Lopez's record march began on Md. fairway 'My year was a lot like Tiger Woods'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The streak began on a soggy Sunday afternoon 20 years ago this week. It began with little fanfare at Pine Ridge Golf Course in Timonium, at a long-forgotten LPGA tournament called the Greater Baltimore Golf Classic, with a 21-year-old rookie beating veteran Donna Caponi by three shots.

Nancy Lopez doesn't recall much about the week or the win.

"I remember we putted on a temporary green," she said last week.

But the victory for Lopez was just the beginning of her march into history.

Her streak of five straight victories in tournaments she entered broke the record shared previously by LPGA Hall of Famers Kathy Whitworth and Mickey Wright, and was the third-longest run in professional golf behind Byron Nelson (11 in 1945) and Ben Hogan (six in 1948).

It lifted Lopez from budding superstar -- she had already won twice earlier in the year -- to legend-in-making.

"After I won the first one, it just kind of snowballed," said Lopez, who will try for her fourth LPGA Championship this week when play begins Thursday in Wilmington, Del. "Every ball seemed to go in the middle of the fairway, every putt seemed to go in the middle of the hole. It was kind of a magical year."

At each stop during the streak, the crowds became bigger and more boisterous.

By the time she reached Locust Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y., in search of No. 5, the mania was evident. The pressure was mounting. The streak seemed in jeopardy when Lopez hit a spectator in the head with a ball on Saturday and double-bogeyed the hole.

But then came Sunday, and Lopez was in the hunt again with veteran Jane Blalock and Debbie Massey.

"I remember telling my caddie that if I shoot even par on the back nine, I could win," said Lopez, now 41 and a 48-time champion. "I think the pressure I was feeling made me play better."

When Lopez walked down the 18th fairway with another victory at hand, Massey looked up on the roof of the clubhouse and saw what seemed like hundreds of cameras looking back, clicking away. "It was almost surreal," said Massey, who finished tied with Blalock for second.

The streak ended the next week in Hershey, Pa., when Lopez ran out of gas and into Tim Melton, a local sportscaster who would become her first husband.

"I was really exhausted," said Lopez. "The attention was unbelievable. When I went to Hershey, I didn't have anything left. I was also a little ga-ga-eyed [after meeting Melton]."

Those who knew Lopez were not surprised by her immediate success on the LPGA Tour and her impact on the game.

Massey had first played against her when Lopez was 15. Despite beating Lopez in the final of the 1972 Western Amateur, Massey recalled the feeling that "you just knew you were in the presence of someone extraordinary."

Others had remembered seeing Lopez in the 1975 U.S. Open, when as an 18-year-old amateur she had finished tied for second. She nearly won the Open in 1977, finishing two shots behind Hollis Stacy on a tough course, Hazeltine, in Chaska, Minn.

"She was the best female putter I had ever seen," said Judy Rankin, then the LPGA's top-ranked player for two years in a row. "There weren't any players who were close to her."

In much the same way that Tiger Woods found himself alienated from the rest of the PGA Tour during his amazing start last year, Lopez became the target of sniping from veteran players who thought the media were writing and talking only about Lopez.

"I think Nancy had been taught, if you get too friendly with the competition, you're not going to keep that edge to beat them," said Rankin. "I also thought Nancy saw herself as far more of a minority than we did. I think it was a small part of her drive."

Lopez said that she thought back on 1978 while watching Woods go through his record-setting season a year ago.

"My year was a lot like Tiger Woods'," said Lopez, who would win nine times and set a record in earnings with a whopping $189,813, "from the jealousies of some of the other players to the excitement of the fans."

Some fans got a bit carried away. Lopez recalls a few overzealous fans sending her notes that asked for more than just autographs and some following her back to her hotel. She wound up having her caddie, Roscoe Jones, escort her back from the course after rounds.

"It got a little scary at times," she said.

Lopez's streak also had a profound affect on the LPGA Tour. Already in the midst of pushing such telegenic players as Laura Baugh and Jan Stephenson, LPGA commissioner Ray Volpe, a former marketing executive with the NHL, found a star in Lopez.

"The timing couldn't have been better," said Rankin.

Eventually, the mania subsided. After her victory in Rochester, Lopez won twice more that year but neither wins were on American soil. It built up a little the next year, when she won eight times, but none was even back-to-back.

Over the years, Lopez's circle of friends on the tour widened to where she has now become one of its most well-liked and well-respected members. Jim Ritts found that out one night in three years ago, when he came to Minneapolis to meet the players the day before he was named commissioner.

"I remember Nancy talking to my wife, then giving us a hug,"

Ritts said last week while watching Lopez play in a pro-am before the Sara Lee. "There were a lot of players there, and it was not only a way to welcome us, but a way to send a message to the other players that we were OK."

With a new generation of players beginning to dominate, the question needs to be asked: Can what Lopez did be duplicated?

"If you get a player who gets on a streak, it's possible," said Ritts. "The possibility exists, but the chances are infinitesimal. If I was going to pick a record that was going to stand up for a long time, it would be the five in a row by Nancy and the 88 career victories by Kathy Whitworth."

And what does Lopez think of the possibility that a player such as Annika Sorenstam or Karrie Webb could equal or exceed what she did during a six-week stretch in the summer of 1978?

"With the competition the way it is now, I don't think that will happen," she said.

LPGA Championship

Where: DuPont Country Club, Wilmington, Del.

When: Thursday through Sunday

Who: A field of 144 pros, including defending champion Chris Johnson, three-time champion Nancy Lopez, 1998 leading money winner Liselotte Neumann, reigning U.S. Open champion Alison Nicholas, Karrie Webb and two-time U.S. Open champion Annika Sorenstam.

Prize money: $1.3 million, first prize $195,000

For whom: Ronald McDonald's House Charities

TV: Chs. 13, 9

Pub Date: 5/12/98

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