Par for a mother Golf: As with many women, Nancy Lopez feels the strain of combining a career with raising children. But she's determined to be a winner in both.

May 10, 1998|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

Chris Evert retired from tennis at age 35 to start a family. Judy Rankin was the first mother on the LPGA Tour to win tournaments, but her double life ended when her injuries and her son's Little League games forced her to retire at 38.

At 41, Nancy Lopez is the mother of three daughters, the stepmother to husband Ray Knight's son and a player trying doggedly to advance her legacy as perhaps the greatest woman golfer in modern history.

The conflicts that have tugged at her since her first child was born nearly 15 years ago are still there.

As she approaches the anniversary of her greatest achievement in a Hall of Fame career -- a five-tournament victory streak as a rookie that began in Baltimore 20 years ago this week -- Lopez finds herself at yet another crossroads. It is one that either will bring her back near the top of the rankings or push her into full-time motherhood.

After rejuvenating her career a year ago with her first victory since 1993 and a near-victory in the U.S. Women's Open, Lopez has finished in the top 10 only once this year. Before this weekend's Sara Lee Classic, she had missed the cut in two straight tournaments for the first time since 1994. But she came out of her funk and is two shots off the lead after yesterday's second round.

Asked if it is easier being Nancy Lopez now than it was in 1978, she said, "Yes, it's because I'm kind of the underdog. No, it's not because I'm really close [to playing well] but I can't quite get it and that's really hard for me."

The balancing act Lopez performs in the dual roles of golfer and mother has been remarkable. Of her 48 victories, 21 came after she and Knight started their family, including two while pregnant.

She has been ranked in the top 10 in each of the years following childbirth and was first in earnings less than two years after Ashley, her eldest, was born in 1983.

"Her whole life is complete," said Colleen Walker, who had her first child 18 months ago at age 39 and one of her best seasons last year, winning twice. "She has a very good family. She has the support of the family. She has kept the family intact and her golf game intact at the same time. Mentally, she's extremely focused. I know how tough it is with one, and she has three."

Lopez has made sacrifices both in her career and in what she kiddingly calls "my other life." Beginning in 1983, the year she was pregnant with Ashley, Lopez has averaged a little more than 19 tournaments a year, about eight fewer than fellow Hall of Famer Betsy King, the LPGA's all-time money winner with nearly million. (Lopez is fifth in earnings at just more than $5 million.)

"When I thought about having my first child, I figured that he or she would travel with me for a few years and, when they were ready to go to school, then that would be it for me out here," said Lopez, who joined the tour at age 20 after her sophomore year at the University of Tulsa.

"But as you experience life, you realize that you can still do your job as a golfer and as a mother."

It hasn't been easy. Lopez has gone through more nannies (seven, not including a short stint by her sister) than caddies (four, not including a shorter stint by her husband) since becoming a mother. She has watched her share of dance recitals on videotape and settled her share of sibling disagreements by telephone.

"It's really a constant pulling," she said last week in Nashville. "I love to play golf, but I know my game has suffered at times because I don't get out to practice a lot when I'm home.

"It's a lot easier to be a mom than it is for me to be a professional golfer, but it's also a lot more stressful. When I'm at home, I don't miss the golf. But when I'm out here, I miss the kids tremendously."

Her daughters -- 14-year-old Ashley, 11-year-old Erinn and 6-year-old Torri -- planned to join her this weekend and celebrate Mother's Day with her today.

Most years, the LPGA Championship has concluded on Mother's Day and Lopez has spent the day alone with her game and her memories of her mother, Marina, who died in 1977.

"I think about her a lot," Lopez said, her voice cracking and tears welling in her eyes. "I know a couple of years ago, the kids spent the weekend with me, but had to leave on Sunday [Mother's Day] and that was kind of hard on me."

In an attempt to gain points for selection to this year's Solheim Cup team, Lopez is in the midst of nearly six straight weeks on the road. She got home to Albany, Ga., for a couple of nights after missing the cut in Atlanta two weeks ago. Her kids came to visit her last week in Daytona Beach, Fla.

They spent time together after she missed the cut there, too, but Lopez also worked several hours on the practice range.

"She hit three buckets of balls after her round Friday, and six buckets of balls on Saturday," said Tommy Thorpe, her caddie since 1989. "She knows now that she's got to practice. I don't know any other pro who practiced less than she did. If she was home, she'd practice four times in three weeks."

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