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Busy Lopez talks golf, career, 25th year of Albany event

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

ALBANY -- In between flying around the country to raise money for charity, sending her youngest child off to college, fielding questions about Tiger Woods' troubles and still trying to compete professionally on the Legends and LPGA tours, Albany resident Nancy Lopez has a hard time finding a lick of free time these days.

But busy or not, one thing's for sure: She wouldn't miss this weekend for the world.

"It's really hard to believe it's been 25 years. I feel old," laughed Lopez on Thursday when The Herald caught up with her shortly after she returned to Albany from an event in Boston.

Lopez, of course, was marveling at the fact that her namesake Hospice Golf Classic, which kicked off Thursday with a gala dinner, will continue today with her annual tournament and end Saturday with a First Tee of Albany junior golf clinic, will officially reach its silver anniversary this weekend at the place it's always called home: Albany's Doublegate Golf & Country Club.

"It's hard to imagine how we started this as just a little-bitty tournament and the way it's grown," said Lopez, an LPGA Hall of Famer. "Now (years later) we have (the Willson Hospice House that's been built) here and we have so many people who come out. The support from the community has just been great."

What's also been great for Lopez these days is how she's able to throw herself back into the sport -- one that made her a household name during her illustrious 25-year professional career -- during the past year now that youngest daughter Torii graduated from Deerfield-Windsor and went off to college.

"I've been really busy, but I've also tried to stay busy now that Torii (left and went to Auburn) just like my other two girls did," Lopez said. "I don't really want to be home that often because I end up missing her so much, so I've been all over, trying to help raise money for charity, playing a few Legends Tour and LPGA Tour events, and I hope to play more next year."

Lopez, who turned pro in 1977, then retired in 2003 -- before un-retiring in 2007 -- has played two tournaments on the Legends Tour (the women's professional senior circuit) this year, and one LPGA event (in Rochester, N.Y).

Though, admittedly she didn't fare as well as she would've liked during any of those outings.

"I actually feel like my swing is still there and I'm playing pretty good, but right now I've got tennis and golf elbow and there's a lot of pain in my left arm. Although, the great thing about the Legends Tour is that you can ride a cart some of the time and walk the rest," said Lopez, whose career highlights include three career majors (the LPGA Championship in 1978, '85 and '89), 48 LPGA wins and being named the Rookie of the Year in 1977 -- all that before being inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1989. "The Legends Tour has been around for about 13 years or so and it's really growing and I love being a part of it. It's filled with a lot of my friends -- players who were really the faces and personalities of the tour (at one time) and kind of opened the door for the players today."

Speaking of players of the future, four years ago, Lopez watched as her Albany event became more far-reaching than ever before when she teamed up with First Tee of Albany to also hold a junior clinic the same weekend of the hospice fundraiser. And while raising money for hospice has always been the goal of the annual event, she said Thursday she's fallen in love with playing a role in introducing kids to golf.

"(The kids) are always so wide-eyed when they start playing, and when they meet the professional golfers (who come to help out)," said Lopez, who this year will welcome in former LPGA players Kim Bauer and Rosie Jones, as well as current tour star Christina Kim (currently 24th on LPGA money list). "It's just a nice thing we do for these kids because they're under privileged and may not ever get a chance to play the game if not for (an event like this) or First Tee's help. It's a game that keeps them out of trouble and off the streets.

"And it has a lasting effect. If you can change one kid's life through golf, it's just so worth it. And having the Darton (College men's) golf team out there helping just shows this future generation of kids that, 'Hey, look, you can play this fun game and go to college because of it.' "

Unfortunately, being one of golf's most recognizable figures can sometimes have its pitfalls. Lopez can't seem to escape the most common question she's asked by golfers -- young and old -- these days, no matter the event she attends or region she visits: What's your opinion of Tiger Woods' troubles?

"A lot of these kids really looked up to Tiger for so long, so that would be the one (I'm asked constantly): 'What do I think of Tiger Woods?' " Lopez said, referring to Woods' stunning fall from grace this past year after his car accident that led to details emerging of extra-martial affairs, a divorce and the staggering struggles of the world No. 1 golfer's game.

So ... what does Lopez think of Woods?

"I have to say I'm not surprised he's struggling the way he is because it's just so hard to focus on your game when you have a lot of stress going on around you," she said. "I just really hope that eventually he pulls himself together and starts playing the way he was."

That, of course, starts with next week's Ryder Cup in Wales, for which Woods was chosen as a captain's pick by Corey Pavin.

And Lopez, for one, will be watching.

"I sure hope we win -- because I don't like to see us lose and we haven't won too many of them," said Lopez, who captained the 2005 U.S. women's team at the Solheim Cup, the ladies' version of the Ryder Cup. "I hope Tiger can help the team. He has a tough time sometimes in team events and hopefully he'll let his guard down a little bit and help the team win."

Lopez also had a thought or two on another big, controversial story this season in men's golf: the penalty assessed to U.S. Open leader Dustin Johnson on the final hole of the tournament after Johnson disturbed an ambiguous sand trap during his warm up swing and was subsequently docked two strokes -- a massive mistake which ultimately cost him a shot to win his first major.

So was Johnson's punishment fair or foul?

"Oh, it was fair. He's supposed to read the rules. It's one of the first rules on the rule sheet," she said. "When you're on the course -- and especially when you're playing for that kind of (prestige and money) -- you have to read the rule sheet. As a pro golfer, I didn't dare touch any sand on the course before I read the rule sheet. But it's not anyone's fault but his own, and his caddy. It's (ultimately) on (Dustin), but his caddy should've been aware as well."

But while Lopez still follows the men's tour closely, she naturally follows the women's a little closer. And there's been a few developments in the last several years which have caught her attention in a major way, including the stunning retirements of the game's top two players -- Lorena Ochoa (retired in 2010) and Annika Sorenstam (2008) -- within two years of each other.

"I was just really unhappy about it," Lopez said. "I hate that they left the tour. They were our ones that kept people coming to watch. But they decided that they didn't want to try and raise children and keep up with the pace of playing golf 24/7. I was really disappointed.

"I think they could both still come back and be great again. But I just couldn't believe as competitive as they were that they could just walk away like that."

Most recently, however, the hot topic in LPGA circles has been the stellar play of Michelle Wie and the rise of former Duke star Amanda Blumenhurst, who is a three-time Nancy Lopez Award winner -- an honor given annually to the nation's top amateur golfer.

On Wie, Lopez said: "I'm really glad she's playing so well. She's such a great player, and unfortunately I think she got some bad advice from someone (during the early part of her career) when she kept playing on the men's tour. She didn't need to be out there. She needed to be on the women's tour, helping us bring fans. But now that she's got a couple of wins, she's starting to feel more comfortable and I think she will add a lot to the LPGA Tour."

As for Blumenhurst, Lopez says she thinks the young amateur-turned professional is the future of women's golf.

"She's a great champion, she finished school and she has a great head on her shoulders," Lopez said of Blumenhurst, 23, who is a three-time NCAA Player of the Year. "She's one of the best American players we have coming up right now."

That honor, of course, used to belong to Lopez. But these days, she's perfectly satisfied with her newfound place in golf -- a game that's allowed her to make weekends like this possible.

"I really just want to thank everyone who has supported me and this tournament over the years because without them, we couldn't do it," she said. "I love that we're supporting First Tee -- because whether it's donating clubs, or money, they need our support -- as well as hospice, because I think we'll all need it at some point in our lives.

"It's just a wonderful weekend and I'm honored I'm able to host it each year."