Nancy Lopez' hotel room is some kind of mess: clothes, clippings, cosmetics and candy Kisses, on account of this week happens to be Hershey, Pa. The PR man, exhausted from suddenly having to front for the eighth wonder of the world, flops on one bed. The guy from the country club, with pictures for Nancy to sign, stands in a clearing in the middle of the floor. The caddie is rounding up shoes and golf clubs and candy and today's swag. The first observation Nancy has about being famous is, "It's funny, but the more money I make, the more presents people give me."
The phone is ringing again. She picks her way through the forest of telegraphed roses and over some utter stranger who has found a seat on the floor. But what are you going to do? The day before, as she was getting dressed, three women reporters came in to watch and get a new angle. Luckily, today Nancy has just lost a tournament by 15 strokes; otherwise, she might be in some demand.
She talks on the phone standing up, there being no place to put anything down, herself included. She is a pack rat, but this is ridiculous. Growing up, the one rule was that she had to keep a neat room. Her father, Domingo, who has a third-grade education and an auto-body shop in Roswell, N. Mex., would not let her work. He would not even permit her to do the dishes. "No, Mama," he would tell Nancy's mother. "These hands are meant for golf." For five years she wore braces he could not afford. "Mama, she got to," Domingo said. "Our Nancy's gonna be a public figure." But at least she had to keep her room neat. Her father brought her up to be a champion, and her mother brought her up to be a lady; together they raised her as royalty, the countess of golf, la condesa, and she was just that in May of 1978 at age 21, and then she blows right by it in June to become the whole sport of women's golf. Even a countess can be expected to keep a neat room, but it is difficult for a person to manage that when her room contains a whole damn sport.
Nancy puts the phone down and sighs. "This is for the chairman," the guy with the pictures says. "Oh, he'll love this, Nancy."
July 9, 1978
"Think they'll want us back next year?" asks the PR man, Chip Campbell. All of a sudden Campbell is a bear with a gingersnap. A year and a half publicizing the Ladies Professional Golf Association, trying to scare up any stiff with a typewriter, patiently spelling R-a-n-k-i-n and P-o-s-t and other such difficult big names—and, hey, now they just turned down the Today show. Couldn't fit it in. Good Morning, America is here. The Sunday Times of London is here. A gentleman from Tokyo is downstairs, researching a 30-part series on Nancy Lopez. Sandburg's Abraham Lincoln didn't take 30 parts. NBC won this week's right to break into its baseball game with Nancy updates. Flash: Nancy is now only nine strokes off the pace. We'll be back in half an hour with an up-to-date report. CBS and ABC bid unsuccessfully for this scoop. It's like the Olympics.
"To tell you the truth," says the country-club guy to Campbell, "a few weeks ago it was only 50-50 we'd want you [the tournament] back at all." A few weeks ago was just before Nancy Lopez became the whole sport. "Now it's, you know, 99.44% sure for '79. It looks like the chocolate people want in, and we'll triple the purse." Campbell makes a funny sound, swallowing another canary; Nancy signs all the photos. "Oh thank you, Nancy, thank you, dear," the man from the country club says. He kisses her and backs out of the room.
As its beneficiary, the Hershey tournament has the Harrisburg Hospital. Last year the tournament drew 7,000 people and cleared $9,000. Two weeks ago 34,000 came out, including several who watched the winner, whoever that was. It looks as if the hospital will bank well over $50,000, so Nancy made them 40 grand, which is not bad. And if she can do that for a hospital, think what she can do for ladies' golf. Think what she can do for Nancy Lopez. "We're looking strictly for the six-figure affiliations," is what one of her management men lets on, sotto voce.
The PR man has got to get things organized. "We have to work out this schedule," he says. The phone rings. "It's my seester," Nancy says, putting on an accent. "Hey, beeg seester, I love you."
The caddie fumbles through her golf bag. Notwithstanding his name, which is Roscoe Jones, and his haircut, which is an Afro, he is a white guy, age 26, out of Medina, Ohio. "They want everything of hers they can get their hands on," he says. Since Nancy has become the sport, Roscoe has collected enough in caddie fees out of her purses to move up among the leaders of the LPGA money winners and, after each round, when Nancy is finished with her press audience, Roscoe himself is ushered to the microphones, there to entertain with deadpan one-liners. They go like this, on the order of Rochester digging into Mister Benny:
NANCY: I didn't like anything about that hole.
