A Pumpkin Ridge Memory
By Rhonda Glenn, USGA
North Plains, Ore. - Often it’s the sound of a great event that you remember. Nine years later I can remember every sound that golf offers: applause, thunderous cheers, the loud click of a putter head on a ball in an amphitheater of silent and worshipful fans and, finally, the agonized groans. It was 1997 and it was Nancy Lopez’s last and best chance to win the United States Women’s Open.
Of all the wonderful moments that Pumpkin Ridge offers, it is that Sunday in July that cuts most deeply. That’s saying quite a lot. Tiger Woods marched to his third straight U.S. Amateur title here, and I watched his semifinal match. Two USGA junior championships were conducted here, and another Women’s Open, which featured its own dramatic finish. But it is the 1997 Women’s Open that I thought of Monday as I stood on a small terrace adjoining the fairway of the first hole.
Just nine years and a seeming lifetime ago, that Sunday Lopez did what she had done thousands of times before. She walked through the door of the clubhouse into a crowd of spectators on her way to the first tee. You could hear the roar from 800 yards away. The cheers followed her as she made her way down the pathway between the ropes, as if all the lung power in Oregon was focused on that one stretch of yardage and it made you shiver. She was within three strokes of the Women’s Open lead, in second place three strokes behind Alison Nicolas of England, with whom she was paired.
Why, in the Women’s Open three strokes can disappear in three minutes.
Nicholas was announced on the first tee, and the hand clapping was generous. Lopez was announced, and there was near tumult. Men hoisted small children to their shoulders for a better view and women in brightly colored shirts waved from the crowd. Lopez, brow furrowed, smiled and raised her hand in a modest wave.
To understand this outpouring of feeling for a player calls for a review of her career. She turned professional in 1977 after a heralded amateur career. True, her swing seemed a little odd, the lift of her hands before the start of the backswing, the slow tempo. But the putting stroke was velvet smooth. More than that, it was her generous smile and the way in which she carried herself that made an impression. As a rookie, she wracked up one win after another, smiling and waving all the way, and reporters of that era scrambled for adjectives. I think it was Gordon White of the New York Times, who finally referred to her as “the Spanish Queen,” in the way that she sailed, unperturbed, down the nation’s fairways. It seemed to fit well enough.
Of course, Lopez wasn’t Spanish, she was a Mexican-American from Roswell, N.M., the daughter of Maria and Domingo Lopez, who owned an auto repair shop. That just made the story better.
Lopez had suffered discrimination as a youngster, but Domingo told her to keep smiling and she rode that smile to a place in our hearts. Golf lessons? She didn’t take them, although Lee Trevino once changed her grip. Sports psychologist? Didn’t need ‘em.
By 1982, the fruits of Title IX and the influence of Lopez had fostered a lot of younger contestants sporting the Lopez Look at the Women’s Open in Sacramento. There were dozens of them, fresh from good college programs, lined up on the practice tee in their sporty little yellow golf skirts and coordinated shirts, socks and gloves, with perky little visors perched demurely on their coifs. Almost as important, their parents were there in staunch support. If golf was good enough for Nancy, it was good enough for their little girls.
I worked for the Ram Golf Company, owned by Colgate-Palmolive, in those years and as Nancy was a rookie member of our staff, I shepherded her to a number of public appearances. I will never forget San Diego. She’s just a teenager and she has won three tournaments in a row. We arranged a store appearance for her at a local shopping mall and put one ad in the newspaper. Lopez and I arrived to see a line of hundreds of people snaking out of the store, down the center of the mall and outside around the corner. She greeted every one and signed as many autographs as time would allow. This was on a Monday. The following Monday, after the professional tournament in Los Angeles, I booked two of our other staff members, both multiple tournament winners, into a sporting goods store nearby. Same ad in the newspaper. No one showed up.
The hold Nancy had on people was hard to comprehend, but it was there. Never, in the years I worked for Colgate and in the following 20 years as a print and television journalist, did I see her be cold or petulant to the fans.
