As Nancy Lopez walked off the 10th green at the Grizzly Course in Kings Island, Ohio, on Sunday, it looked as if she had blown her chances in the LPGA Championship. Midway through the final round, she was tied for the lead with Ayako Okamoto, at 10 under par. Then Lopez clumsily three-putted, missing a five-footer for par, after Okamoto, in the same group, had coaxed in a 10-footer for a birdie. Lopez's heavy hand cost her dearly, leaving her two strokes behind Okamoto.
But the 32-year-old Hall of Famer is nothing if not seasoned. You don't rack up 39 tournament victories—behind only Kathy Whitworth (88 wins) and JoAnne Carner (42) among full-time active players—by conceding with eight holes left to play. Lopez earned two of those victories in LPGA Championships (1978 and '85), both on this same Jack Nicklaus Sports Center course, which at one time was her home base. As Lopez approached the 11th tee following her blooper on 10, her eyes flashed in fury and her lips tightened. "Those are the kind of putts I hate to miss," she said later. "They have kept me from winning all year. On the other hand, it was very good because it really made me mad."
From that moment she took command of the championship. She chipped in for a birdie on 11, then birdied the par-3 12th. When Okamoto bogeyed 12, Lopez had a one-stroke lead that she didn't relinquish. Over the last eight holes she had five birdies, and in the end she crushed the luckless Okamoto by three strokes. Lopez's 72-hole score of 274, 14 under par, earned her a new car from Mazda, the tournament sponsor, along with $75,000. She's at the top of the LPGA money list, with $279,860.
Lopez was as stunned as anyone by her final-round 66. "I concentrated so hard on every shot," she said, "that when I looked at my scorecard and saw a 66, I was surprised."
The 38-year-old Okamoto, a legend in her homeland of Japan, has won 14 tournaments on the U.S. tour but has finished either second or third in eight majors over the past four years. She is mobbed by adoring fans wherever she goes in Japan, and the pressure on her to win is immense. With a one-stroke lead going into the fourth round at Kings Island, Okamoto said, "I must get a major over here so I can go back to Japan and be proud of myself, and all of the Japanese people will be proud of me."
After losing on Sunday she said, "I'd like to think I'll always have a chance to win a major."
But perhaps not at this golf course. Early in the week the new LPGA commissioner, William A. Blue, responded to rumors that the tournament will move next year. Blue wants to change the date of the LPGA Championship to make it the fourth and final leg of the women's Grand Slam (the other three are the Nabisco Dinah Shore, the U.S. Women's Open and the du Maurier Classic in Canada). A midsummer date, however, might conflict with a Senior PGA Tour event—a celebrity pro-am with former Cincinnati Reds catcher and Hall of Famer Johnny Bench as the main celeb—that Kings Island is trying to attract. So instead of Lopez returning to Ohio to defend her title next year, it may be her husband, Ray Knight, a former teammate of Bench's, who will end up playing at Kings Island. There is speculation, meanwhile, that the LPGA will move its championship to Bethesda, Md. A decision will be announced by July 1.
If it all hinged on how this year's championship turned out, the decision would be easy: The women would stay at Kings Island. Light rain dampened play during the first three days, but when the sun came out on Sunday, the course was in excellent shape for Lopez's dazzling charge on the final nine.
Okamoto was dry-eyed when it was over, but she couldn't hide her disappointment. Ever gracious, she said something to the press in Japanese that translated roughly as "Nancy is Number One under the skies." To which Lopez replied with a radiant smile, "Thanks. That's how I'd like to be remembered when I leave."
STEVE WILSON/ADVANTAGE INTERNATIONAL
Lopez lifted off after sealing her win with a final-hole birdie.