Nancy Lopez breaks down and cries each time she calls longtime friend and Wegmans LPGA Championship director Linda Hampton. The most popular women’s golfer of all time can’t help herself. Lopez still can’t believe this is the end of the road for her “adopted hometown” and the LPGA Tour after a marvelous 38-year run.
What makes it even worse is that she won’t be able to make it back to Rochester to say goodbye and thank you to a place that has supported her and women’s golf as no other has. Sadly, Lopez is scheduled to play a Legends tournament the same week the LPGA Championship will be staged at Monroe Golf Club.
“I’m going to miss it,” she says, her voice choking with emotion during a phone interview from her home in Florida. “And I’m heartbroken about that and the fact that a town I love isn’t going to be a part of our tour anymore.”
Lopez, now 57 and a grandmother, understands the reasons why the LPGA Championship will be leaving town for the famed Westchester Country Club, north of New York City, in 2015. In fact, she applauds the move because it will mean a $1.2 million boost in prize money, national television exposure on NBC, a partnership with the PGA of America and the opportunity for the women pros to play on one of golf’s most hallowed grounds. But she also realizes that the LPGA Tour without Rochester is going to be like the iconic rock group Foreigner without lead singer Lou Gramm. The band will play on, but the music won’t be as good.
“I understood completely Rochester’s desire to want to host a major, and they certainly were deserving of that,” she said. “But, in retrospect, I kinda wished it hadn’t happened because once you become a major, you don’t want to take a step back and become a regular tour stop again.”
Of all the great female golfers who played in Rochester through the years, none was more beloved by fans and media people than Lopez. Surely, part of it had to do with her sublime golfing skills and her three victories here, including the 1978 Banker’s Trust Classic, when she recorded a historic fifth consecutive tour win and landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Memories of that victory remain vivid, particularly the emotional third round, when she plunked Rochester dentist Jerry Mesolella on the head with an errant shot on the 10th hole at Locust Hill Country Club.
“It was such a scary moment—I thought I had killed him, because in those days I hit the ball with tremendous velocity and it wound up ricocheting about 50 feet in the air,” Lopez said. “I remember being in tears when I got to him. There was blood everywhere. While he was being attended to, he looked up at me and smiled and said, ‘Nancy, I’m OK.’ After that, I was so upset that I double-bogeyed the hole.”
Lopez regrouped during the final round to win the tournament. Afterward, she dedicated the victory to Mesolella. The two would become friends, getting together each time Lopez returned to Rochester.
Thanks to her game (48 LPGA Tour victories), her welcoming personality and her luminous smile, Nancy would wind up making scores of friends here. The galleries that followed her always were several thousand strong and became known as “Nancy’s Navy,” a takeoff on Arnold Palmer’s “Arnie’s Army.”
“There was just something about Rochester and me that clicked from the git-go,” she said. “They were good to me from the minute I set foot in town and supported me tremendously, both on and off the golf course. They’re such kind-hearted, good, down-to-earth people. They adopted me, and I adopted them.”
The reason for this love affair between golfer and town was no mystery to Hampton.
“The thing about Nancy is that she is so genuine, so welcoming,” she said. “She has a natural way around people that makes them feel good in her presence. Unlike many big-name athletes, she is not an elitist in any way, shape or form.”
Hampton witnessed the depth of Lopez’s affection for this golf-crazed community on numerous occasions. “There was a time when I was driving her on a golf cart after she had lost a close tournament here, and she was extremely down because she felt she had let the people of Rochester down. She knew how deeply they supported her, and she wanted to win so badly so they would be happy. I told her that win, lose or draw, she never let this community down. She always gave an honest effort, on and off the course.”
Lopez currently is at work on her autobiography, tentatively titled “The Course of My Life,” which is scheduled for publication next year. The woman who became known as the Queen of Locust Hill says there will be many Rochester references in the book. (“How could I not include my adopted hometown, including mention of one of my all-time favorite foods—Rochester’s white hots,” she joked.) She’s hoping to come back for a book signing and maybe a golf clinic. She also hopes that the LPGA will make a return visit to the Flower City someday.
In the meantime, Lopez would love to see a Legends tour visit here, so that she, Patty Sheehan, Pat Bradley and JoAnne Carner can renew their rivalries in front of galleries who remember that golden era of women’s golf.
It pains her that she won’t be at Monroe to see the Wegmans LPGA Championship swan song.
“Perhaps it’s better that I’m not there,” she said. “I’m sure I’d be crying a river because I’d be taking it like the loss of a loved one, which in a way it is.”
Award-winning journalist and best-selling author Scott Pitoniak covered his first LPGA event in Rochester in 1985.
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