For Lopez, it's time for golf to yield to family

Friday, May 31st 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

AURORA, Ill. (AP) _ A stray puppy made it clear to former Tulsa standout Nancy Lopez that it was time for golf to give way to family.

A tearful Lopez, in her final year playing full time on the LPGA Tour, had to pause to regain her composure Thursday while telling the story on the eve of the Kellogg-Keebler Classic.

The dog, named Bear, had been given to Lopez and her family after friends found it by the side of a road, and the little guy quickly endeared himself to the household. On Wednesday, he died after falling off a golf cart driven by Lopez's 10-year-old daughter, Torri.

It was a heart-wrenching moment for one so young _ and for a mother who wasn't there to comfort her grieving daughter.

``It was just tough,'' Lopez said, wiping away a tear. ``I think when you're a mom you always want to be there when your kids are hurting. It was really hard for me to stay here. I wanted to go home. But she said she was fine.''

The day before, Torri had played in a softball tournament. Lopez, an assistant coach for the team when she's home, missed that, too. That's why, in her 25th year on the tour, Lopez has decided she has been away from home enough.

Lopez announced in March that after this year, she would play in only a handful of events. She's not retiring, she insists, just scaling back in a big way.

``I think after 25 years on the tour, you realize how much you miss of your life at home,'' Lopez said. ``Even though I love the tour and I enjoy playing out here, I'm always torn. My heart's always torn.

``I always thank God he gave me the ability and the chance to play professional golf. I'm just grateful I've been able to play golf and play as well as I have over the 25 years. But with that, you finally say, how long can you do this and how long do you want to stay out here? I just realized it was time to go home.''

She'll be missed. With her smile and bubbly personality, Lopez helped make the LPGA Tour appealing to nongolfers. Remembering when she was 15 and saw a PGA star refuse an autograph request, Lopez signs until the last fan is gone. And she won _ 48 titles, induction into the Hall of Fame at age 30.

``Growing up as a kid, she was definitely one of my idols,'' said Laura Diaz, second on the earnings list this year. ``I dressed up like her when I was in fifth grade. She's a great person, a great athlete. She's achieved everything that I would like to achieve out there.''

Karrie Webb, who grew up in Australia, was a rookie on the tour in 1996 before she saw Lopez in person. It didn't take Webb long to understand what Lopez meant to the game.

``She's definitely one of a kind,'' Webb said. ``I really don't think we'll see too many more people in the history of the LPGA have as much of an impact on the tour as she did and do as much for the tour as she did.

``She's just left behind that legacy. Hopefully a few of us can manage to do the job that she as one person did for all those years.''

Legacy? Lopez said she never saw it that way. She just tried to enjoy the game and play well. She still seems amused that fans would react to her the way she would react to seeing Tom Selleck _ by going gah-gah.

``I don't think I'm better than anybody else,'' Lopez said. ``Of course, I might ask for a little special treatment, a plane sometimes or a limousine to pick me up. But I always say please and thank you.''

The tour should do the same for her.