After 25 years on tour, Nancy Lopez will retire after this season.
By BRIAN RICHESSON
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
They follow her everywhere. They ask for her autograph, and she pleasantly obliges.
Sometimes she even seeks them out by making eye contact. She smiles and talks with them as if she is part of their family.
In a way, she is. She always will be.
Nancy Lopez's 25 years on the LPGA Tour have seemed like one giant family reunion with her fans. And now she has come to say her goodbyes, and they have come to do the same and express their love.
Take one of Lopez's stops earlier this season, for example, at the Wegmans Rochester LPGA tournament in Rochester, N.Y.
From the moment she stepped off the driving range, to the moment she stepped into the first tee box for her practice round, Lopez was followed by fans.
As Lopez walked by the clubhouse, one older woman began a verbal exchange with the golfing great that revealed the special meaning of this relationship.
Fan: "Thank you, Nancy Lopez."
Lopez: "Thank you."
Fan: "It's been a joy. You are a joy."
Lopez: "Thank you."
It was simple, yet real. It was a healthy admiration of a professional athlete, who reciprocated the feelings.
"It's been real nice," said Lopez, 45. "The people have been super."
They always have been to Lopez, but this year has been extra special.
Lopez announced before the season that this would be her last full year on tour. She wanted to make it known in advance for her fans so they could all enjoy one final moment together with her.
"Sometimes athletes kind of disappear," Lopez said. "I didn't want to do that. I wanted to say good-bye to everybody."
Signs to slow down
Lopez admitted the outpouring of emotions has been overwhelming at times, having so many fans to greet.
"I stay busy," she said, "but that's really why I wanted to do it, to really bring people out."
Lopez's decision was not easy, but there were a number of signs that told her to pull back, slow down and reassess her priorities.
"I was missing too much of my kids' lives and really just physically not feeling good every day when I get up," Lopez said.
Lopez and her husband, former baseball great Ray Knight, have three children -- Ashley (18), Erinn (16) and Torri (10). As they grow older, Lopez wants to be there for them.
"You know it's coming," said fan Mary Clouser of Rochester during Wegmans tournament week. "I can understand. She has three young daughters, and her game isn't what it was in her prime because she's older."
Plus, the physical demand of 25 years on tour has taken its toll on Lopez's body. She underwent knee surgery in 1999 and was limited to 13 events. She played in 11 each of the past two years as her knee problems lingered.
"It just gets harder and harder," Lopez said.
It also has gotten harder for Lopez to compete at a high level, and that bothered her. She was 157th on the money list last year and 126th the year before. She has yet to make a cut this season.
But the fans still love her. They continue to come back, no matter how her game has fared in recent years.
"She's the No. 1 favorite of fans in Rochester because she does this -- stopping for everybody," Clouser said.
Even other LPGA golfers notice.
"She has this personality, she has this magnet where everybody is just attracted to her," said Dorothy Delasin, two-time defending champion of the Giant Eagle LPGA Classic.
A native of Torrance, Calif., who now resides in Albany, Ga., Lopez dominated at the outset of her career.
In her first two full years on tour, 1978-79, she combined to win 17 tournaments, and finished first on the money list each year.
Lopez won 25 tournaments in the 1980s, qualifying for entry into the LPGA Tour Hall of Fame in 1987.
Her success continued in the early 1990s, which included a first-place finish at the Youngstown-Warren LPGA Classic in 1993.
Passing on the role
Lopez's last victory, the 48th of her career, came in 1997 at the Chick-fil-A Charity Championship.
"Time has just flown by so quickly," Lopez said. "It doesn't seem like it's been 25 years, but I've had a great time."
So have the fans, who followed Lopez during a practice round in Rochester, admiring her class and lasting talent.
After Lopez laced a drive down the middle of the fairway, one man said, "Still quite a player, isn't she?"
As Lopez prepares to make her exit from golf, the future success of the LPGA Tour will be dependent on someone else stepping forward and assuming the role Lopez has held for the past quarter century.
"Hopefully that will be me," said Delasin, 21. "I'm going to work my hardest to follow in her footsteps. I think by hard work and improving myself as a person and as a professional golfer, then I can have those same characteristics."
Lopez recognizes the high level of talent on today's LPGA Tour. Those golfers, she said, need to develop a strong relationship with fans.
"They just have to give more of themselves and be a little bit more of an open book," Lopez told a press conference in Rochester. "I've always enjoyed that part of my career, being an open book.
"It's been nice to always know that people could come up to me and talk to me," she said. "All you have to do is make eye contact and say hi to them."