Golf: Last chance for women's Palmer

Andy Farrell says that if golf is kind Nancy Lopez will win the US Open this week
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The Independent Online
A WEEK after Lee Janzen's stirring, or agonising (depending on your point of view), eclipse of Payne Stewart at the US Open, Colin Montgomerie and Tom Lehman have been offering soundbites about how their stars will one day shine at the championship they both cherish but find so elusive. They should worry. Sam Snead was a runner-up four times and never did succeed in winning title.

Nancy Lopez knows the same, sickening feeling. A year ago at Pumpkin Ridge, there was not a dry eye in the clubhouse, in the grandstands or even inside the ropes as Lopez was beaten into second place for the fourth time in the US Women's Open. Lopez, now 41, will be back again this week at Blackwolf Run in Kohler, Wisconsin, still believing that she can claim a title which she will be chasing for the 22nd time.

As rightly acclaimed as it has been, Alison Nicholas's victory 12 months ago, the fifth by a European in the last 11 tournaments, needs to be placed in its context to be fully appreciated. The Arnold Palmer of the women's game, Lopez, with her charisma and natural charm, helped build a professional sport which could offer Nicholas, a Yorkshirewoman brought up in Gibraltar, a fine living. As a 22-handicapper, Nicholas received an instruction book from her club penned by Lopez.

It was Lopez who had insisted Nicholas should persevere in America when her early experiences there made her wish to return home. Apart from a few friends, Nicholas had to overcome the fact that everyone at Pumpkin Ridge, and the millions watching the live telecast in America, wanted Lopez to win. At the last, Lopez had a 15- footer to get into a play-off but it was always on the low side of the hole. That's when the moisture level rose.

"I had tears in my eyes because I knew I didn't have a chance any more," Lopez said. Over the past year, Lopez has watched the video countless times again and the tears have returned each time. "I don't feel snakebitten," she said.

"Even my dad after last year said, 'Maybe you're not supposed to win the US Open.' I told him, 'No, dad, I'm going to win this someday.' I can't say, 'If I don't...' because I don't want any negatives. I just want to think I will win the Open."

Becoming the first player in the history of the championship to score four rounds in the 60s was at least something to show for her efforts last year, but the runner's-up medal only matched those of 1975, when she was an 18- year-old amateur, 1977 and 1989.

This is an anomaly in the career of someone for whom winning has come as easily as her winning smile. Her rookie season of 1978 brought nine victories, including five in a row, and the total to date is 48. Up to and including 1993, she has won at least once every year bar 1986.

Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1987, Lopez was earlier this year presented with the Bob Jones Award, the highest honour bestowed by the US Golf Association. "Nancy Lopez exemplifies the highest ideals of sportsmanship, respect for the game and the rules, generosity, and grace, and exemplifies these compelling qualities in the actual arena where the stakes are highest and the pressure is great," one letter of nomination said.

Corinthian ideals sit well with a person who, at home in Albany, Georgia, is known as Nancy Knight, mother of three daughters aged between six and 14 and and wife to Ray Knight, a former baseball star, turned manager, turned TV commentator. Away from what is now a limited schedule on tour, chipping, putting and hitting balls come a long way distant to cooking, cleaning and running the children to school.

"To me, without my family, I'm nothing," she said. "I mean, if I'm strong it's because of them. There is a lot of what I do at home that a lot of women wouldn't do. And there's nothing wrong with it. I feel proud of it. I'm not going to raise my daughters with the idea that their husbands are going to cook and clean. It doesn't mean that we are slaves.

"I know I could win more if I worked harder at my game and played more while I'm at home. I should really go out at least every other day and hit balls and putt. Instead, I probably practise once or twice a week.

"It is hard. Everybody wants a piece of you all of the time, and you are sitting there thinking about your family and how you haven't seen the kids. I feel I need to be about five different people, and I can't be, and that frustrates me."

Recently, a company boasting her name was set up as a division of the Arnold Palmer Golf Co to design equipment for women and juniors. But more importantly, just as she was about to turn 40, Lopez decided she was fed up with her ceremonial role on tour, lost weight, got fit and rededicated herself.

Her first win for four years followed early last year but then came the disappointment of Pumpkin Ridge. Whether that will be ultimately forgotten or will prove the last great chance of the game's greatest player remains to be seen.