Lopez Makes One Last Charge at 97 Open

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Nancy Lopez has won 48 times on the LPGA. She has won three majors. Back in 1987 she passed the final qualification to join the LPGA Hall of Fame. She was inducted into the PGA World Golf Hall of Fame in 1989.
 
But she never won the tournament she wanted most ' the U.S. Womens Open. Four times she was runner-up, the first time as an 18-year-old amateur in 1977. The last ' and probably the closest ' time she just missed was in 1997, when at the age of 40 she was in contention until the last hole.
 
It was at Portland, Ore., and her primary foe was Englands Alison Nicholas - who, incidentally, was still around probably because of some very kind words by Lopez. Nicholas, disillusioned and homesick, had wanted to go home after her rookie season seven years earlier.
 
But she was intercepted by Lopez, who convinced her to give the LPGA Tour one more try. The fact that Nicholas did was probably the only reason that today Lopez still is without a U.S. Open triumph.
 
This story begins on the second day of the tournament. It was then that Lopez got squarely in contention with her score of 3-under 68. That was good, but Nicholas also was hot at the same time, firing a 66.
 
Saturday was more of the same ' Lopez shot 69, but Nicholas was again two better with a 67. After 54 holes, Nicholas was three clear of Lopez heading into the final round.
 
Lopez birdied the very first hole Sunday to quickly reduce the margin to two strokes. But then it became quite difficult to make up more ground ' Lopez would birdie, followed by a Nicholas birdie ' or better.
 
For example, Lopez rolled in an eight-footer for birdie on No. 3, but Nicholas immediately stroked in a seven-footer. And on the par-5 fourth hole, Lopez was brilliant with her third-shot wedge, arching it up to within a foot of the hole for a tap-in bird. But Nicholas went her one better, pitching a short sand-wedge shot into the cup for eagle.
 
At that point Lopez had made three birdies in four holes, but was still exactly where she had started ' three shots down.
 
They made the nine-hole turn and Nicholas had increased the lead to four. Nancy was throwing everything at the pin and really putting the pressure on, she said. I knew I had to knock it close, so I went straight for the flag.
 
A four-shot lead with nine holes remaining at a major tournament is virtually as good as money in the bank, but credit Lopez for again injecting suspense in the tournament. She birdied the 13th, and Nicholas had her only meltdown of the day on No. 14. She struck a wedged second shot into a hazard beyond the green, took her penalty drop, and by the time her misadventure had ended, she incurred a double bogey. Her lead over Lopez was down to a single stroke.
 
Time for Nicholas caddy to step in with a few well-chosen words. He said, Al, youve got to think forward now. Think of the present. Were got four holes to play, Nicholas said.
 
Now they were at 17, and Nicholas approach was off-line, finishing just a foot from the grandstand. She took a penalty-free drop but chunked her chip. Two putts later, she had taken a bogey. Lopez fans were ecstatic - is this where their hero would tie it up?
 
But Lopez could not capitalize. She hit her approach just short of the green into a bunker, then splashed out to 12 feet short of the flag. The golfing world waited breathlessly while she putted, but it died in front of the cup ' two rolls short.
 
Now she most likely had to have a birdie at 18 to send this one into an extra day of play. And she got the ball to 15 feet of the cup, certainly a reasonable distance.
 
But her putt was a tough downhiller that slid off on the low slide. She had tears in her eyes as she warmly congratulated the champion ' Alison Nicholas.
 
I had tears in my eyes because I didnt have a chance anymore, said Lopez. It was pretty tough to see.
 
At the end of the ordeal, Lopez had a light bulb flashing in her head. I think I finally learned how to play the U.S. Open, she said. I felt excited and motivated in a way I havent felt in a long, long time. I played the best I could, so Im not disappointed. But Im not happy, either, because I didnt win.
 
Lopez is now 46, and last year she said her farewells to tournament golf. She still plays in a few tournaments, but balky knees probably mean she is through with competitive golf. But deep within her, she still hopes that some day she will be able to win this trophy.
 
Even my dad said, Maybe youre not supposed to win the U.S. Open, Lopez said that day in 1997. And I told him, No, dad, Im going to win this someday.
 
Related Links:
  • Full Coverage of the U.S. Women's Open
  • U.S. Women's Open Leaderboard