LOPEZ makes Tulsa return at Williams Championship

Thursday, September 6th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TULSA, Okla. (AP) _ Nancy Lopez didn't need the worn knees or the 48 victories to remind her Thursday how long she'd been out of Tulsa. The thrill of being back was enough.

``Tulsa has been dear to my heart since college,'' Lopez said as she prepared for Friday's debut of the Williams Championship, her first action here since her University of Tulsa days nearly 25 years ago.

She returns as one of golf's most beloved players, a Hall of Famer with $5.3 million in career earnings.

But Lopez had to save up for this trip.

Her right shoulder, still aching from a fall at her Albany, Ga., home late last year, and a right knee that's stripped of its cartilage have kept her out of play the past month and a half.

She skipped last weekend's State Farm Classic to preserve herself for the 54-hole tournament at Tulsa Country Club.

``I was afraid I wasn't going to get to come here,'' the 44-year-old said, rubbing the twinge in her shoulder that came with rainy skies Thursday morning. ``I was in a lot of pain and just trying to deal with that and not wanting to play.''

Lopez hasn't had a victory since 1997. With Annika Sorenstam, Karrie Webb and nine other 2001 tournament winners in the 144 player field, she made no bold statements about grabbing a share of the $1 million purse.

``I'd like to shoot under par,'' she said. ``Hopefully I'll be there on Sunday and play some really good golf and be able to feel really good about the week.''

Lopez played at Tulsa Country Club only a few times during her college career. The Golden Hurricane team was based at another club.

Tulsa, then with a fledgling program under beginning coach Dale McNamara, was the only school to offer Lopez even a partial scholarship. She won 11 tournaments in two years before turning pro.

Lopez won nine tournaments as a rookie in 1978, including a record-setting five straight. She was named both rookie of the year and player of the year.

She called her college days ``a fun part of my life.'' She had been catching up with old friends and planned a visit to the campus across town, wondering if she would recognize it after so many years.

If her health holds, Lopez plans to play in only a few more LPGA events the next two months before heading home for the winter. Her three children, the oldest a high school senior, have gotten used to having her around, she said.

``When I heard that we might have a tournament here, I was really excited about that,'' Lopez said. ``When you have good memories of a place you look forward to going back there. You don't really know what you're looking for.''