Chuasiriporn plays to past Golf: The Timonium resident's showing in the U.S. Women's Open draws comparisons to that of Nancy Lopez 21 years ago at Hazeltine.

July 08, 1998|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

KOHLER, Wis. -- Jenny Chuasiriporn's performance at the 53rd U.S. Women's Open drew more than just raves for the 20-year-old golfer from Timonium. It brought comparisons with and flashbacks to what LPGA Hall of Famer Nancy Lopez did in the Open 21 years ago.

It was in the 1977 Open that Lopez, then a 20-year-old amateur, finished second to Hollis Stacy at Hazeltine outside Minneapolis. It was there that a country of golf fans was introduced to a player who seemed to have a smile permanently attached to her face.

"Her charisma reminds me of Nancy," former USGA president Judy Bell said here Monday, moments after Chuasiriporn had lost to Se Ri Pak of Korea on the second extra hole of the tournament's first sudden-death playoff.

There are similarities in their family backgrounds too.

Lopez's father, Domingo, had come from Mexico to Roswell, New Mexico, where he worked as an auto mechanic. Chuasiriporn's father, Paul, had come from Thailand to Baltimore, where he and his wife, Edy, opened the Bangkok Place restaurant on York Road.

Domingo Lopez caddied for his daughter, then a sophomore at the University of Tulsa, at Hazeltine. Jenny Chuasiriporn's older brother, Joey, caddied for the Duke University senior at Blackwolf Run as well as last year at Pumpkin Ridge near Portland, Ore., where she was low amateur.

Lopez turned pro shortly after finishing two shots behind Stacy. She went on to become the LPGA Tour's most dominant player as a rookie, winning nine tournaments. Included in that run were a record five straight wins, among them one in the Greater Baltimore Golf Classic at Pine Ridge in Timonium, not far from where Chuasiriporn grew up.

Chuasiriporn plans to get her degree next year from Duke, and finish her All-America career in the NCAA championships next spring. While Lopez played a handful of LPGA events after the Open, and earned a little more than $23,000 that year, Chuasiriporn will forgo prize money until she turns pro next summer.

"I will probably consider it after I graduate," Chuasiriporn said of her pro career. "I haven't really thought about what path I am going to do, how I'm going to turn pro. It looks as though I will probably in a year's time give it a chance."

Any thought Chuasiriporn had of quietly going back for her senior year in Durham, N.C., ended in this bucolic Wisconsin village midway between Milwaukee and Green Bay.

"My life just changed in one week," said Chuasiriporn, who'll turn 21 on Friday. "I guess we'll see what happens, but when I get back to school, everyone will know who I am."

Though she fell short in her quest to become the first amateur in 31 years to win the Open, Chuasiriporn has likely displaced basketball player Steve Wojciechowski as the most famous Blue Devils athlete born and raised in the Baltimore area.

More importantly, she has also given a much-needed boost to the publicity-starved, foreign player-dominated LPGA. Her performance in the Open also gave the sport someone to root for, similar to what fellow amateur Matt Kuchar had done at this year's Masters and men's U.S. Open.

"Matt led the way, and Jenny has sort of followed," said Joey Chuasiriporn, aware of Kuchar's ACC affiliation as a Georgia Tech junior.

As Kuchar has been compared with a young Arnold Palmer in the way he acknowledges the crowd, Chuasiriporn's open-book personality is reminiscent of a young Lopez. Chuasiriporn is aware of the comparisons with Lopez.

Those similarities extend in the way Chuasiriporn plays, and how she reacts to both good shots and bad. It was not just her flair for the dramatic -- who will ever forget the 45-foot putt to force the playoff and her look of total shock that followed? -- but her grace in dealing with the defeat.

Asked if she was aware of the comparisons and whether Lopez was one of her idols, Chuasiriporn displayed the kind of smile that someday will help earn her millions.

"If anyone, Nancy has been my greatest idol," Chuasiriporn said. "That is such an honor to be compared to her. But it is almost too much. It is nice to know how I am progressing and how I am developing "

Chuasiriporn was looking forward to her trip to Minneapolis this week with her Curtis Cup teammates and the three days of practice for next month's competition there against a team of amateurs from Ireland and England.

Would there be a lot of pressure?

Chuasiriporn laughed.

"I think it's going to be relaxing," she said, "just to play for fun."

Pub Date: 7/08/98

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