Since the oil companies began to move away and the government shut down Walker Air Force Base a few years ago, there has been relatively little to get excited about in Roswell, N. Mex. The town sits in the high dry plains, a pleasant place that because of its climate is now beginning to attract retired people from other parts of the country. Anglo-Americans and Mexican-Americans form the basic population, their lives intertwined, as they have been ever since the Anglos moved into the Southwest. Sixteen-year-old Nancy Lopez of East First Street is Mexican-American, and although she may be the best young girl golfer in the country, in Roswell East First Street is a long way in spirit from the country club.
By sheer force of her achievements Nancy has become an institution in Roswell, a kind of junior natural wonder. She won the New Mexico Women's Amateur Golf Championship three straight years, starting when she was 12, and a lot of other things besides. Last August she went to Jefferson City, Mo., to try for the big time, the USGA Girls" Junior Championship. Nancy came away with her first national title and a ranking as the No. 1 girl golfer in the country. She did it the hard way. One hole down at match play with two holes to go, she sank a 25-foot putt on the 17th to draw even and a six-foot downhiller at the 18th to win and become the youngest champion since Hollis Stacy in 1969. This week in Bernardsville, N.J. she is trying for a second junior title, and after that she will go after the bigger prize, the Women's Amateur in Montclair.
She got ready for both those events back in Roswell, basking in a warm celebrity glow. As she tees up on the first hole of the long flat course at New Mexico Military Institute, people honk cheerily at her from passing cars. Senior citizens cross fairways to shake her hand and ask how folks treated her when she was playing in Wisconsin or Illinois or Missouri, or wherever it was they used to live. High school kids wave to her and she honks back as she "drags Main" in her bright yellow Ford, a gift from her father.
Domingo Lopez has learned a lot of tricks for keeping a young girl's interest and competitive drive alive in the eight years since Nancy began trailing him around Roswell's nine-hole municipal course. The idea of rewards is one of them. "First I gave her one dollar for A's at school. Then I gave her one dollar for birdies," he says. Now, many birdies and quite a few A's later, the ante has been raised to things like a family trip to Los Angeles for the LA Open last January or mag rims for the wheels of her car. Lopez is a small, wiry sunbaked man of 58 known widely as "Sunday," an Anglo nickname he picked up playing city league baseball in his youth. He has worked hard all his life, first tenant-farming cotton just outside town and, since World War II, as a body and fender man. On his own he built the East Second Body Shop, at first large enough for only two cars but grown now to take 10 or 12. Working from six a.m. to five p.m. each day, he makes a comfortable living, owns a two-bedroom house a block from his shop, drives an 18-year-old pickup and an 11-year-old Cadillac and, through very careful planning and severe self-denial, has just enough left over to finance his daughter in the amateur style to which the USGA is accustomed. Nancy's car, he hastens to explain, was partly a reward for good grades, hard work and competitive success. But it was also a great boon to his wife Marina, who for years had spent her days shuttling Nancy back and forth to golf courses.
USGA rules allow junior players to accept financial help toward transportation, housing and caddie fees for junior tournaments from sources outside their immediate families. But until early this summer nobody in Roswell had ever thought to offer Nancy any aid. (The Roswell Country Club to this day has not made her a member, although it has declared that her family can join—for a fee that is obviously well beyond Domingo Lopez' means.) An organization called the Roswell Seniors and Retirees, which includes many newcomers with quite a few golfers among them, finally broke the ice. When Nancy returned from Jefferson City with the junior title it gave a banquet for her and invited everybody who was anybody in Roswell's business community. The Seniors and Retirees used the occasion to let it be known that it was high time Roswell demonstrated a little gratitude. The Chamber of Commerce responded with $500 toward her expenses at the Women's Western Golf Association junior championships in Wisconsin this summer. Nancy won that event and reached the semifinals of the Western Women's Amateur as well. She was able to return $100 because an interested family named Lindell from Win-field, Iowa not only housed her between the tournaments but drove her all the way home to New Mexico.
"I'd like to work, to have my own money," says Nancy, who understands about money pressures. "Sometimes I feel guilty. I think I could get a pretty good job. I can type 65 words a minute and I could learn bookkeeping from my mother. She does it for my dad. But my dad doesn't want me to work. He thinks it would tire me and take too much time away from my golf." There are other things Nancy would like to do, too, that are proscribed, such as swimming—"it uses the wrong muscles and softens my calluses"—and tennis—"I played it some, but once I sprained my ankle, and it scared me. My dad said then I should stick to golf." But there are compensations, too.
