News & Opinion

20 years later, Lopez recalls Open that got away

Granddaughter Molly’s dance recital, a recent wedding, booming new golf business and pending knee-replacement surgery in November keep Nancy Lopez hopping. At age 60, she has little time to reflect on one of women’s golf’s most inspiring careers or the missing piece, the U.S. Women’s Open, which falls on the calendar again this week.

“My golf mantra has always been to see people play happy, and I always said I played better when I played happy,” Lopez said. “That’s why I’m trying to encourage women to play golf. I want to make them comfortable in getting more into the game.”

Happiness is something that Lopez found recently off the course by going to the course. Soon after a 2009 divorce from former baseball player Ray Knight, Lopez was introduced by a mutual friend to Ed Russell.

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Photo courtesy of Ed Russell
Nancy Lopez (left) and husband Ed Russell

Photo courtesy of Ed Russell
Nancy Lopez (left) and husband Ed Russell

“My friend said, I know a nice guy that you can just play golf with,” Lopez said. “I had been divorced for six months and wasn’t ready for anything like that yet. Ed and I got to be golf buddies, played many rounds together and it’s been great ever since.”

Russell and Lopez married on June 24 in Palm City, Fla., with Jack and Barbara Nicklaus among the attendees.

Soon after, it was back to work on Nancy Lopez Golf Adventures, a traveling golf school for women that teaches fundamentals and attitude. This week, the road show is in Keystone, Colo. So, there won’t be a trip to the U.S. Women’s Open in Bedminster, N.J., on the 20th anniversary of Lopez’s heartbreaking 1997 loss to England’s Alison Nicholas at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club in suburban Portland, Ore., Lopez’s fourth runner-up finish.

The 1977 U.S. Women’s Open, 40 years ago, may have been the motivation for 1997. Lopez, age 20 and making her professional debut, led through the 13th hole of the final round at Hazeltine National. But she fell away over the final few holes, much of it due to a faulty zipper that caused her favorite navy blue shorts to continually gape.

“That was really the U.S. Open I should have won,” Lopez said of 1977. “I was in a panic mode much of the day. My whole focus became my zipper; I couldn’t bend down to read a putt for a fear my pants would break. When you’re playing in the U.S. Open, sometimes the day can seem like an eternity. That one did. I was totally not focused, and that really sucked.”

At age 40, Lopez was prepared to settle the score in Oregon before a record final-round crowd of 31,700. Lopez worked with a trainer for two years to get in top physical shape. Her game was primed with a third-place finish the week before. As Phil Mickelson and his six U.S. Open runner-up finishes would become, Lopez was the sentimental favorite.

“I knew what was going to happen and had to be mentally prepared,” said Nicholas, now 55 and teaching golf in England. “I made it a point to walk ahead of Nancy to the greens. When the crowd cheered for Nancy, I just pretended it was for me.”

Nicholas led Lopez by three entering the round and holed a pitch shot for eagle midway through the front nine. Lopez closed within one on the back nine, but Nicholas held on to win by one. History was made by both: Nicholas became the first player, male or female, to finish a U.S. Open in double figures (10 under), and Lopez became the first (and still only) woman to record four rounds in the 60s at a Women’s Open.

“Months and months after that I could hardly talk about it,” said Lopez, who would win 48 times on the LPGA, including three major championships, in a World Golf Hall of Fame career. “Playing against Alison, I mentally thought I could beat her. But she seemed to always bring her best golf game when I was playing her. My fiancé (now husband) said, Alison must be your kryptonite.”

The two probably will cross paths again in August at the Solheim Cup in Iowa, Lopez with her company business and Nicholas as the captain of Europe’s Junior Solheim Cup team.

“If anything, I’m sure we’ll tease each other about it,” Lopez said. “We both played great. Just every time I hit a good shot, she hit one better.”

Ward Clayton has been involved with golf communications for 30-plus years, including stints with the Augusta Chronicle and PGA Tour and currently with Signature Group and Clayton Communications. He lives in St. Johns, Fla. Email: jaxclayton123@gmail.com; Twitter: @wardclayton