Women's golf needed her and needed her badly. It had been waiting for someone who not only had a pretty swing and a pretty smile, but who also could hit the ball long and straight and with enough consistency to give the game an image comparable to that of women's tennis. By driving and putting and smiling her way to victory in the Ladies Professional Golf Association championship at Mason, Ohio last week, Nancy Lopez did more than win her fourth straight tournament and the sixth of her amazing rookie year. She also stamped herself as her sport's new heroine, someone capable of capturing the public's imagination. At 21 she is so good that any moment now you might see her on TV, endorsing bulldozers or hamburgers or credit cards.
Once in a great while, an athlete comes along with enough talent and charisma to make a sport take off. Arnold Palmer did it for men's golf. Nancy Lopez can do it for women's golf. Besides having a Jimmy Carter smile and the clean look of innocence, Lopez also drives the ball high, far and straight; carves her iron shots with the decisive sound a butcher makes on his chopping block; and has a delicate touch on the greens, as if all her putts are rolling on velvet. After playing a round with her last week, veteran Judy Rankin, the tour's leading money-winner the last two seasons, shook her head in admiration and fatigue and said, "They've got the wrong person playing Wonder Woman on TV."
In the LPGA Lopez started slowly but finished strong, shaking off challengers along the way with another relentless but precise performance. Lopez' rounds of 71-65-69-70-275 over the Jack Nicklaus Golf Center course put her 13 under par and six strokes ahead of runner-up Amy Alcott. Her frazzled pursuers were often disconcerted. "Every time I heard the crowd yell, I wondered, 'What's she doing now?' " said Jo Ann Washam, who finished fifth.
What she has been doing ever since she turned professional last July is move steadily toward dominance of women's golf. Lopez finished second in her first three pro tournaments and, despite taking off three weeks with a hand injury, racked up $30,178 in seven 1977 events. It was an admirable debut but hardly portended this year's streak, during which she has won $118,948, more than double what runner-up JoAnne Carner ($57,494) has collected. Barring catastrophe, Lopez soon will eclipse the $190,000 that Hall of Famers Patty Berg and Louise Suggs each amassed during their entire careers. But even more remarkable, perhaps, is the fact that in the 20 tournaments she has played since turning pro, Lopez has finished lower than 16th only three times.
Last Sunday she showed that the only thing that might conceivably stop her is listening to practice-tee advice from a friendly competitor. Watched by a record crowd that was rooting her on, Lopez set out with a five-stroke lead over Alcott and Washam, as she attempted to become the fourth woman golfer ever to win four tournaments in a row, thereby joining Mickey Wright, who did it twice, Kathy Whitworth and Shirley Englehorn. And she did it easily. Her lead was never less than four, and her only mistake was a bogey on the 12th hole, snapping an incredible skein of 41 holes of par or better.
This type of performance obliges anyone with a typewriter or a tape recorder to head for Lopez. Her week began with an interview on the telephone in the dressing room of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, a musical group appearing at the nearby Kings Island Amusement Park, and ended with her smiling stunningly on nationwide television. In between, Lopez lamented, smiling of course, "I don't have time to wash my underwear." Hearing this, an opportunistic radio man seized the initiative.
"Marry me," he said earnestly. "I wash, I cook, I sew, I clean windows. Marry me."
All this is not to say that women's golf hasn't had some excellent players over the years. "People don't think we were ever young," Kathy Whitworth said last week, noting the fuss over Lopez. Whitworth has won 79 tournaments, and Mickey Wright, with a swing straight out of a textbook, has won 82, but they approach the game grimly and methodically, like so many women golfers. Lopez, on the other hand, says things like, "I love to play golf. Even when I'm playing bad I love it." She is never exasperated by interviews or by fans and is enthralled by the glamour of the tour, the parties and the celebrities. Early in the week she was miffed because tournament officials had failed to tell her where the pro-am party was, and she missed it. Most players hide from such events. And later she showed up at a tournament cocktail party wearing silver satin slacks and a flashy blouse that made her look like a fashionable disco dancer.
Lopez is a member of the new breed of golfer. Alcott, who already has won five tournaments in her career, and Hollis Stacy, who has won four, are only 22 and 24 years old, respectively. Alcott is the tour's nature woman, a Californian who likes "to go to the beach and watch Wilt Chamberlain play volleyball." She talks about getting "mellowed out" and hiking in the mountains. Stacy rivals Lopez as the best putter on the tour and relishes practical jokes such as staging a mock fight with Debbie Austin in a country-club parking lot before horrified onlookers.
But last week belonged to Lopez, and she shared it with her family. Her widowed father, Domingo, was Nancy's guest, and on Saturday her 32-year-old sister, Delma Guevara, and brother-in-law, Bernie, arrived from Los Angeles. Also present was boyfriend Ron Benedetti, an asphalt salesman from Houston, who rivaled Atlanta Falcon Quarterback Steve Bartkowski for the title of top swain at the tournament. Bartkowski is squiring Jan Stephenson, the tour's sweater girl.
Lopez, meanwhile, captured the hearts of the fans, saying, "I'm glad Daddy's here because I worry about him a lot when he's home by himself." And she got their attention with scores like the 65 she shot on Friday. The round included a memorable nine-hole stint—from the 9th through the 17th—during which she shot this way: eagle, birdie, par, par, birdie, eagle, par, birdie, birdie. Or eight under par. Her father yelled at one point, "It looks like that ball got eyes."
Domingo Lopez has sanded down cars for 22 years in his auto-body shop in Roswell, N. Mex., and it was he who first started Nancy in golf with these three principles:
"Hit the ball."
"Let 'er fly."
"Get the ball in the hole."
This sort of elementary advice is anathema to golfers, who prefer more cosmic explanations and architect's renderings when discussing the golf swing. Lopez' slow, upright swing abuses several principles heretofore thought to be inviolate. Carol Mann, for instance, calls Lopez' swing "a combination of mistakes." At the start Nancy makes an odd forward motion with her hands that for most people would mean instant doom—but, oh, the results for Lopez! "How do you explain that swing?" one of the perplexed veteran golfers asked a teaching pro on the practice tee one evening. "Tempo," said the man sagely, quickly changing the subject.
"I know why she's always smiling," said Sandra Palmer, who was playing with her. "As far as she hits it, she knows she's going to make a birdie on the next hole."
At times Nancy Lopez seems so good as to be unreal. "Isn't there anything less than perfect about you?" a disbeliever asked her last week.
"Well," she said, smiling. "I'd like to lose a little more weight."
"You want everything, don't you?" the man continued.
"Yeah," smiled Nancy. "I want it all. All there is."