She came out of that a little bit for me. But the press made me who I was on the LPGA Tour.

“They wrote a lot about my success. They wrote about my failures. People wanted to know why I didn’t do well that week. And I’d be in the press room for an hour and a half because I liked to talk. Nelly might be a bit more shy in that way, but the press got a lot of stories out of me. And they kind of opened up my world to all the fans who came out to watch me play.”

Lopez, who played two years at Tulsa before turning pro, became the only player to win LPGA player of the year, rookie of the year and the Vare Trophy for low scoring average in a single season.

At a time when tennis was enjoying a boon, especially with the likes of Billie Jean King and Chris Evert, women’s golf was struggling for relevance.

“It couldn’t have happened at a better time, and nobody could have handled it better,” said LPGA Hall of Famer and broadcaster Judy Rankin on the 20-year anniversary of Lopez’s feat. “I don’t ever remember her acting badly—ever—just like I don’t remember Arnold Palmer acting badly.

“Nancy had that fire to her and that great smile. I think it changed women’s golf for good.”

Lopez’s streak began with the Greater Baltimore Classic in May and ended with the Bankers Trust Classic in Rochester, N.Y. , a stretch of six events in which she skipped one that was won by JoAnne Carner at the Peter Jackson Classic in Canada. She won her first major championship, the LPGA Championship, during that stretch.

“Her whole year was so unbelievable,” Carner said. “The thing that impressed me the most was that Nancy could handle the pressure. Everybody loved her and the press just mobbed her like no LPGA player ever before.”

Lopez got in the habit of arriving at the golf course two hours before her tee times to deal with the usual crush of attention. And she stayed late afterward doing interviews and trying to fit in practice.

It was a different kind of mania 20 years prior to Tiger Woods coming along. But unlike Woods, who often fought the spotlight while continuing to win, Lopez reveled in it.

“I didn’t have any money starting out and now I’m winning and now I have all this attention,” she says. “It was fun going into the press room and talking about golf. I probably didn’t realize it until later but during my rookie year, I’d be playing and then go straight to the press room and then I’d leave and go practice and I’d go back to the locker room and there’d be nobody there. Everybody was gone. And I didn’t form a relationship with a lot of other players. There was some resentment.

“There was a good bit of talk if I was a flash in the pan. Would I be able to do well the next year? Was it luck? I decided I was going to prove myself.”

Lopez won eight more times in 1979. “And I felt I was carrying the LPGA on my shoulders,” she says. “We needed players to do interviews and do the press conferences and go back to tournaments. Back then I’d go to all the cities where I had won to help that tournament. And it didn’t bother me. I didn’t have any responsibility.”

In her rookie year, Lopez said she would routinely play in Monday pro-ams which paid her $500. The money was good at a time when purses were a pittance compared to today and “I didn’t want my dad to spend any more money on me.”

Later, after she started winning, those same pro-ams were paying her $25,000 an appearance.

“I would say to my manager, Peter Johnson, are those people crazy? They’re going to pay me $25,000 to play golf for one day?’’ Lopez says. “It was a great time in my life.”

Lopez, now 67, went on to win 48 times in her Hall of Fame career. She counts Hall of Famers Pat Bradley and Patty Sheehan as the players who forced her to get better, bringing a competitive aspect throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s. Three of her victories were majors, all at the LPGA Championship, but she never won a U.S. Women’s Open, four times finishing second. Lopez also played on one winning U.S. Solheim Cup team and captained another to victory.

It was in a role as an assistant captain to Juli Inkster that she first got to know both Nelly Korda and her older sister, Jessica. She spent time with them in their Solehim Cup pods and could see what was potentially coming.

“There was a lot of positive energy around her,” Lopez said. “I felt that Nelly is going to have to realize how good she is. Inside, she is the only one who knows if she is going to hit that great shot or chip or hit that great putt. I felt that when I was playing well. Everything just seemed really easy. It’s a matter of waking up and looking in the mirror and saying I’m really good. And I think she’s probably feeling that now.

“I would love to see her play the best golf she can play for the rest of her career. This is the time for her to accomplish so much and break records. I don’t know if she is a goal-setter, but you have to set goals high. I liked setting goals and liked to achieve them. You can always be better.”

Korda was scheduled to play this week’s LPGA event in Los Angeles but withdrew, something that Lopez understands—and also had to deal with during her time.

She felt tremendous pressure to play every week, not wanting to let down sponsors in cities when she preferred to take time off.

“But you realize it’s your responsibility,” Lopez says. “There were times I didn’t want to be there but I did my best. I hope Nelly wraps her arms around that. She needs to carry the tour right now. It’s a lot of pressure. But she will bring more sponsors to the tour, more fans. And I think she can play like this for a long time.”


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Bob Harig

BOB HARIG

Bob Harig is a senior golf writer for Sports Illustrated. He has more than 25 years experience covering golf, including 15 at ESPN. Bob is a regular guest on Sirius XM PGA Tour Radio and has written two books, DRIVE: The Lasting Legacy of Tiger Woods and Tiger and Phil: Golf's Most Fascinating Rivalry. He graduated from Indiana University where he earned an Evans Scholarship, named in honor of the great amateur golfer Charles (Chick) Evans Jr. Bob, a former president of the Golf Writers Association of America, lives in Clearwater, Florida.