All of this culminated on this Sunday in July in 1997. In Nancy’s 20-year professional career, she had won dozens of tournaments. She had a great husband and three lovely daughters and she had made enough money to support Lopezs for life. But she had never won the Women’s Open. This week, she had shot three rounds in the 60s in a last, great effort to capture the title that meant the most. Most of us knew it would be her last chance.
She nailed a tee shot down the center of the first fairway, and began her march. The applause swelled on each side, thundering after her like a living thing as she advanced toward the green. An electrical current ran through the spectators on every hole, as if Nicholas and Lopez were the only two players on the course. Thousands trailed in their wake as seemingly hundreds of media jammed the rough along the ropes.
This was not the young bright Nancy Lopez in the citrus-colored short skirts. This Lopez wore a pair of somewhat dowdy plaid shorts and a plain off-white shirt. She was inclined to be chunky and her white golf shoes, though freshly polished, had the worn look of shoes for someone with troubled feet.
Finally, after trading shots back and forth, Lopez made a fateful bogey on the par-3 15th hole. With the hole cut on the right, she fired at the flagstick, lost the shot to the right, then hit a weak chip. Two putts later, she had bogeyed to fall one stroke behind. She walked past me as she left the green. “Stupid bogey,” she muttered under her breath.
She hit a perfect, long tee shot on the par-4 16th hole, and here is what separates Lopez from the rest of us. A man, badly dressed and seemingly with a mental disability, had been selling ballpoint pens in the gallery. He approached Lopez, extending his hand to offer her a pen as a gift, but dropped the pens and they scattered on the grass. Lopez smiled, bent over and helped him recover the pens, placing them in his hand. “That’s all right,” she said quietly.
Then she lost the title she coveted most. It doesn’t really matter now but she birdied the 16th on a 15-foot putt. Bunkered her second shot on the 17th and bogeyed, missing a 6-foot, downhill putt. When that score was posted on the leader board at the 18th green, we could hear the groan back on the tee. On that home hole, Lopez had a birdie putt to tie, but it was a sloppy, curling thing and virtually unmakeable. Nicholas, meanwhile, needed only to get down in two putts for a winning par.
There was stillness, perfect stillness, among the thousands of people surrounding the green and trailing back in the fairway. I noticed several Women’s Open champions kneeling under the greenside ropes. Laura Davies was there to support Nicholas, her Solheim Cup teammate. There seemed to be little reason for Betsy King and Patty Sheehan, both two-time winners, to be there. It wasn’t as if they were Lopez’s close friends. They didn’t join her for dinner or hang out together, and went their separate ways. Like so many of us, however, King and Sheehan knew what this meant to Lopez and they knew what Lopez meant to golf.
A last, great groan came when Lopez missed her birdie putt. Nicholas made her short putt to win, hugged her caddie, and enfolded Lopez in an embrace. It was over – the Women’s Open, the battle, the last great stand – and most of us knew it.
Lopez came to the media room to face the reporters. It was the only time I’ve seen them stand and applaud. As she spoke, she began to cry but she was safe here, reporters had always treated her as a friend.
“I talked to my father and he told me that maybe I’m not supposed to win this tournament,” she said.
Happy endings are sometimes suspended in the world of sport, which is part of what makes athletics so thrilling and real.
The following year, in 1998, Nancy played a number of practice rounds at the championship site in Kohler, Wisc., but missed the cut. Never again would she really contend in the Women’s Open after Pumpkin Ridge. Her skills would fade and the dream would die.
But Lopez came along at just the right time, arrived on golf’s insular little scene with the smile, the game, and the great putting stroke. She fostered the game among thousands of little girls and their hopeful parents. As a human being she generated emotions I’ve never seen, and a sound I’ve never heard. Most of all, Nancy Lopez arrived and gave us something so few of us had seen. She won, and lost, and gave us grace.
Rhonda Glenn is a Manager for USGA Communications. E-mail her with questions or comments at email@example.com.