"My husband tells me, 'Don't let her do the dishes. It will hurt her hands,' " says Marina Lopez, chuckling. "She gets away with a lot."
Last January, as a sophomore, Nancy was allowed to join the Goddard High School boys' varsity golf team. Each Friday through the winter, in every kind of weather, the team traveled by car to such places as Clovis and Hobbs and Andrews and finally to the state championships in Las Cruces. The Goddard Rockets beat Albuquerque High by four shots for the team title and Nancy placed fifth in individual scoring with 77-82=159. The winner shot 150.
"When we were playing in March in Clovis," said Nancy, shivering in July heat at the memory, "our hands were freezing before we even teed off, and by the ninth hole it had started to rain and we wanted to quit. By the 14th it had begun to hail and we went in, but the pro told us to go on back out. I told myself, 'I have to be a boy now. If I quit, the coach might not let me back on the team.' So I finished with a 41 on the back and then went inside, washed my pants to get the mud off—they were soaked anyway—and just put them back on ready to go home. Then they told us we had to go back out for a playoff. We won on the first hole, thank goodness."
Out of a deep-seated mistrust of motels, Marina Lopez—a short, plump realist who carries an umbrella as a sunshade on the golf course—chaperones her daughter to tournaments where there is no private housing. Domingo stays home in Roswell, hammering out dented fenders and thinking about Nancy's future.
"I want her to be happy if she wins and happy if she loses. I want her to be able to do whatever she decides to do. Maybe she will go to college if she can get a scholarship. But I am saving money now so if she goes on tour she can have three years to win. Some of them, you know, take a long time to get started. Right now I have maybe enough for the first year. I used to be a baseball player, a pitcher, and I believe I was good enough to get to the major leagues. But I never had a chance. That is why I want to give Nancy a chance."
Although he had only three years of school, Domingo Lopez is an instinctive teacher and the only golf instructor Nancy has ever had. "He knows my game better than anybody," says Nancy. "He can tell me what to do even though he can't do it himself." But more and more now Nancy makes her own adjustments. Just this summer she has worked a loop out of her swing, slowed her backswing and shortened her putting stroke. When a friend sent her a snapshot he had taken at a tournament she was surprised to see that she was up on her right toe at the top of her backswing. Now her heel is firmly planted. And, most important, she has slightly altered the unorthodox grip that was causing her to slice low and costing her distance off the tee. Frank Hannigan of the USGA, who watched her play for the first time last summer at the Juniors, said, "Purists would say she needs a radical change, and it's not too late for that. But I think possibly her strength allows her to overpower her bad grip. It will be interesting to see how she develops. She has a superb touch on and around the greens and, wow, what a great instinct to win! She made all the important putts in match play."
When she was 10 and had just competed in her first Roswell Ladies' Golf Tournament, Nancy told her father she wanted to be as good a golfer as Mrs. Jo Boswell, who was Roswell's leading female player at that time and had won the tournament. Her father told her, "Yes, you be as good as Mrs. Boswell—and maybe a little bit better." The next year, at 11, Nancy was runner-up to Jo Boswell by three strokes and at 12 she won. That was also the summer she won her first state women's championship. In those days her fingernails were chewed down to the quick and she threw up so often before her matches that she made it a habit to get dressed in a bathroom. Experience and accumulated success have given her poise and a pleasantly confident manner that is betrayed only in the nervous jiggling of her legs. The idea that she might have limits hasn't occurred to her.
"Development is unpredictable in junior girls," says Hannigan, who has seen a lot of them come and go. "They mature quicker than boys. I think a lot of girls at 15 are playing the best golf they'll ever play. They find out, thank God, that there are other things in life than golf."
But for a Mexican-American girl in southern New Mexico, even one who can sink putts under pressure, the alternatives—the "other things in life"—are limited, and the chances are that before long Nancy Lopez will be taking her best shot and trying to make her living on the LPGA tour. And Domingo Lopez back home in Roswell will be hammering and hoping.
NANCY LOPEZ, NATURAL WONDER