No fade in Lopez's drive


WILMINGTON, Del. - In the locker room that exists in every fan's imagination, there is a velvet cord that opens only for the elite. The entrance policy is simple - legends only, please. These are the people who need no last name. Michael, Wayne, Jack and Muhammad are in there. Tiger is, too.

And so is Nancy.

Nancy Lopez gets up earlier than she did when she was in her prime, but it isn't to pound range balls till her hands bleed or practice slick, double-breaking putts. It's to make sure she has time to stretch her 43-year old body, ironing out all the creases and scars that have accumulated over her majestic career.

The story of Lopez's 22-year, 48-victory LPGA career could only be matched by her equally in-depth medical history. Knee surgeries and appendicitis stand out, as does her battle to control a hyperthyroid gland.

Indeed, the 1987 Hall of Fame inductee comes to this week's $1.4 million McDonald's LPGA Championship just six weeks after undergoing laparoscopic surgery to remove her gallbladder.

But even though she can't practice like she used to, and even though it sometimes hurts just to bend over a putt, Lopez feels as though she isn't chasing vainly after memories of years gone by.

"I think the toughest part is getting up in the morning and feeling like you can't move," said Lopez, who shocked the golf world during her 1978 rookie campaign by winning nine tournaments, including five in a row.

"I think the only thing missing in my game right now is my health," she said. "That's the only thing that bothers me, because my game is there and my putting is as strong as it's been in a little while. I may not win, but I want to be in the thick of things. I want to be right there where I'm playing well."

But a week of good health and a steady stroke might not be enough these days. Top money-winner Karrie Webb is no Tiger, but her 10-shot victory in The Nabisco Championship in March wasn't a far cry from Woods' recent U.S. Open demolition.

And last week, Annika Sorenstam eagled the first playoff hole in the Evian Masters to beat Webb, setting the stage for a potential showdown at the DuPont Country Club starting today as Webb seeks the second leg of a Grand Slam.

"It's only Wednesday, and I've got a long road ahead of me before I even have a chance to hold that trophy on Sunday," said Webb, who missed the cut here last year, one of only two she missed all season.

Sorenstam, who avenged an early-season playoff loss to Webb with her win last week, is riding a wave of confidence and isn't trying to hide the fact that she hasn't won a major since the 1996 U.S. Women's Open.

"I'm not impatient, but I think I'm due [to win a major]," she said. "I know my game is good enough. So I'm just going to be patient. That's my key this week."

For her part, Lopez is hoping that patience truly is a virtue. She recognizes that younger players like Webb, Sorenstam and defending champion Juli Inkster can put up some amazing numbers, but she's not prepared to admit that she can't do the same.

Even when she tees it up with her husband, former baseball star Ray Knight, Lopez refuses to let down. "He really makes me work hard," she said, revealing that Knight has beaten her once during their 18-year marriage.

"He helps me practice on the little things, chipping and putting. I would like to win a few more tournaments [on tour], but I've got to concentrate and focus on what I'm doing, even if I don't play every week."

Lopez's last major came with her victory in this tournament in 1989. And while it seems implausible to think she could recapture that magic, fate may be tucked into her bag this week.

In 1975, Jack Nicklaus won what everyone thought would be his last Masters. Eleven years later, in 1986, the Golden Bear turned back the clock and sprinkled a little magic on Augusta National at the age of 46.

"I think after Nicklaus did that, I sat back and I thought: Golly, when I get to that age, I would like to be able to do that," Lopez said with a hopeful smile.

For Nancy - a legend - it would be only fitting.

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