You could argue at length about who is the best female golfer ever, but the debate would be much shorter if the topic switched to who was most popular with the galleries.
Nancy Lopez was the winner everyone adored.
"She loved the crowd, they loved her, and she fed off of that," former LPGA pro Hollis Stacy says. "She just had a beautiful smile on the golf course. Even for those of us within the ropes, Nancy's smile always eased the tension."
Of course, Lopez's charisma was just one piece of the package. "She would smile, then stab you in the heart by making a putt," Stacy says. "At her best, Nancy putted like the cup was the size of a house."
Lopez was a golf prodigy whose father, Domingo, introduced her to the game when she was 8 years old. Within a few years, she was winning state competitions in New Mexico, where she grew up, and as a high school senior she finished tied for second at the 1975 U.S. Women's Open. By 1977, after playing two years at the University of Tulsa, she had turned pro.
What came next was one of the most magical seasons in women's golf history. In 1978, her first full season on the LPGA Tour, Lopez won nine tournaments, including five in a row, on her way to capturing Rookie of the Year and Player of the Year honors, along with the Vare Trophy for lowest scoring average -- making her the only woman ever to accomplish that triple. As a testament to her crossover appeal, she graced the cover of Sports Illustrated in July of that year, flashing her trademark smile.
Lopez married baseball player Ray Knight in 1982, and the following year she gave birth to the first of their three daughters. Although her commitment to raising her children took Lopez away from competition for stretches during her peak years, she would eventually collect 48 career victories and earn a spot in the World Golf Hall of Fame. She won the LPGA Championship three times, led the tour in prize money three times and was Player of the Year four times.
The only thing missing on her resume: She never won the U.S. Women's Open, finishing second four times (1975, '77, '89 and '97). It was Stacy who narrowly defeated Lopez in 1977, taking the Open title by two strokes after the zipper on Lopez's shorts broke in the final round, distracting the 20-year-old all afternoon. "She still reminds me about that zipper every time I see her," Stacy says, chuckling. "I guess winning the Open just wasn't meant to be for her."
That's how it felt 20 years later, when Lopez fell by one stroke to Alison Nicholas at the 1997 Open. Publicly, Lopez was as gracious as always, but she later acknowledged that she "cried for months" after the loss. She also said, in true Lopez fashion, that if she had ever won the Open, she would have brought a sleeping bag to the 18th green and camped there all night: "Maybe some of the fans would have stayed with me."
The fans have indeed stuck around. Lopez, now 55, has been retired since 2008, but her Nancy Lopez Golf line of women's apparel and equipment is still popular. And as Stacy points out, the love affair between Lopez and the galleries was "truly a great thing for the LPGA."
Lopez once said, "The fans do make you feel better. I've told players, 'Use it to your advantage.'"
No one could do that quite like Nancy.
-- Mechelle Voepel, ESPN.com