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Lopez Wants Her Old Spot--No. 1--Back : Her First Goal Is to Win the Dinah Shore, Her Favorite Tournament

March 15, 1987|Special to The Times

Nancy Lopez has overcome disappointments, frustration and pressure en route to 35 victories on the Ladies Professional Golf Association tour and subsequent qualification for the LPGA Hall of Fame.

However, one minor obstacle remains for Lopez before she is enshrined as only the 11th member of that illustrious shrine of women's golf. She must serve the remainder of the 10-year LPGA membership requirement, which, for her, will be up July 29.

"Gosh, I hope I don't die before I'm inducted into the Hall of Fame," Lopez said jokingly. "If I do, I'll really be mad."

It should be noted that Lopez, who turned 30 on Jan. 6, currently enjoys good health and is the mother of two daughters, Ashley Marie, 3 1/2, and Erinn Shea, 10 months.

Oddly, Lopez's career came full cycle in Sarasota, Fla., on Feb. 8 when she recorded victory number 35. It was the same place Lopez got No. 1 nine years ago when the event was the Bent Tree tournament.

Although she cam close to winning twice last fall when she returned to the LPGA tour for four events after the birth of her second daughter--she was third in the Henredon tournament and second in the Nestle World Championship--Lopez said her Sarasota victory was a surprise. In her 1987 debut, she tied for 19th in the Mazda tournament.

"Very honestly, I didn't think I would win that early," she said, "but my swing and timing came around much sooner than I expected. She shot 73-66-68-74--281, seven under par, and won by three shots.

Lopez said there has not been a letdown since the victory which gained her entry into the Hall of Fame. "It really hasn't sunk in yet. I guess it will when I'm officially inducted into the Hall of Fame. But my main goal now is to be No. 1 again." She was the LPGA Player of the Year in 1978, 1979 and 1985.

"I want to be the only player in history to be No. 1 with two babies," she added, with a laugh. "I want to keep on winning. My immediate goal is to win the Nabisco Dinah Shore, which is my favorite tournament. I love the entire ambiance and look forward to visiting with Dinah and all my friends . . . "

The $500,000 Dinah Shore, richest major championship in women's golf, will be played April 2-5 at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, where defending champion Pat Bradley, the 1986 Player of the Year, Nancy and the rest of the world's best women players will be gunning for the record $80,000 first prize.

A two-day pro-am, March 31-April 1, precedes the tournament.

Lopez said she lost 28 pounds on a high protein diet in less than five weeks since the birth of Erinn Shea. "I've got 12 more pounds to go," she said. "Getting back into shape is the toughest thing to do after a pregnancy. It takes a lot of hard work and a lot of will power."

She recalled the time she was carrying Ashley Marie. "I got way too big and gained 43 pounds. I found myself hoping I'd have a 43-pound baby," she said.

Lopez said she plans to play 18 or 19 tournaments this year, but adds, "If I need more work to keep sharp, I'll add a few as I go along. This is the schedule I'll keep until Ashley Marie begins school. Then I'll play only in the summer, plus the majors and maybe a couple of others." Presently she travels on tour with her daughters and a nanny.

Asked if she and her husband, Ray Knight of the Baltimore Orioles, plan to enlarge their family, Nancy said, "There won't be any more kids for at least four years."

Lopez credits Knight, the 1986 World Series MVP hero of the New York Mets, for much of her success.

"Ray is a motivator for me and an understanding one," she said. "I love playing in tournaments, but I'm not so hot on practicing. Ray is always on me to practice more. He won't ease up on me. After I had Ashley Marie, Ray kept telling me I could be No. 1 again if I worked hard. He was right."

Lopez says Knight has used psychology on her as well. "During one of our practice rounds together, Ray told me I was the worst chipper he ever saw. That got me real mad. I began to practice chipping a lot just to show him. Now I fell I can chip with the best," she said.

She said she and Knight, rather than compete with each other, use each other's athletic experiences to bounce of the other. She says she makes out her schedule so they don't spend more than three weeks apart at any time.

Lopez said she "never suffered more than when she watched Knight play in the Mets victory over the Houston Astros in the National League championship series and against the Boston Red Sox in last year's World Series. She said she suffered postgame headaches that she never experienced playing in golf tournaments.

After Erinn Shea's birth last May, Lopez returned to the LPGA tour in August for the Henredon tournament. After shooting 71 in the first round, she said, "Hooray, now I know I can play again." She added a 70 and a pair of 69s for 279, nine under par, and finished two shots behind the leader.

The next week at the Nestle World Championship, Bradley closed with a nine-under 63 to beat Lopez and Betsy King by two shots.

While playing in just the four tournaments in 1986, Lopez still earned $67,700, and was 35th on the LPGA money list. That raised her lifetime earnings to $1,711,079, fourth all-time.

Lopez enjoyed a highly successful 1985 season, when she earned a then-record $416,472 and won five tournaments. In 25 tournaments, she finished 21 times in the Top 10. She averaged 70.73 strokes per round for 93 rounds and became the first LPGA player ever to average under 71 strokes a round for an entire season.

Lopez, generally acknowledged to be the best putter on the LPGA tour, revealed she has added another potent force to her game. "I have a new weapon this year. I have a new Tommy Armour metal driver with a graphite shaft. I started hitting it longer and straighter the very first time I used it."

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