“I definitely miss hitting great shots and walking down the 18th fairway at places like Locust Hill (Country Club) with the galleries five deep and victory in sight,’’ she was saying recently via phone from her Florida home. “Those were special experiences, special times.”
Indeed, they were. Years may zoom by with the swiftness of a tee shot. Tournaments may up and leave, as the Wegmans LPGA did after calling Rochester home for 38 years. Knees may get replaced. But memories remain. Vivid as yesterday.
Forty years ago, Lopez arrived in the Flower City as a golf phenom on the verge of becoming her generation’s version of Tiger Woods. She would leave town with a record-setting fifth consecutive tour victory that earned her a spot on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine and a permanent place in the hearts of Rochesterians.
“I think it was a perfect storm, really,’’ said Lopez, who will be at Monroe Golf Club next Wednesday to participate in a clinic and luncheon to raise funds for breast cancer research at Wilmot Cancer Institute. (Tickets for the events, which include instruction by longtime local golf pro Jim Mrva, are available at www.event.urmc.edu/wilmotgolf.) “It helped, of course, that I was on a hot-streak, that I was being touted as the new face of golf. I just really appreciated the way Rochester supported me and the other women golfers. The galleries were huge. There were tons of volunteers. Everybody was so friendly, such great hosts. And I was struck by how knowledgeable the fans were. It was and is a special place, and will always be for me.”
She has indelible memories of the emotional third round of what was then known as the Banker’s Trust Classic when she plunked Rochester dentist Jerry Mesolella on the head with an errant shot on the 10th hole.
“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 and smiled and said, ‘Nancy, I’m OK.’ After that, I was so upset that I double-bogeyed the hole.”
She eventually regained her composure and wound up winning the tournament. Afterward, she dedicated the victory to Mesollela. The two became friends and hooked up every time Lopez was in Rochester. That win would be one of three she recorded at Locust Hill, a place where she attracted enormous galleries that became known as “Nancy’s Navy.” Lopez wound up winning 48 tournaments during her career, and would be credited for bringing women’s golf to the masses.
Her welcoming personality and luminous smile helped her connect with people. Unlike many prominent athletes, Lopez was always accessible to fans and media, even after disappointing performances. When she was 15, her father took her to the Glenn Campbell L.A. Open so she could watch her favorite golfer. After the first round, she was waiting with others to get his autograph, but when the player (whom she preferred not to name) emerged from the locker room, he whined that he didn’t have time to sign.
“I was crushed,’’ she said. “When he snubbed me and everyone else, I stepped back and said to myself, ‘If I ever become a professional, I will never do that to anybody.’ I was determined not to let anybody feel the disappointment I felt that day.”
Her father, Domingo Lopez, taught her to never, ever treat golf as a good walk spoiled. “My ‘play happy’ mantra that I use for my Nancy Lopez Golf Adventures comes from my dad,’’ she said. “He didn’t have an easy life, but he was always optimistic. He showed me that positive breeds positive, on the course and in life.”
Lopez devotes much time to charity work and clinics like next week’s at Monroe. Breast cancer has been a near-and-dear cause since the mid-1980s when promising golfer Heather Farr died of the disease at age 28. Lopez was so moved by her friend’s courage that she gave her youngest daughter Torri the middle name Heather.
“It was devastating to lose somebody that young; it really struck close to home,’’ Lopez recalled. “The sad thing is that it never should have happened. She never should have waited to get a second opinion. I think awareness is so important. We have to make sure that people don’t ignore the warning signs. If you feel a lump or see a spot on your skin, you need to get it looked at, and not wait.”
Last fall, after struggling with throbbing knees for decades, Lopez had her right one replaced, and is hopeful, after getting her left one replaced in November, that she’ll be able to play golf again pain-free. “Right now, it’s bone-on-bone; no cartilage,’’ she said. “So, that will be a relief.”
She says she’s enjoying life with new husband, Ed Russell, whom she married last June, and her daughters and grandkids. The traveling she’s doing is less stressful, more fun, than when she was grinding it out on the tour.
“We got to travel the country, but you rarely had time to experience the cities you were in,’’ she said. “It was hotel, golf course. Hotel, golf course. Hotel, golf course.”
The Rochester stop, though, was always the exception. It was a place where she drank in the hospitality and love. The memories she enjoyed here will be re-lived next Wednesday when she returns to her adopted hometown.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.