IN 1978 Nancy Lopez had the greatest rookie season in golf history—nine victories, including a record five in a row—and she was the first (and still the only) woman to be named the LPGA player of the year as a rookie. At age 21, thanks to her telegenic smile and rapport with fans, Lopez became an American idol. "That year was a dream come true," she says.
Having grown up with limited finances as the only child of an auto mechanic in Roswell, N.Mex., Lopez felt spoiled by the money ($189,814 in earnings alone) and adulation she received that year. "Sponsors always put gifts in my hotel rooms, and I especially remember the flowers because I love roses," says Lopez, 51. Her best memories, however, aren't of what she got but of what she gave. "I loved signing autographs, taking pictures and shaking hands," says Lopez, who lavished much of her rookie treasure on her father, Domingo. "I won a red Mazda RX7 and gave it right to him. He was the cutest thing driving around town."
Lopez went on to win 48 LPGA titles and earn millions, but giving remains her defining quality. When she began having children in the mid-1980s (she and her husband, former major leaguer Ray Knight, have three daughters: Ashley, 24, Erinn, 21, and Torri, 16), she scaled back her schedule to spend more time at home in Albany, Ga. "I always felt the girls should have good, healthy meals prepared by Mom," says Lopez.
Today, when she's not traveling to be with her family (Knight is a TV announcer for the Washington Nationals; Ashley lives in Venice, Fla.; and Erinn will be a senior at Auburn), she's still dedicated to golf. Besides competing occasionally on the LPGA and Legends tours, she'll captain the U.S. team in the 2009 Junior Solheim Cup, so she's been scouting potential team members. At her golf equipment company, based in Waterloo, Ont., Lopez toils on design and marketing plans. At her golf school near Ocala, Fla., she works the range. "I'd never just slap my name on something," Lopez says. Lopez's favorite extracurricular project, however, is mentoring young LPGA players, notably Paula Creamer and Natalie Gulbis. "The girls are like my daughters," she says. "I'm all about contributing to the future of the LPGA, and these girls are definitely the future."