Even as Nancy Lopez was breezing to victory Sunday in the LPGA Championship at Kings Island, Ohio, a few diehards were still counting seconds instead of strokes. But Lopez had the perfect answer for the LPGA Pooh-Bahs who had penalized her two shots for slow play in the first round. On Sunday she cleaned everyone's clock. Lopez did it by breaking loose from a third-round tie with Alice Miller and shooting a nearly flawless final-round 65 to win the title.
This had been Lopez's tournament, it seemed, from the outset, but it was not until Sunday that she took irrevocable possession. Lopez began the final round on the Grizzly course at the Jack Nicklaus Sports Center at eight under par. Co-leader Miller was no mean foe. She was leading the Ladies Professional Golf Association in 10 of this year's statistical categories, including money won, scoring average, Player of the Year balloting and last-round average (70.00)—not to mention invisibility. Pat Bradley, another top player, was two strokes behind.
But Lopez drove, approached and putted her way to a 32-33—65 on the par-72, 6,242-yard course, hitting 17 greens in regulation and never missing a fairway, while Miller slipped to a 73 and Bradley tumbled to 74. Lopez won by eight shots over Miller and by 11 over Bradley and Lori Garbacz to collect the $37,500 first prize and her second LPGA championship. It was also the second victory this year for Lopez, who won the Charity Classic in Chatham, N.J. three weeks ago. In the end, Thursday's two-stroke penalty cost Lopez only in the record book. With her rounds of 65-71-72-65—273 she missed the tournament scoring record of 16 under par by one stroke, and was two off Hollis Stacy's alltime LPGA scoring mark of 271 set in 1977 at Springfield, Ill. Before Lopez sank her final putt, she asked wryly, "Does anyone know what time it is?"
Lopez's timing couldn't have been better. "When I started today, it seemed as if nothing was going to get in my way," she said. "It was like I was by myself. I didn't hear anything.... Nothing else was there, just that little ball and me. The feeling was there. I could tell it was there." Lopez said she had the same feeling earlier in her career when she seemed to win every week.
No wonder she made seven birdies. At the first hole, a par-5, she hit just over the green, then chipped to four feet. She sank birdie putts of 15 and 10 feet on the 5th and 6th holes, birdied the hole of controversy—the 8th—for the third straight day, sinking a six-footer, and then saved par at the 9th after a five-iron squirted over the green. After a free drop, she chipped to 12 feet, then ran in the putt while a shaken Miller was three-putting from 18 feet. "I cut my own throat a few times today," said Miller, who three-putted thrice. So much for Miller time.
By now Lopez had a five-stroke lead over Miller and was 10 ahead of Bradley. She added birdies on the 13th and 14th holes, then knocked a nine-iron to within a foot on the 15th for her final birdie. Later she told of encountering a brown bird sitting calmly on her automobile, the day before the tournament began. She petted its breast. Then her 19-month-old daughter, Ashley, touched it. Finally the bird flew away. Lopez took it as a sign. "It seemed almost like a miracle," she said.
Lopez's play Sunday was so stunning that the penalty she had incurred on Thursday was a dim memory. The record will show Lopez shot a 65 in the first round, with seven birdies, an eagle and that two-stroke setback for taking 83 seconds, 23 more than the maximum allowed, on her next-to-last tee shot. The clockwatchers were out because the Lopez threesome, which included Janet Coles and Chris Johnson, had fallen 27 minutes behind the group playing ahead of them. The gap was partly the result of three rulings, none of which concerned Lopez. LPGA regulations call for a two-stroke penalty if a player in a lagging group dawdles over a shot for more than 60 seconds.
"I could make 18 holes in one and still be penalized." Lopez said sourly after the round, noting the regulation makes no allowance for total time. Overall, the Lopez group finished in 4 hours and 21 minutes, not an unreasonable amount of time considering the rulings. "I thought I was playing fast," added Nancy with the frowning face.
"How can we be slow, birdieing every hole?" asked her caddie, Dee Darden, an old fighter pilot. The group played the back nine first, and the closer Lopez crept to the tournament scoring record of 63, shot last year by defending champion Patty Sheehan, the more she concentrated. At her 17th hole, the par-3 8th, Lopez was first to hit, having birdied the previous hole to go eight under. The wind was blowing, and she puzzled about which club to use. First she selected a five-iron for the 180-yard uphill shot. Then she switched to a four-iron. It was the right choice—she just missed a 10-footer for a birdie—but that indecision put her over the 60-second limit. After she tapped in for the par, up popped LPGA official Kerry Haigh, who informed her of the penalty.
Until then, Lopez had not been fighting the clock but turning it back, recapturing the magic of 1978 and '79, her first two years on the circuit, when she won 17 tournaments and earned the nickname Nancy with the Laughing Face. Since then, she has been married, divorced, married again, this time to Met third baseman Ray Knight. She played an abbreviated tour schedule in '83 and '84, taking time out to have a baby. Although she won two tournaments and $183,756 last year, her return to glory has been a struggle. "It used to be so easy," she said last week.
After the penalty, Lopez still had the final hole to play. With tears streaming down her face—"I was crying like a baby," Lopez said later—she drove down the right side, hit a five-iron to within 10 feet and drained the birdie putt for a 65, nee 63. "My dad always told me, 'You can't see the hole when you're crying,' " sniffled Lopez. "But Dee kind of aimed me and I hit it."
Everyone wondered how the penalty would affect Lopez, who had the first-round lead by three strokes over Bradley, Cathy Reynolds-Derouaux, Alice Ritzman and Cathy Morse. "It got her mad," said Darden. "People don't realize how tough she is. There's no give up in her. She's the damnedest woman I ever saw. You watch her eyes. She's like a bulldog with a bone."
Lopez, admittedly jumpy, thinking about the clock and "super motivated, mad, disillusioned and frustrated," shot a 71 on Friday that put her four shots ahead of Ritzman and rookie Cathy Kratzert, whose brother Bill plays on the PGA Tour.
On Saturday, Lopez matched par with a 72, but Miller birdied two of the final three holes for a 67 to tie her for the lead at eight under. Bradley had a 69.
"I don't feel too friendly," Lopez said, a bit out of character, when she finished the third round, adding, "I don't know how to play golf now, and I hate it. Golf isn't a cross-country race."
On Sunday she proved herself wrong: No one knew how to play golf better. And she showed everyone what kind of game it is—a sport not of time but of timing.