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Nancy Lopez retires from LGPA

Nancy Lopez ended her valedictory season, the 25th of a storied career, with a round of 76 in the Mobile LPGA Tournament of Champions in Alabama on Sunday and that, really, is why the woman whose smile lit up the golfing world, has called it a day.

At the age of 45, with an accumulation of aches, pains and family commitments, Lopez can no longer compete with the Annika Sorenstams and Se Ri Paks, and that hurts.

“I hate missing cuts and I hate not playing well and I hate not playing that shot that I used to be able to hit right where I wanted to,” she said. “I always used to watch Arnold (Palmer) and Jack (Nicklaus and anybody else that was getting older and say, ’Why don’t they quit?’ So I asked myself that question, when do you know to stop? And in my heart I just felt it was time.”

Golf had been Lopez’s life since she was 8 years old and she won the New Mexico Women’s Amateur Championship when she was 12. The swing, with its idiosyncratic hitch, was all Nancy’s own and Domingo Lopez, a little anxious, took his daughter to Lee Trevino for an assessment. “Everything I can see is going to work,” he said.

It did and Domingo, who died in April this year, contributed further to the legend when he advised, “You can’t see the ball when you’re crying. Be happy and play happy.” It became his daughter’s trademark.

Lopez won the US Girls’ Junior Championship in 1972 and 1974, was joint runner-up in the US Women’s Open in 1975 as an amateur and played in the Curtis Cup in 1976 at Royal Lytham & St Annes. She turned professional in 1977 and in 1978, her official rookie season, she was a sensation. She won nine times and five of the victories were in consecutive outings, an achievement that created a media frenzy that catapulted her and the LPGA Tour into the national limelight.

Lopez showed that she could cope with the expectations, the demands and the jealousies — not all the players were happy to be caught up in the Lopez loop — by winning eight times in 1978 and retaining her position as No 1.

Lopez kept on winning, though at a less whirlwind rate, got married, divorced, married again, to Ray Knight, of baseball fame, in October 1982 and gave birth to the first of her three daughters in November 1983. In 1985, she won five times, and was player of the year, Vare Trophy winner and leading money-winner again.

Daughter No 2 arrived in May 1986 but Lopez was Player of the Year again in 1988, won the LPGA Championship for the third time in 1989 and produced a third daughter in November 1991. The last of her 48 victories came in 1997 and although all America loves a winner, that is not the reason that Lopez is even now regarded with something approaching reverence.

It is because she gave of herself all the time, honestly and without affectation, sharing her hopes, her fears, her battles with her weight, the juggling of career and family and connecting with the fans in a way given to few.

Charlie Mechem, former commissioner of the LPGA, has a story that summed it all up. “Nancy was having a bad day,” he said, “and someone thrust a programme or something right in her face and said, ’Sign this for Tammy’. Just like that. Nancy stopped for a minute, digested the situation and said, ’Is that spelled with a y or an ie?’ ” The essence of a legend.

Course highs

Amateur highlights: New Mexico Women’s Amateur Championship 1969; US Girls’ Junior Championship 1972, 1974; US Women’s Open joint runner-up 1975; Curtis Cup 1976; World Amateur Team Championship 1976.

Major highlights: LPGA Championship winner 1978, 1985, 1989; runner-up US Women’s Open 1975 (as amateur), 1977, 1989, 1997 (when she became first player to break 70 in all four rounds; lost to Alison Nicholas by one stroke); runner-up duMaurier Classic 1979, 1981, 1996.

Career victories: 48.

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