Arizona will be well-represented at the LPGA Bank of Hope Founders Cup at Wildfire Golf Club in Phoenix. Video: azcentral sports

Nancy Lopez was Tiger Woods long before Woods hit his first shot on the PGA Tour

Nancy Lopez was talking to some friends on Wednesday, reminiscing, when somebody mentioned 40 years have passed since she joined the LPGA Tour in 1977.

Forty years.

“It just doesn’t seem possible,” said Lopez, in the Valley this week for the Bank of Hope Founders Cup at Wildfire Golf Club in Scottsdale. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s a long time.’”

Lopez is 60 now and chasing around her two grandchildren, Molly and Hunter, a pursuit, she admits, that often leaves her “exhausted.” Her knees don’t work like they used to; neither does her golf swing. But Lopez always will have the summer of 1978, the year a young Mexican-American girl from Roswell, N.M., with a sweet smile and even sweeter swing, did for the LPGA Tour what Tiger Woods would do for the PGA Tour nearly 20 years later.

They turned the masses on to golf.

“It was a big deal to a lot of people,” Lopez said.

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In her first full year on Tour Lopez won nine tournaments, including a record five in a row. She remains the only woman to be named LPGA Player of the Year as a rookie. But her most significant achievement was not what she did on the course but the attention and hysteria she created off it. People that had paid no attention to women’s golf were suddenly fascinated by this easygoing daughter of an auto mechanic.

Television ratings skyrocketed. NBC cut into its baseball broadcast to cover Lopez’s fifth consecutive win at the Bankers Trust Classic in Rochester, N.Y. And then, in July, the biggest breakthrough of all: Lopez was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, the caption in red letters with a yellow background proclaiming her, “The Name of the Game.”

For a female professional athlete, that was the promised land.

“I didn’t get it at the very beginning because I was really kind of young,” Lopez said. “But everybody kept saying, ‘This is a big deal. Not very many women, much less an athlete, get to be on the cover.’ It really was a special time.”

The golfing world couldn’t get enough of Lopez. Sponsors left flowers, fruit or baskets of cheese and crackers in her hotel room to welcome her to an event. One day, after she became a mom to girls Ashley, Erinn and Torri and another hotel room they checked into was stacked with goodies, she told them, “This isn’t real life. When you get older and check into a hotel room they’re not going to have teddy bears and candy for you.”

Lopez was in demand 24-7. An American Idol, one writer called her. Yet she never viewed the demands on her time an obligation she was required to fulfill. Instead, she saw them as an opportunity to promote the LPGA Tour and the women who had played before her, often in the shadows. Rarely, if ever, did she turn down an interview.

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Tour veteran Judy Rankin was so impressed by Lopez’s game and how she handled the adulation that she said at the time, “They have the wrong person playing Wonder Woman.”

“I knew what was needed to help the Tour grow,” Lopez said. “You didn’t do it for yourself, or to be popular. It was always for the Tour. There were days I didn’t want to do something because I was being bombarded but if it brought one more person or one more eye to the LPGA Tour I felt it was something I needed to do.”

Only when she had an off week, finishing well behind the leaders, did Lopez resent the interview requests. Not because she was mad at the way she played. Because she thought the attention should be elsewhere.

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“The press wanted to talk to me instead of the players in first or second,” Lopez said. “That bothered me a lot … It was almost a little embarrassing. I never wanted to take the glory from somebody else.”

Lopez would go on to win 48 LPGA titles and in 1987 was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. There have been other stars since then, Annika Sorenstam and Lorena Ochoa, Karrie Webb and, now, Lydia Ko. But none of them will ever have a summer like Lopez did nearly 40 years ago.

“I loved playing, I loved winning and as a young person I loved the attention,” Lopez said. “I enjoyed being around people. It was really a storybook year.”


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Bank of Hope Founders Cup

Where: Wildfire Golf Club, JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort and Spa. Par 72, 6,601 yards.

Address: 5350 Marriott Drive, Phoenix, 85054


TV: Golf Channel (Thursday, 3-6 p.m.; Friday, 3-5 p.m.; Saturday, 4-6 p.m.; Sunday, 4-6 p.m.)

Purse: $1,500,000. Winner receives $225,000.

Marquee field

The top 100 players in the world are in the field. Among the favorites: World No. 1 Lydia Ko, Lexi Thompson, who has the length to overpower the Wildfire course, Ariya Jutanugarn, defending champ Sei Young Kim, and Inbee Park, who was out from last June to February with a thumb injury but returned with a bang, winning the HSBC Women’s Champions event in Singapore earlier this month. It was Park’s 18th career LPGA victory.

How low will they go?

With temperatures expected to be in the low-to-mid 90s all week and little wind to speak of, the Wildfire course will play hard and fast. Last year, Kim shot 27-under, tying the 72-hole scoring total set by Annika Sorenstam in 2001 when she shot a second-round 59 at the Standard Register Ping at Moon Valley Country Club.

If the greens can somehow maintain their moisture in this heat, allowing good approach shots to stay put, could we see another 59?

Back on top?

Stacy Lewis hasn’t won since June of 2014 but this might be the week she ends the drought. Her track record at the Founders Cup is ridiculously good. She won the event in 2013 and hasn’t finished outside the top four since then, including two runner-up finishes.