Play Happy


Is ones path to greatness usually paved with smooth, clear lines of access, training and success, or are the truly great ones a product of overcoming the obstacles in their path? Obstacles that would otherwise stop all others?

Such was the mental posture with which I approached the story of Nancy Lopez and her seemingly meteoric ascent to fame. I will admit that I was expecting to be regaled with stories of a childhood full of privilege and luxury. Of lazy summer days spent by the country club pool and afternoons strolling the manicured lawn called a golf course, where some latent golfing talent would reveal itself and define a golfing prodigy. Surely, it would have to be a person of deep golf heritage and a life literally growing up around the game to create so massive a star at such a young age?

In the story of Nancy Lopez and the vision and impact of her father, Domingo, I found my preconceived notions dispelled.
Nancy Lopez was not born into a life of privilege. She was born in 1957 to a Mexican-American family of modest means. Lopez learned to golf from her father, Domingo. Domingo owned a local auto repair shop in Roswell, N.M., the town where Nancy grew up. He believed in his heart that his daughter would one day be famous and he and his wife, Maria, would scrimp and scrap together whatever they could to help their daughter succeed. He gave Nancy her first golf club, a sawed off fairway wood, when she was eight years old. The family could not afford golf lessons so Domingo would be her teacher.

Experts will assert that Nancy Lopez has an unorthodox swing and maybe they are right. Then again, didnt they say the same thing about Arnold Palmer and Lee Trevino?

Perhaps Domingo did not give his daughter a picture-perfect golf swing but he did give her a few gems that would prove to be like a suit of amour in the heat of competition. Domingo taught his daughter to play happy.

Today, it is common to see the frown etched faces of teenage golfers who wear a scowl like a badge of honor. At what point was it determined that if you do not spend half your day on the golf course lamenting your inadequacies, then you just were not trying hard enough? Are these the virtues we are instilling in our children? Not to Domingo. He taught Nancy that attitude was as important as technical performance. That golf is a thinking-persons game and that the eventual winner is likely not the one with superior technical ability, but the one who has the mental fortitude to not tighten up under pressure. This is a powerful lesson whether one is putting for the win or trying to keep ones sanity in rush-hour traffic, with a kid to pick up at soccer practice, or a trying to fit a weeks worth of work into a 24 hour day.
Domingo also gave his daughter the right to believe in herself. He was so convinced of her abilities that he allowed his convictions and confidence to permeate his daughters psyche. I found this to be another powerfully simple concept; to celebrate your childs unique strengths and gifts rather than constantly harping on their weaknesses.
Nancy Lopez soon began to deliver on the promise of her talents. At 12 years-old, she won the New Mexico Amateur. As a teen, she won the U.S.G.A. Junior Girls Championship twice. At 18, she remarkably finished second in the U.S. Open. She led her high school golf team to two state titles. It serves to be mentioned that her high school golf team was otherwise comprised of all men. She went on to earn a college scholarship at Tulsa (the first women to receive a full scholarship there) and in her freshmen year she was an All-American and Tulsas Female Athlete of the Year. Lopez would turn professional at the end of her sophomore year, in 1977.

He was always so positive, so encouraging. He was the one who made me believe I could do anything out there. He worked hard to give me all he could. I respected him so much for that. He wanted to give me a better life. -- Nancy Lopez about her father

Lopez had a strong start to her first professional season, but later that year, she would lose her beloved mother after complications from surgery. As can be expected, the loss of her mother had a profound effect on such a young women. But, with the heart of a champion, she would channel her emotions with laser-like focus. She has called this time the turning point of her life and that which made her more mentally strong. In 26 tournaments in 1978, Lopez won nine times, including a stretch of five straight victories and a six stroke win at the LPGA Championship. The next year, she would repeat as the Player-of-the-Year, in addition to another eight championships. Lopez would continue her solid play until she had to cut back on her playing time in 1983 due to the birth of her first child. She would end up with three girls, and in 2002, she announced that she would no longer be maintaining a full playing schedule in order to spend more time with her family.

Lopez, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame at only 30 years-old, would end her full-time playing career having won a total of 48 championships (she would win her last tournament in 1997), and in 2000, she was recognized as one of the LPGAs Top 50 Players of All Time. Through all of this success, she continues to play happy, infecting everyone with her warmth and charisma.
Life has a way of making us feel overwhelmed, but in the story of Nancy Lopezs life I found inspiration from a father that chose to empower his daughter with possibilities.

Copyright 2006 Matthew E. Adams Fairways of Life
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Editor's Note: Matt Adams is a reporter for The Golf Channel, equipment expert, twenty-year veteran of the golf industry and speaker. In addition, he is a New York Times and USAToday bestselling coauthor of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series and author of Fairways of Life, Wisdom and Inspiration from the Greatest Game. Fairways of Life uses golf as a metaphor for life and features a Foreword by Arnold Palmer. To sign up for Adams Golf Wisdom email quotes or for more information, go to