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Nancy Lopez fails to qualify for US Women's Open

Nancy Lopez is a Hall of Famer, the winner of 48 tournaments, the player who probably did more to popularize women's golf than any other.

It wasn't enough to land a spot in the U.S. Women's Open.

Trying to play her way in, Lopez shot a dismal 6-over-par 78 today at a sectional qualifying tournament north of Atlanta.

Then she wept.

"I would like to be there,'' said Lopez, who suddenly broke down in tears while talking with reporters above the 18th green. "I'll just have to find something else to do.''

Lopez, a national phenomenon in the late 1970s with her sunny personality and dynamic shotmaking, still draws more cheers than just about anyone else on the LPGA Tour. She inspired countless women to take up the game, players such as Tiffany Anselment of Charlotte, N.C.

"She was the first lady golfer I ever followed,'' said Anselment, a 28-year-old teaching pro. "I've always looked up to her.''

Today, Anselment found herself playing with Lopez and 19-year-old high school senior Ester Lee, all three trying to earn a spot in the Open.

"I don't think it's right,'' Anselment said. "When you've won as many tournaments as she has and you're in the Hall of Fame, you should qualify.''

The 44-year-old Lopez decided to take part in sectional qualifying -- comprised mostly of little-known players, with a sprinkling of LPGA regulars -- when the U.S. Golf Association declined to give her an exemption for the third year in a row.

"We're all sick about it,'' said Cora Jane Blanchard, who chaired the 14-member women's committee. "We would like to have Nancy Lopez in the field. We just didn't feel it was warranted this time.''

Lopez hasn't won a tournament since 1997 and the USGA decided this year to grant only one exemption: Liselotte Neumann, a former Open champion. Lopez has never won the Open, which also worked against her in the committee's eyes.

"We love her to death. She definitely sells tickets,'' Blanchard said. "But you don't get an exemption based on that. It's not a popularity contest.''

The top 14 in the 111-player field earned spots in the Open, which begins May 31 in Southern Pines, N.C. Lopez didn't come close, missing the cutoff by four strokes.

"It does hurt,'' she said, with reddened eyes and barely able to compose herself. "I really wanted to play well today. I'm disappointed about not playing well as much as anything.''

Lopez played in her first Open as a 17-year-old amateur in 1974. After turning pro in 1978, she was in field every year but three (1983, '86, '91) -- all related to the birth of her three children.

She has been the Open runner-up three times, most recently in 1997 when she became the only woman to shoot four rounds in the 60s but lost a playoff to Alison Nicholas.

Lopez would like to have the rules changed so that Hall of Famers can play in any tournament, including the Open.

"Their dedication to the tour and what they've done for women's golf should be enough,'' said Lopez, who just last week played in an Atlanta-area tournament that bears her name.

"There's not that many of us playing anymore. We wouldn't take up many spots. I would think you'd want those players in the Open.''

But Lopez is not the first prominent player denied an exemption. Pat Bradley, the 1981 Open champion and winner of the LPGA's modern grand slam, sat at home two years ago.

Lopez hit her first shot into a tree, took a bogey and struggled through a birdie-less round at The Standard Club.

Lopez needed help from the gallery -- about 20 people, mostly club members and media -- to locate a wayward shot at No. 5. At the 16th, she hit into some tall grass along the green and needed help from a cameraman to find her ball.

Lopez even violated a cardinal rule of golf by hitting into the group ahead at 13, not realizing they were all in the woods looking for a lost ball.

"Sorry,'' Lopez said, waving sheepishly from the tee box.

Along the way, she made her young playing partners feel at ease: mocking her age, reminiscing about college, bemoaning a shaky putter and even giving Lee an impromptu rules lesson after the youngster rolled a shot into a batch of poison ivy.

"People told me she was real gracious, down to Earth,'' Anselment said. "She really was.''

Lopez knew she was out of it by the time she huffed and puffed up a steep hill to the tee box at No. 17, a scenic par-3 with a towering wall of rock behind the green.

"That was encouraging moment,'' she said to Anselment, who was slumped on a bench. "Encouraging that I got up the hill.''

While another group played out on the green below, Lopez chatted with Lee about her schoolwork. The oldest of Lopez's three children is also in high school.

"I told (Lee) I was old enough to be her mother,'' Lopez quipped. "I really enjoyed playing with them. I remember that time in my life.''

These days, Lopez's priorities have changed.

"I love to play and I've worked on my game a lot more this year,'' he said. "But spending time with my kids is the most important thing.''


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