ROSCOE: Hey, don't tell 'em you didn't like the green, because I know you didn't find it all week.
Meanwhile, back in Nancy's hotel room, she is saying, "I gotta go, seester. I love you."
And Roscoe is saying, "They want her tees, gloves, balls, anything." And the PR man is saying, "Indianapolis. When are you going to get Taco Belle's car to Indianapolis?" LPGA competitors are not that far removed from a time when they spent the day before a tournament personally roping off the course, then rushing down to the Lions Club to talk to 32 guys at lunch. Most of them are still delighted to go far out of their way on a Monday to pick up a few bucks playing athletic geishas at some businessmen's outing. While Nancy Lopez has been setting the Western world on fire, she and Roscoe have been driving the interstates each week like a couple of truckers, jabbering with the other gearjammers on the CB, where Nancy passes as Jive Cookie.
This time, at last, she is going to rest a couple of days and then fly. "I'm not lettin' her have her clubs till Thursday," Roscoe says, sucking on a Michelob. "She's worn out, and they can't make her play if I got her clubs, and nobody knows where I'm at."
"I love you, too, Delma," Nancy says on the phone to her sister.
"Hey, I looked into this, Chip," Roscoe says. "Get this. I can get a thousand NANCY'S NAVY buttons for $150. Give 'em out to the kids."
"I'll call you when I find out where I'll be...yes, goodby...yes, I love you, too, Delma."
"Hey, I love you, too, Delma," Roscoe screams. "Now get off the phone, Lopes." A lot of Nancy's friends call her Lopes, like ropes.
"In San Francisco, we're going to have a giveaway Visor Day," Campbell goes on. "That's going to blow the minds of all those old people in golf. All the demographics show that men's and women's golf only gets older people. Nancy's getting the kids."
"That's what I'm sayin', Chip," Roscoe says. "It's the kids want all her tees, all her gloves, all her...."
"I love you, too."
"A thousand for $150."
"Goodby, Delma." Nancy hangs up.
"Hey, Lopes, my money," Roscoe says, and they haggle over how much she owes him. Now that Nancy has financial representatives, the Mark McCormack juggernaut, she doesn't pay bills the way normal people do. All the bills go to Cleveland, where some computer in an eyeshade handles them. But Nancy still pays Roscoe herself, one-on-one. So she sits down on the end of the bed and pulls out her checkbook. This is probably why Roscoe and his boss get along so well, because there is nobody between them. She fired him a couple of months ago because he was too critical of her, but after a couple of beers he had the good sense to petition for reinstatement, and she took him back. "She was right to fire me," Roscoe says. "It got to the point where she was trying to hit the shots for me, and you can't do that." But he keeps her honest.
The next few years of Nancy's life will be a scrimmage with all the slickies trying to help her by getting between her and the silly little things and people she used to have in her life. Golf—any sport—is a game of inches, right? And do you know what being a celebrity is? It is a game of minutes. Nobody ever asks for more than five or 10, but that is how you get nickel-dimed into slumps and breakdowns.
"Now, let's get Indianapolis straight," Campbell says.
"What do I have?" Nancy asks.
"The press conference, the...."
"Can I do it real late afternoon?"
"Not real late, because you've got a tape with CBS, the Sports Spectacular, then, and if you don't get there till Wednesday, we've got to shift the SPORTS ILLUSTRATED photographer, because we gave him Tuesday evening when the light would be right."
"Oh yeah," Nancy says.
"But you can hide here till Wednesday morning."
Nancy smiles. This will be nice, because she has found herself a swain in Hershey with a real he-man physique. She turns to Roscoe. "O.K., so when will I see you in Indiana?"
"Thursday. I don't want you to have them clubs till then."
