When it was over, when she had forced her last smile, told the
final fib about how happy she was just to have played so well
and braved all the hollow words of encouragement, Nancy Lopez
finally found a shoulder to cry on. It was late on Sunday
afternoon, 90 minutes after she had let another U.S. Women's
Open slip from her grasp, when Lopez grabbed hold of a friend
and let go of the tears she had been guarding so resolutely.
Finally, with a deep breath she said what the rest of us already
knew, "This should have been the one, darn it."
The 52nd U.S. Women's Open, played at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club
outside Portland, will long be remembered not for who won it--by
the way, it was Alison Nicholas in a record-setting
performance--but for who didn't. Not Annika Sorenstam, who
couldn't withstand the crucible of trying to become the first
woman to win three straight Opens. Not Kelly Robbins or Karrie
Webb, the other young lions on the LPGA tour, who finished third
and fourth, respectively. Most of all, not Lopez, the
40-year-old legend who had the chance to put a cherry on top of
her remarkable career, which has included everything but an Open
title. Lopez shot 69-68-69-69 to become the first woman to break
70 in all four rounds of an Open, but in keeping with her
star-crossed history in the national championship, she bogeyed
two of the final four holes and missed a 15-foot birdie putt on
18 that would have tied Nicholas and forced an 18-hole playoff.
Lopez has now finished second at the Open four times in 21
tries. "At this point," she said, "to have come this close...."
She didn't finish the sentence. Nor did she have to.
If there was any consolation for Lopez, it was that Nicholas
beat her by turning in one of the best performances in Open
history--male or female. In 13 years as a pro, Nicholas, a
35-year-old Englishwoman, had won 11 tournaments on the Women's
Professional Golf European Tour and two in the U.S., but nothing
she had done hinted at the mastery she would have over a Pumpkin
Ridge course that was softened by rain early in the week. Five
feet tall in spikes and built like a fire hydrant, Nicholas
packs a surprising wallop off the tee and is a genius on the
greens. Starting with the last hole of the first round, she made
only one bogey over her next 50 holes. Little wonder, then,
Nicklaus, er, Nicholas became the first player of either sex to
finish an Open 10 under par.
"If Alison hadn't been here, I would've won," Lopez said, with a
chuckle. It's easy to be so sanguine when you're enjoying a
mulligan that has lasted 18 months and counting. In January 1996
Lopez nearly quit golf, so bummed was she with a swing and a
physique that had fallen badly out of shape. Her four sterling
Open rounds are the most compelling evidence yet that she is a
force again, and that fact more than anything tempered the
disappointment of falling one stroke short. "It's been a long,
long time since I've looked forward to coming to the course this
much," Lopez said on the eve of the final round. A year and a
half ago, "I was humiliated by my golf game. I was wasting my
July 20, 1997
Since her marriage in 1982 to Ray Knight, the former major
league baseball star and current manager of the Cincinnati Reds,
Lopez has had three daughters, Ashley (13), Erinn (11) and Torri
(5). As she got older she found it increasingly difficult to
leave home for tournaments and tougher still to play well when
she did. She appeared in a total of 37 events in '94 and '95
without a victory, her longest drought since turning pro at the
'77 U.S. Women's Open, and Lopez said she was dreading the
impending '96 season. However, after much soul-searching and a
series of heartfelt conversations with her peers, Lopez decided
early in '96 that she owed it to herself to resurrect her game.
The first order of business was to drop 40 pounds, so she
launched a fun-free diet and a brutal exercise regimen that so
far has helped her melt away 28 of those pounds. This boosted
both her stamina, her self-esteem and her game. Coming into the
Open, she had one win and four top 10 finishes in 11 LPGA events
this year, and along the way she rediscovered the key to her
earlier success: her sparkle.
Growing up on the dusty flats of Roswell, N.M., Lopez got only
one piece of golf instruction from her father, Domingo: "Play
happy." Nancy always did, beginning with her first tournament
win--at age nine, by 110 strokes--all the way to her starmaking
rookie year, 1978, when she won nine events, including an
LPGA-record five in a row. Tiger Woods was barely a twinkle in
his father's eye when Lopez became a cross-cultural hero, owing
as much to her telegenic smile and the palpable joy she found in
competition as to her otherworldly golfing talents.
In April, Lopez shot 71-66 to win the rain-shortened Chick-Fil-A
Charity Championship, ending the most fretted-about winless
streak in women's golf history, a string that dated to the
Youngstown-Warren LPGA Classic in July 1993. "A win is a win,"
Lopez said when asked about her victory in the abbreviated
event, and there's no need to qualify that when you have 48
career triumphs. "She has renewed herself this year," says Patty
Sheehan, who tied for ninth at Pumpkin Ridge. "The question with
Nancy has never been her ability to play the game, only her
enthusiasm for it."
There was no shortage of enthusiasm beginning last Friday, when
Lopez finished her second round birdie-birdie-birdie. That left
Lopez five under par and one shot behind Nicholas, the midway
leader, who followed an opening-round 70 with a five-birdie,
no-bogey 66. Still, Lopez's charge was barely noticed as all
attention was trained on the plight of the 26-year-old
Sorenstam, who had come to the Open looking primed to make
Sorenstam had already won four times this year, and with her
swing locked and loaded, the only question was how well she
would hold up in the center of a media frenzy. This is, after
all, a woman so shy that as a junior golfer she would
intentionally blow tournaments just so she wouldn't have to give
a victory speech.
