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Somehow Nancy Lopez-Melton slipped out of the groove, and a lot of folks—but not her rivals—hope she gets back in

Lose a golf ball, take a fresh one from your bag. Break a club, replace it. Make a triple bogey, forget it. But lose a swing—lose a swing and pluck your eyes from their sockets, tear flesh from your wrists, hit your head against a wall and don't think about sleep until the blasted thing comes back. Especially if that little golf swing earned you nearly $500,000 in three years and brought an entire sport right to its knees.

Play has never been held up while everyone went into the woods to search for a golfer's lost swing, but that could happen to women's golf if Nancy Lopez-Melton doesn't find hers soon. That is how important this 23-year-old superstar is to her sport. Donna Caponi Young may be the hottest player on the LPGA tour this year, the wonderfully craggy JoAnne Carner may be playing like the Great Gundy again, and young Amy Alcott may be everybody's girl next door, but none of them can do what Lopez-Melton can: attract free-spending sponsors, huge crowds and the interest of the people who decide what gets on television. This is because no other woman can play the kind of dazzling golf Lopez-Melton can. That is, when she has her swing.

With her swing she has won just about every tournament in her sights from the time she was nine years old. In her first 2½ seasons as a professional, she won 17 of the 50 tournaments she entered—that's batting an astounding .340—and she stayed consistently atop the money-winning list.

Even without her swing—or, rather, with that other swing she has somehow created this year—she hasn't fallen off that badly. She is still fourth on the money list and has won one of 11 tournaments. But along the way she lost her confidence and alerted her competitors—boy, are they happy!—that she can be beaten.

The original unorthodox swing was as much a Lopez trademark as the liquid eyes and bright, beaming smile. From a motionless stance over her teed-up ball, she would first raise her hands and arms a few inches to clear her rather bosomy chest. Then, almost in slow motion, she would take the club back and up, twisting her torso until her arms were stretched high over her head. There she would stop and gather her power. Her downswing was enormous, and the ball would rocket off the tee straight and high and long, longer than any other woman could consistently hit it—and many of the men. This January, when she returned to the tour after a two-month layoff dedicated to discovering the joys of young married life with her husband, Cincinnati sportscaster Tim Melton, she forgot to bring that swing with her.

After a rocky start she managed to win the women's Kemper Open in Costa Mesa, Calif. at the end of March, but could do no better than seventh in her next three outings. Then in mid-May, at the Coca-Cola Classic in Clifton, N.J., disaster struck. She shot a second-round 83—her worst round, she said, "since I was young." Reminded that she is still young, she said, "Well, since I was a kid. A pudgy, grimy kid." A tearful call went out to her daddy, Domingo, the man who taught her the game, in Roswell, N. Mex.

She took a week off to practice, but last week you could see that the signature Lopez swing was still missing when the tour stopped at Wykagyl C.C. in New Rochelle, N.Y. for the Golden Lights Championship, of which Lopez-Melton was the defending champion. Her swing in the first two rounds was flat; there was no upraising of the hands; the arms were down across her chest almost as in a baseball swing. Her galleries—Nancy's Navy—were still the largest, but her fans were rooting for pars rather than birdies as she went 75-75, six-over and eight strokes out of the lead. Her smiles were forced, the signing of autographs a burden.

Lopez-Melton hit buckets of balls after Friday's round as her father looked on. Then she worked on the putting green for half an hour. Her caddie, shaggy-haired Roscoe Jones, sat on her bag sucking a beer. "How's the swing?" he said. "It's terrible. Flat. Better now than it was, but not much. It's probably my fault. I feel responsible for the way she's playing. I let her get away with it. I saw as soon as she came out this year that the swing was messed up, but she did O.K. so I kept quiet. But it was flat. She wasn't turning, her chest was getting in the way."

Domingo Lopez told his daughter, "Leave the swing the way it is for the rest of the tournament. You playing all right, Nancy, don't do nothing now. Wait until you are off the course."

On Saturday, Domingo walked in Nancy's gallery as she got two birdies on the front nine. "She playing good," he said, eyes twinkling. "She not swinging like she used to, but she using it good. You should have seen her before, hitting to the left, duck-hooking, oh...." He slapped himself in the face. "After her 83 she call me very upset and said, 'Daddy, do you know my score?' I say, 'Yeah.' She say, 'I don't know what to do.' I say, 'You're a flat swinger now. You no turning enough to get the hands up. That's why you go to the left.' She say, 'I want you to come up to Cincinnati and help.' I say, 'Oh, oh....' "

The good-looking round she was in the process of putting together Saturday fooled none of her regular entourage. Her husband followed along, talking about her problems. "I thought her swing was starting to get away at the end of last year, but she was still winning," he said. "I would mention it or Roscoe would, but she'd just kind of shake it off. It was like she did not want to admit she was in trouble."

When Lopez-Melton's 15-footer for a birdie on 13 stopped, hanging over the lip of the cup, Melton cackled. A woman turned and burned him with an ugly glare. "That's my wife, ma'am," he said. The woman looked skeptical.

When she birdied 15 and 16 with long putts, Melton said, "Everything I just got finished saying? About Nancy's problems? Forget it."

And then Lopez-Melton got a four on the par-5 18th, her sixth birdie of the day, for a 66, the second-best score of her professional career. She finished Saturday just two strokes off the lead and had to fight her way through well-wishers and autograph hounds for two hours until she finally got into a car to leave the club.

Despite the marvelous round, the lost swing still bothered her. "I picked up bad habits," she said at her motel. "I didn't just all of a sudden drop my hands real low. I was probably doing it gradually and not realizing it. Finally it got so flat it was difficult for me to get around to the ball. That 83—I just couldn't hit the ball at all that day. Today I hit it better.

"I have mixed feelings about today. I can't feel excited for some reason. Just because I shot a 66, it doesn't mean anything. There are no guarantees that I'll do it tomorrow."

She didn't, though she might have. An early birdie had Lopez-Melton tied for the lead until the 10th hole, where she hit the first of only two bad shots on the day. Both of them resulted in bogeys. And birdie putts that fell on Saturday missed on Sunday. She shot a 73 for a one-over 289 and finished tied for second with Jo Ann Washam, two strokes behind the winner, Beth Daniel.

Lopez-Melton called her round "a good 73" and heaved an audible sigh of relief. "I feel like I have my confidence back," she said. "A little more work on my swing and I might make it." Home she went with her men, Tim and Daddy Domingo, to hit balls at the Jack Nicklaus Golf Center in Mason, Ohio, which just happens to be her backyard. It also happens to be the site of this week's LPGA Championship, a crown la condesa of golf would surely like to win for a second time.



The follow-through on Lopez-Melton's swing looks good, but her flat backswing is causing trouble.



Daddy Domingo flew east after a call for help.