Nancy thinks about that for just a moment, and then, pouting, she squeals, "Thursday! Thursday! I'm getting in Wednesday! I'll be stuck there without my car!" It is a small break, just a silly little edge to her voice, really, but the caddie and the PR man are stunned to silence because, as small as the outburst is, it is practically the first time she has even remotely lost control since she became women's golf.
Roscoe stares down at her and then, slowly, intently, he walks to her, and he lowers himself to look directly into her face, holding himself just inches before her eyes, his hands on the end of the bed. "A car?" Roscoe says. "A car? Don't you understand, Lopes? You are a star now. You are a superstar! You want a car in Indiana, you ask for a car. Tell 'em what kind. They will get it for you. Tell 'em what color." His voice has risen, and now he pauses and speaks softly: "Don't you understand who you are now, Lopes? You...are...Nancy...Lopez.' "
She does not reply. They only look into each other's eyes, and then he pushes himself up and drains the Michelob. Across Nancy Lopez' face creeps a small smile. It is not the public one she flashes on the course. It is, instead, a private expression of understanding. She will not have to be informed of these truths again. In a few weeks she has gone from being Nancy Lopez, to star, to big star, to the Nancy Lopez. There will be no more privacy and very little time.
When she rises a moment later, it is as this new person. By the next day, with a good night's sleep, she can even explain it all very easily. "People are not going to expect me to win all the time," she says, "but I can see now that they are always going to believe in me."
What an amazing thing to fathom at such a young age; what an awesome thing to sense.
Endlessly, Nancy Lopez has been compared to Arnold Palmer. To be sure, Palmer was a vital popular hero, but when he checked in for glory, around 1958, men's golf already enjoyed great goodwill and was, by all odds, first among individual sports. The President won landslide elections on the links, and nobody had ever heard of the Beatles, professional tennis or exercise for women. Golf was a middle-aged man's game in a middle-aged country, played by people wearing Perry Como sweaters.
By contrast, the sport that is Nancy Lopez in 1978 has a great deal to overcome. Among women's athletics it has been altogether eclipsed by tennis, not only because of Billie Jean and Chrissie, but also because tennis—and running and gymnastics and basketball—is properly strenuous, and thus in tune with the women's movement, its goals and propaganda alike.
Women's golf has also suffered more for its sex than have other female sports. Until well into this century women were denied admission to many golf clubs—these havens being celebrated by mashie-wielding misogynists as "Eveless Edens." For golf is, after all, the very essence of male camaraderie, men in groups, the modern substitute for the hunt, that most masculine of all human endeavors. The 19th hole is as important and fundamental as any of the first 18, and betting is so much a part of the scene that golf has long since become the equivalent of an ambulatory poker night out.
It is not surprising, then, that female golfers—intruders—suffer more personal, abusive forms of criticism. Innuendos about lesbianism wound the LPGA the deepest, especially since it must depend upon country-club venues and values. On the defensive, the LPGA has tried to play up its sultrier members—from the sweater-gal heyday of the Bauer sisters and right on along to the present, when a 38 and a 37 are more likely to mean Jan [Stephenson] and Laura [Baugh] than three over par.
But looks do count, in the LPGA as in Sigma Chi, and Nancy's are almost perfect for her part. She is not a raving beauty but, then, neither was the gentleman from Latrobe a matinee idol. Arnold Palmer was attractive and virile; Nancy Lopez is attractive and vibrant. She is 5'4¼" tall, a fluctuating 135 to 140 pounds, down from a chiliburgered high of 170. She is big-boned and busty, with dark brown eyes and hair, and teeth that catch the sun and reflect her joy. "It is not just that Nancy is pretty," says Betsy Rawls, the LPGA Hall of Famer. "It is that she is pretty in everything she does."
On the course, there are two alternating Nancys. The one on the fairway strides along, her face intent; invariably she steps out alone, Roscoe in her wake. But once she has reached the green, she steps with a soft elegance and smiles a lot, however good or bad she lies, and, often as not, she will sit down with Roscoe to laugh.
The character of her gallery, when every eye is on her, is manifestly different from the smaller platoons that follow other players. Nancy's gallery is younger, often lacking in proper links etiquette, and emits shriller sounds. Nancy's people tend to give a wide berth to hard-case golf fans, who shout things at the ball like "Bite!", "Hurry, hurry!" and "Get legs!"
