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Lopez golf event enters 26th year

Former Albany resident and current LPGA Hall of Famer Nancy Lopez and friends will tee off today at Doublegate Country Club for her 26th annual Nancy Lopez Hospice Golf Classic. Lopez, who retired from the Tour in 2010 after a comeback attempt, is currently playing Legends Tour events, working as a commentator for the Golf Channel and appearing at corporate outings around the country. (Herald file photo)

Former Albany resident and current LPGA Hall of Famer Nancy Lopez and friends will tee off today at Doublegate Country Club for her 26th annual Nancy Lopez Hospice Golf Classic. Lopez, who retired from the Tour in 2010 after a comeback attempt, is currently playing Legends Tour events, working as a commentator for the Golf Channel and appearing at corporate outings around the country. (Herald file photo)

ALBANY — Retirement, as it turns out, is keeping Nancy Lopez busier than she’s ever been.

In between appearances at corporate outings around the country, playing events on the Legends Tour and spending time with her three daughters, the LPGA Hall of Famer will always find time for her namesake event in Albany — the Nancy Lopez Hospice Golf Classic — that benefits hospice, a cause she continues to staunchly support.

And as the former Albany resident drove into town Thursday afternoon from her new home in Auburn, Ala., Lopez, 55, marveled at how the time has flown by.

Want To Go?

WHO: LPGA Hall of Famer and former Albany resident Nancy Lopez.

WHAT: 26th annual Nancy Lopez Hospice Golf Classic.

WHEN: Today — 7 a.m. registration, 8 a.m. shotgun start for morning session; noon registration, 1 p.m. shotgun start for afternoon session.

WHERE: Doublegate Country Club.

MORE INFO: (229) 436-6501.

“I was just thinking (as I was driving), ‘Wow, has it been 26 years already?’ It doesn’t feel like it has,” said Lopez, who sold her home in Albany and moved to Auburn last year to be closer to her youngest daughter, Torri, a sophomore at Auburn majoring in graphic design. “A lot of people have put a lot of work into this and it makes me so, so proud to be a part of it each and every year. It’s really grown from what it started out as — we began with such a small group. But now it’s helped build the (Willson Hospice House) and has really enhanced the community.

“It’s a good feeling to see that accomplished and to help raise money for such a worthy cause.”

The festivities kick off today at Doublegate Country Club with registration for the morning session opening at 7 a.m., followed by an 8 a.m. shotgun start. After an early round of golf and lunch, there will be an afternoon session with registration opening at noon and a shotgun start at 1 p.m. All money raised will go to Albany Community Hospice, which is housed at the facility that Lopez’s efforts helped build three years ago, Willson Hospice House.

Lopez, who will be joined at this year’s event by fellow former pro golfer and close friend Kim Bauer, said the monetary goal for this year is the same as it is every year.

“Oh that’s easy ... to raise more than we did the year before,” she said with a laugh.

For the first time, however, Lopez won’t be sticking around through the weekend to lend a hand at the First Tee of Albany kids clinic, which has traditionally followed the golf classic on Saturday. The clinic, however, will still take place.

“First Tee is a wonderful organization and I’m really sorry I’m not going to be able to help out with it this year,” said Lopez, who will be headed to Palm Springs, Calif., on Saturday in advance of the first major LPGA Tour event of the season, the Kraft Nabisco Championship, where she’ll be working as a commentator for the Golf Channel. “First Tee teaches kids so many things through the game of golf, like honesty and integrity. They do a great job with that.”

Speaking of jobs, the return to golf commentating this year is just one of the many things on Lopez’s plate these days. After turning pro in 1977 and winning LPGA Rookie of the Year in 1978, she retired from playing professional golf in 2003 with 52 career wins, including three majors (LPGA Championship in 1978, ‘85 and ‘89). She then un-retired in 2007 and gave it another go on the Tour but didn’t find much success before retiring again in 2010. She’s now playing nearly full-time on the Legends Tour — LPGA’s senior circuit — with mixed results, although she seems most enthused by her return role with the Golf Channel.

“I haven’t done it for a while because the last time I tried to, it kind of got in the way of me trying to return to play golf. I was doing too much talking about it and not enough playing,” she said. “Before, I was doing a lot of on-course commentating, but now I’m going to work in-studio and hopefully share my knowledge of the game, rather than (interviewing) players after their rounds. I’m really looking forward to it, and the Nabisco event is my first outing since coming back.

“Wish me luck!”

Lopez asks for the same thing when it comes to her golf game these days, which she admits isn’t nearly what it used to be. She hasn’t won yet on the Legends Tour in two seasons, but she did manage an 11th-place finish at last year’s season-ending Legends Championship which she said she feels especially proud of.

“It’s just great to be a part of it, to be out there standing over pressure putts again — and making them again,” Lopez said. “The Legends Tour is great — we play two rounds and then a pro-am — and the purses are good too, so you can earn a little money in the process if you’re successful. And all the women out there have a lot of game left. It just feels great to be out there competing with them — many of them lifelong friends I came up playing with.”

Lopez said she isn’t planning on playing any LPGA Tour events in the near future until she gets her game back to where she feels comfortable, despite the fact she still has exemptions into several based on her Hall-of-Fame status, which she achieved in 1987.

Lopez has, however, kept her eye on the new crop of LPGA stars and says she feels the American women — led by teen phenoms Alexis Thompson and Jessica Korda, who is currently No. 2 on the LPGA Tour’s money list — may soon rise again.

“Alexis, I mean, she’s already won three tournaments and she’s only 17, and her little buddy Jessica Korda, (who is 18), has won one. I think this next generation of players is about to catch fire,” said Lopez, who coached Korda on the Junior Solheim Cup team. “And we need that. Americans want to see American players win, and it’s great for our sport in the U.S. when we have someone to follow and root for.”

But everyone knows the path to the top these days goes through world No. 1 Yani Tseng of Taiwan.

“She’s playing well, has a great personality and is able to connect with fans,” Lopez said. “She’s a great one for our sport.”

As for the men, Lopez keeps tabs on them, too. Around this time last year, she told The Herald she expected Tiger Woods’ slump to end sooner than most thought. But it’s been nearly three years since his last PGA Tour win — something Lopez expressed surprise at Thursday.

“Well, I think it’s taken a lot longer for him to get comfortable again than anyone thought it would after what’s gone in his personal life,” said Lopez, referring to Woods’ car crash on Thanksgiving in 2009, followed by a very-public divorce amid revelations of multiple infidelities. “There’s a lot of mental pressure in golf, and it’s clear he’s still feeling it.”

Lopez said her advice to Woods is simple: Just go out there and let it rip like you once did.

“He’s always working on his swing, but my question is, ‘Why doesn’t he just let it happen (the way it used to)?’ To see him work so hard on his technique and keep going to people to try and fix it doesn’t make sense to me,” she said. “He is so talented, he should just work on it by himself and figure it out on his own, because he can definitely do that without anyone else’s input.”

Lopez says she also likes the rivalry brewing between Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy and England’s Luke Donald. The duo have made it known their not each others’ biggest fans, while also trading the world No. 1 ranking back and forth in recent months.

“I think it’s great for golf. Rivalries are what we need sometimes to make it that much more interesting,” she said.