Turning points don’t always come as clutch shots that lead to victory.
The direction of a player’s career can turn in an experience that isn’t even about shot making.
That’s the way it was for Nancy Lopez.
Our “Turning Points” series turns today to Lopez, Lorena Ochoa and Meg Mallon, three players whose careers weren’t just distinguished by the championships they won, but by the generosity of their spirits.
Call this the angels edition of the series.
You had to go back to Babe Zaharias and the birth of the LPGA in 1950 to find an LPGA star whose charisma created a bigger buzz than Lopez did upon arriving in the ‘70s.
She was a sensation almost right from her professional start, becoming the first player to win LPGA Rookie of the Year and Player of the Year honors in the same season. She won five starts in a row in 1978, nine events overall. Her five consecutive victories were most in tour history, with Annika Sorenstam later matching the mark over the 2004-05 seasons.
Lopez went on to win 48 LPGA titles overall, three of them majors, but she made her mark beyond the record book. She was the LPGA’s version of Arnold Palmer, a dynamic personality who was able to draw new fans to the tour, with her electric smile and appeal. And like Palmer, she loved her fans as much as they loved her.
The Shot: Well, it wasn’t a golf shot Lopez remembers as her big turning point. It was a shot to the gut, figuratively speaking. It was a slap in the face. When Lopez was 15 years old, her father took her to the Glen Campbell Open – later the Los Angeles Open -- to see her favorite PGA Tour player. She remembers how excited she was waiting outside the clubhouse to get his autograph, but the experience didn’t turn out as she hoped. Still, it was life altering.
In Her Words: “I couldn’t wait to meet my hero, but he just wasn’t who I thought he was. I didn’t get my autograph because he was just so rude and mean. He said he didn’t have time for this. I was so disappointed in the way he spoke to us. I remember feeling like I was shrinking into this little bitty person. I’ve never told anyone who that player was, but I think the experience molded me. I think it’s why I went on to sign so many autographs. I think it really changed me as a person.
“I enjoy people, but there are times after bad rounds on tour when you’re really aggravated with yourself. I’d think, 'I don’t want to go sign autographs.’ But I would go, and then I would hear things like, 'Hang in there, Nancy!’ and 'You’ll do it tomorrow!’ and 'We love you, Nancy!’ By the time you got through doing that, you felt pretty good, because of all the nice things people say.
“Back then, the LPGA asked me to do things all the time, and sometimes I’d be tempted to say, 'Can’t you ask someone else this time?’ But I would do it. I knew why it was important. I knew it helped the tour grow. I used to watch Arnold Palmer. He knew it was his responsibility. He was always such a gentleman to all the people who would come up to him. He was able to make them feel like they were the most important people in the world to him at that moment. I realized how important that was because of the bad experience I had as a 15-year-old.”
As a tour star, Ochoa was every bit as patient, generous and approachable as Lopez was.
She was the first Mexican player to ascend to No. 1 in the men’s or women’s world rankings. She reigned atop the Rolex Women’s World Rankings for 158 consecutive weeks, longer than any other woman in tour history. She went out of her way to connect with so many fans. She also made special connections to golf course grounds crews, with so many of them of Mexican heritage. She made trips to the maintenance sheds of just about every tournament she played, to thank the workers for their efforts and the conditions of the course. Sometimes, she cooked breakfast for them, or eat lunch with them. She didn’t do it for the media attention, but media caught on and told the story.
Ochoa was a two-time NCAA Player of the Year at the University of Arizona, but she didn’t take the LPGA by storm. She grew into the confidence that would make her so dominant, that would propel her to win 27 titles, 24 of them in a four-year run (2006-2009) before she retired at 28 to start a family.
Ochoa says her turning point came winning the LPGA Takefuji Classic in Las Vegas in 2006, her fourth tour title.
The Shot: Ochoa couldn’t put her finger on a single shot helping her go on to win in Las Vegas, but that’s why she believes that victory was such a turning point. She got a giant shot of confidence feeling in such control while winning so comfortably. The Takefuji title came in her very next start after losing a chance to win her first major, a playoff loss to Karrie Webb at the Kraft Nabisco. Ochoa followed that disappointment by opening with a 63 in Las Vegas. She won in wire-to-wire fashion. She remembers how being so comfortable from start to finish elevated her sense of what she could achieve. It was where she began to overtake Annika Sorenstam as the game’s most dominant player. Ochoa won six times that year, ending Sorenstam’s run of five consecutive Rolex Player-of-the-Year awards. It was the first of Ochoa’s four consecutive Player-of-the-Year awards.
In Her Words: “I remember feeling really, really consistent, feeling strong and making a lot of birdies. That tournament marked the beginning of thinking I was at a level where I was ready to win not only that week, but in many weeks to come. It really changed my career, in the way I looked at things.”
With a gentle disposition belying her competitive fire, Mallon enjoyed being as well liked as she was revered on tour.
If there was any doubt whether she was tough enough to win the game’s biggest events, it was dispelled at the LPGA Championship in 1991, where Mallon won her first major at Bethesda Country Club in Maryland. She teed it up that week as a fifth-year pro with just a single LPGA title to her name, but she proved something prevailing in a pressure-packed finish against two of the game’s most proven winners. She stepped to the tee at the 72nd hole tied for the lead with Pat Bradley and Ayako Okamoto. Bradley had 27 LPGA titles to her name at the time, six of them major championships, while Okamoto was a 16-time LPGA winner.
The Shot: Over the most important tee shot of her life to that date, Mallon remembers a car horn going off in her back swing. She flinched and slapped her drive out about 30 yards behind Bradley and Okamoto. It left her first to hit her approach. Mallon found herself on an upslope, short of the plateau that her fellow competitors both reached. She needed a 5-iron to reach the green, which was three to four clubs more than Bradley and Okamoto needed. Still, Mallon took dead aim at a flagstick tucked on the left side of the green, and she carved her approach to 8 feet. After watching Bradley and Okamoto each miss birdie attempts from between 20 and 30 feet, Mallon holed the winning putt.
In Her Words: “We always had huge crowds at Bethesda, and there was always such a great atmosphere. It’s the dream you have, the last putt to win a major, and I made it. The reaction was great. It gives you confidence like you can’t believe.”
Mallon used that confidence to win the U.S. Women’s Open two weeks later and then fashion a World-Golf-Hall-of-Fame career with 18 LPGA titles overall, four of them majors.