The white-on-white-on-white Palm Springs crowd likes to drop lots of big names, and with all the beautiful people in town for the Colgate-Dinah Shore Winners Circle golf tournament—a lot of names right there—last week was no exception. You heard plenty of Hopes and Sinatras and Jerry Fords and Colgates. But no name found its way into more conversations than that of Nancy Lopez, the 21-year-old LPGA rookie who has been threatening to make a shambles of the women's tour.
Let nothing be taken away from Sandra Post, who won the $36,000 first-place check in the tournament at the Mission Hills C.C., which, with its $305,000 purse, is billed as the richest in all of women's sports. It was, after all, perfectly understandable that Lopez should have commanded most of the attention until Sunday, when it finally became certain that she would be less than sensational for the first time in a month.
All she did during that period was win the Bent Tree Classic in Sarasota, Fla. and the Sunstar Classic in Los Angeles back to back, and then narrowly miss a third straight victory in the Kathryn Crosby/Honda Civic Classic when she failed to sink a 12-foot putt by an inch and lost in a sudden-death playoff to Sally Little. As a result of her stunning play, Lopez zoomed to the top of the money list, with $47,317, and established herself as the player to beat at Palm Springs—and everywhere else.
Little wonder then, that even as she floundered through the first two rounds at Mission Hills, everyone kept expecting to see Lopez' name climb the leader board at any minute. On Thursday, while Post fired a course-record seven-under 65, Lopez looked like an early goner with four bogeys on the front nine. However, she made three straight birdies on the back side to salvage a 73. On Friday, when Post shot a 74, Lopez made three bogeys on the first seven holes. But again she caught fire, birdieing six of the last 10 for a 70 and moving to within four shots of Post. On Saturday Lopez shot a 76, her worst round of 1978, and trailed Post, the leader at five under par, by eight shots.
Meanwhile, Lopez' playing partner, 25-year-old Penny Pulz of Australia, quietly entered the picture by firing a three-under-par 69 to trail Post by only one shot after 54 holes. On Sunday, Pulz forced a sudden-death playoff by holing a 15-foot birdie putt on the 18th green, but Post won on the second extra hole. For Post, a Canadian who joined the tour in 1968, it was only her second LPGA victory—and her first in 10 years, or 211 tournaments.
Lopez shot a final-round 73 to place 12th and win another $4,455. The emergence of Lopez—along with other fresh faces such as Debbie Massey, Hollis Stacy and Amy Alcott—is one indication that the women's tour is in transition. Another is that last year's big three—Judy Rankin, JoAnne Carner and Kathy Whitworth—are having trouble stayin' alive. Last week Carner was just one stroke behind Post after 36 holes, but on Saturday she took an 11 on the par-4 3rd hole. She tied Lopez for 12th place, and she is currently 13th on the money list. Rankin, mired in a mysterious slump, finished 37th at Mission Hills after coming in 40th and 44th the previous two weeks; she is 25th on the list. Whitworth is 49th, having won barely more than $2,000 in six tournaments this season.
Withal, the tour is healthier than ever, offering a total purse of $3.4 million, nearly triple what it was three years ago. And in Lopez, the LPGA may finally have a star capable of doing for golf what King and Evert have done for tennis.
It is a sad fact that the shot-making greatness of players like Babe Zaharias, Mickey Wright, Patty Berg and Whitworth has never been enough to sell women's golf to the masses. In fact, the person given most of the credit for that is Laura Baugh—as in, "Hey, Laura Baugh, how's your love life?" And in six years on the tour, Baugh has yet to win a tournament.
Now there is Lopez, the first woman golfer to have it all—ability and maturity that belie her 21 years, not to mention a sparkling personality. "What a star she can be," says Chip Campbell, the LPGA's publicist. "She attracts you with the smile and dazzles you with the golf."
The smile seems to form way down in her toes and spiral up through her body until it comes bursting from her face like a beacon. It disappears when she is standing over the ball. Then, with an unorthodox swing—arms far from her body, hands too high on the backswing—she cracks the ball with enormous power, as long as any of the women. Her putting is exceptional, and the one weakness to which she admits is her chipping. "I guess because I don't miss enough greens to get the practice," she says.
"The best part of her game?" says her caddie, Roscoe Jones. "Well, it isn't any particular club. She hits them all well. It must be her mental game. Yes. There she is, all sweet and smiling, kissing her daddy before the round, then it's all business. She's got that ruthlessness. I can see her doing to the ladies what Nicklaus has done to the men."
By now, the Nancy Lopez story is legend. She was the little Mexican girl who would trail behind her daddy "hitting, hitting and hitting" with a sawed-off three-wood on the parched public-links course in Roswell, N. Mex. She won her first tournament at age nine, by 110 strokes, and at 12 won the New Mexico Women's Amateur. She won eight major amateur tournaments and the 1976 national collegiate championship before dropping out of the University of Tulsa to turn pro last year. She finished second in her first three tournaments, including the U.S. Open. In September, Nancy's mother died of complications following an appendectomy, and Lopez withdrew from the tour for a month. But she came back even more determined. "She may be 21," says her caddie, "but there isn't another lady out here with more self-control."
When she does poorly, as she did last week, it is probably for reasons beyond her control. Her "disastrous" 76 was caused by pressures and hassles she never before had to worry about. She had the biggest galleries at Mission Hills, with a heavy Mexican flavor, starring her father Domingo, who would drink a half-dozen Coors, chatter away and pull out old newspaper clippings about Nancy to show strangers. Her 8-year-old nephew Bernie made a big hit with his AUNT NANCY NUMBER 1 T shirt. An endless stream of relatives and friends poured into town, turning Nancy's rented condominium into a boarding house. There were constant interviews with the press. Then, her fiancè Ron Benedetti flew in from Houston after reading in TIME that their marriage had been postponed. "People forgot that I'm human," Nancy said. For once the smile faded.
"I don't know if it's an emotional breakdown or what," she said, "but I don't feel real happy right now. My life is changing and I don't know if I want it to. So many things matter to me—how I look, how people feel about me, what my friends are doing—and now golf is so serious. The other day I told everybody, 'Look, this isn't a party. It's a golf tournament.' Then I felt terrible for being such a crab."
The smile returned soon enough. "I believe I'm gifted," she said. "God gave me this talent and I believe I can do anything."
People like the LPGA's Campbell worry that Lopez might become over-promoted, as the tour's other pretty faces—notably Baugh and Jan Stephenson—have been. But though Lopez is very conscious of her appearance—she has been struggling with a diet to control her weight—she says, "I want to make my money by winning. I'm here for golf, not for sex."