In the middle of all this, Lopez remains utterly in control. It is not that she blocks out distractions, for in fact she quite adores attention; her father, Domingo of the East Second Body Shop, Roswell, recalls that when she was a child, her game would pick up if the driver of a passing vehicle would slow to watch her hit a ball. On her face one never reads anything but her father's creative advice: "Play happy."
Mickey Wright, no doubt the greatest female golfer of the modern era, marvels at her successor-apparent's composure. "Never in my life have I seen such control in someone so young," she says.
And yet, despite this natural self-assurance and an ongoing string of successes stretching back to her first tournament win, by 110 strokes at the age of nine, Lopez has made a quantum golfing jump in the last few months—one which extends quite beyond her own comprehension. Sometimes now she finds herself making shots that she never conceived of. "It's really weird," she says, as if somebody else had climbed into her skin and done these magical things.
But even now she is hardly above doubt. Nancy turned pro last July and there were a number of second places before she finally won an LPGA tournament. Only a few months ago she would literally lie awake nights "wondering how I would react if ever I got the lead." She feared, mostly, that she would cave in, for she admits that too often then she played the prevailing LPGA style—trying to avoid bogeys rather than going for birdies. Considering how much golf affects her whole life, it is not surprising that she played it safe in other ways, too. Succumbing to the loneliness that plagues so many traveling women athletes, she agreed to marry her college sweetheart, even though she well understood that this would divide her devotions and deny golf what she calls "mind time."
It was last Sept. 29 when Nancy's mother, Marina, died—with little warning—following an appendectomy. The grievous hurt was deepened, somehow made impossibly, unfairly worse by her certainty that Marina Lopez had been robbed of her life—and her sacrifice, too—just as the ship was to come in.
Nancy looks up, talking about this. It is odd, given her happy public aspect, but in fact her eyes are naturally mournful. Never was that more apparent. "I don't know what my mother's death did to me," she says, "except that somehow it made me more powerful mentally." And thus the question of how she would react when she got the lead was answered at last in February, in Sarasota, Fla., when she walked down the 72nd fairway, a stroke ahead, tears streaming down her face, thinking of her mother. She did not lose that lead.
That was the first, and the avalanche was about to begin: six more wins, including five in a row, and in that string the LPGA Championship in June. Total money winnings: $154,366—a record for a rookie, man or woman.
Along the way, Nancy called off her engagement. It had nothing to do with her fiancè, really. It was just, as she told him: "Now I know what I can do...." She could win. She could go for the flag. So now Nancy is alone. Her older sister, Delma, has tried to assume something of a mother's role, but she is a housewife with her own family in California. Her father was a natural athlete who could teach her golf, but however street-smart he may be, there is no way he can educate her in the school of marketing and six-figure affiliations that she has been ushered into.
So no matter how bright, how independent, how surprisingly mature, she is as vulnerable as any young person alone, and more vulnerable because she is a young woman in a man's world. "Nancy is the most beautiful person," says Mickey Wright. "She can only help us. But I just hope that all of this won't be harmful to her in the long run. I just hope there will still be times when everyone will back off and let her be 21 again."
The pressure upon Lopez will be especially excruciating, though, because women's golf now depends upon her. Golf is a sport that needs a popular champion for everyone to shoot at. In other games the competitors take on each other head up. In golf, they must match themselves against an arbitrary standard, and whenever some Andy North wins a big one, there is a feeling of being cheated because it doesn't seem sufficient that he won without having to knock the champion off. He just beat a piece of ground. In women's golf, the standard is somehow diminished even more, because no matter what the players do, it is easy to say, "So what?" Nicklaus drove the same green from the back tees. Watson shot a 66. When Evert plays Goolagong it is not, of course, on the level of Borg vs. Connors, but the competition is absorbing for its own sake.
However, if women's golf has la condesa, the scores don't matter and the men don't matter. It all becomes a question of is Nancy Lopez winning, or, just as good, is someone beating Nancy Lopez? She has become not merely a superstar, but also the standard. Do you understand, Lopes? Do you understand what you are now?