After nine holes, however, it was clear Sorenstam wouldn't have
to worry about oratory this week. Already two over par when she
reached the 9th, a relatively benign par-4, Sorenstam hit her
tee shot into one of the two bunkers that bisect the fairway.
Her approach shot strayed right, into some buffalo grass that
was so thick it took almost five minutes to find the ball. She
took two hacks to get out, and three putts later she had a
triple bogey. How was she feeling out there? "I was a little
confused," she said after the round. "I was a little upset. I
didn't know what was happening. It's like, where am I and what
am I doing? Take me away from here."
For all intents and purposes Sorenstam's wish was granted on the
13th hole last Friday, when she hit a Fore!-iron into a hazard
for the double bogey that pushed her over the cut line. That
Sorenstam didn't successfully defend her title was no big deal.
That she failed to make the cut was shocking. The last time she
had missed the cut was the Jamie Farr Kroger Classic in July
1994, a streak of 62 tournaments. As she stood in the shade of
the clubhouse after Friday's round with her husband, David Esch,
Sorenstam was left to ponder her future.
"Well, you know, we could go to the zoo," Esch said.
"Is that what you're supposed to do on the weekend?" Sorenstam
asked. "I haven't had one off in so long I can't remember."
It turned out the weekend belonged to Nicholas, who had arrived
at the brink of the Open championship by way of a hardscrabble
upbringing in Birmingham, England. A lackluster student,
Nicholas decided early on that athletics would be her meal
ticket. She played virtually every team sport as a kid but
gravitated to tennis in her early teens. Despite a standout
junior record, she came to realize she had a stunted future in
the sport. "When you can't hardly see over the net, you know
you've got problems," she said last week in a typically
good-natured reference to her size.
Nicholas often played casual rounds of golf with her father, and
at 17 she applied her considerable determination to the sport.
She worked odd jobs as a house cleaner and in a hospital to
squirrel away money so she could travel the summer amateur
circuits. She won the 1983 British Amateur Stroke Play
Championship and then turned pro in '84. She was the '87 Women's
British Open champion, and this year she ranks fourth on the
European tour money list ($108,371) while splitting time on both
sides of the Atlantic.
Last Saturday, Nicholas shot a smooth 67 to open a three-shot
lead over Lopez, who was alone in second. In building that edge
she lived up to the nickname her countrywoman, friend and
frequent playing partner Laura Davies hung on her years ago--Big
Al, although most of her pals call her Little Al. Nicholas not
only stood up to Lopez, whose swing she had patterned hers
after, thanks to one of Lopez's instructional videos, but also
to the 30,000-plus fans who made up Nancy's Navy and fussed over
her every move.
Many of the players were also openly pulling for Lopez. Said
17-year veteran Chris Johnson, "If I can't win, I want Nancy
to." But there's a flip side to being the player no one is
rooting for. "I don't think I've got much to lose, really,"
Nicholas said on the eve of the final round.
She didn't have to say it, but that was in stark contrast to
Lopez, whose near misses in the Open date to 1975. That was the
halcyon summer of her 18th year when Lopez, then an amateur,
sailed around Atlantic City (N.J.) Country Club. A third-round
77 cost her a shot at victory, but she nonetheless announced her
arrival on the golf scene with a tie for second, four shots
behind Sandra Palmer. Two years later, at Hazeltine National in
Chaska, Minn., in her first tournament as a pro, Lopez was again
knocking on the door when she was derailed by...saggy trousers.
"My stupid zipper busted right before the final round," Lopez
recalled last Saturday. "It was kind of hard to concentrate
wondering if my pants were going to fall down. Every time I bent
down to line up a putt, the zipper would bust open. I'm pretty
sure I would have won if not for that." Lopez was tied for the
lead as late as the 13th hole, but she double-bogeyed the 14th
and finished second again, two shots behind Hollis Stacy. She
has five other top 10s, including her other runner-up finish in
Lopez seemed hell-bent on reversing her karma on Sunday as she
stiffed approach shots on the 1st and 3rd holes for easy
birdies. The margin was down to two shots when Lopez put a wedge
to 18 inches for another gimme birdie on the par-5 fourth, and
she seemed on the verge of applying her plastic spikes to
Nicholas's throat. It was then that the wee Englishwoman
produced the shot of the week. From 56 yards Nicholas hit a
knock-down sand wedge that bounced several times and dived into
the hole for an eagle. "It was a kick in the face," Lopez said,
"because I thought I was going to pick up a shot and I ended up
losing one. I was pretty numb."
The lead was still three shots at the 14th when Nicholas made
her only big mistake of the final round. She blew her approach
over the green into a hazard, making a double bogey that sliced
the lead to a lone stroke. But Lopez gave a shot right back on
the par-3 15th when she couldn't get up and down from next to
the green. She got that shot back with a birdie at 16, but she
could only match Nicholas's bogey-par finish.
Lopez put on a happy face, as is her wont. "I think this week I
finally learned how to play in the U.S. Open," she said. "All
these years I've been trying so hard to figure it out. So now I
look forward to next year's U.S. Open. I'm going to save all the
feelings I have and carry them on to next year. I just know that
this was a neat experience for me, one that I've never had."
In other words, this should have been the one.