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Lopez golf classic begins today

LPGA Hall of Famer Nancy Lopez helps Scarlet Minix on the putting green during a previous Nancy Lopez Jr. Golf Clinic. The 27th annual Nancy Lopez Hospice Golf Classic begins today at Doublegate Country Club.

LPGA Hall of Famer Nancy Lopez helps Scarlet Minix on the putting green during a previous Nancy Lopez Jr. Golf Clinic. The 27th annual Nancy Lopez Hospice Golf Classic begins today at Doublegate Country Club.

ALBANY, Ga. -- Nancy Lopez walked through the halls of Albany's Willson Hospice House nearly three years ago, pausing every few steps to let it all soak in.

Want To Go?

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

WHAT: 27th annual Nancy Lopez Hospice Golf Classic.

WHEN: Today - 6:30 p.m. Pre-Tournament Bash and Golf Ball Drop. Friday - 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.

"It was a beautiful place," Lopez said in an interview with The Herald on Wednesday. "A special place."

And it's a place that wouldn't be standing without the one-time Albany resident and LPGA Hall of Famer, who hasn't forgotten the walk years ago through the newly built facility.

photo

Joe Bellacomo

Nancy Lopez helps Clay Minix on the putting green during a previous Nancy Lopez Jr. Golf Clinic in Albany.

"I can put that on my chart of accomplishments in my career," said Lopez, who has been instrumental in raising money for Albany Community Hospice through the Nancy Lopez Hospice Golf Classic, which kicks off its 27th year with festivities the next two days at Doublegate County Club.

It's an event that has turned into a passion for Lopez, who moved to Auburn two years ago to be closer to her youngest daughter, Torri, but has continued to come back to Albany to host a tournament that raised more than $150,000 last year.

"Hospice is such a great organization," Lopez said. "We experienced it when (ex-husband and World Series MVP Ray Knight's) mother and father passed away, and they are that kind and helpful person you need, especially during such an unhappy time. To come back to Albany to be a part of this event, I'm glad to be able to be here."

Lopez, 56, who retired from the LPGA Tour in 2010 but still stays busy with Legends Tour events and corporate outings, will attend a ceremony this afternoon near the Phoebe Digestive Health Center, where "Nancy Lopez Lane" will officially be unveiled.

She will then take part in tonight's Bash at Doublegate -- which is open to the public and will feature live entertainment from The Maxx, several raffles and prize give-a-ways and a 70s-themed best-dressed contest -- before hosting Friday's golf tournament.

"This is definitely one of the premier events in Albany, and it keeps getting bigger and bigger every year," said Mandy Davis, the event coordinator for the tournament. "It all has to do with Nancy lending her name and time and supporting this. She is passionate about hospice and will do whatever she can to raise money for it."

Lopez will be joined at the tournament by fellow former pro golfer and close friend Kim Bauer, LPGA rookie Lacey Agnew and former Tennessee star golfer and pro Ginny Brown, who will station themselves around the course and help guide the tournament entrants on various holes.

It's been more than two years since Lopez played an LPGA Tour event, but the three-time major champion is still connected with the Tour and has contributed as a Golf Channel commentator since her retirement, including at last year's Kraft Nabisco Championship.

She believes the future of the sport is bright for women thanks to rising stars like American Lexi Thompson, an 18-year-old who became the youngest winner on the Tour late in 2011 when she won the Navistar LPGA Classic.

"She is a great young player, and I really hope she starts to win as much as she can to bring some more attention to the Tour," Lopez said. "It's really hard when you have so many of these international players winning. Players in the United States want to watch Americans in there fighting for those tournament wins."

Lopez has kept an eye on the PGA Tour as well, and she believes Tiger Woods' climb back to the top of the golfing world might be sooner rather than later thanks to his new relationship with Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn.

"For Tiger right now, he has a new love in his life, or at least a new relationship, and sometimes that kind of sparks you to play better," Lopez said.

Woods hasn't won a major championship since 2008 and is still trying to recapture the magic from earlier in his career, which was derailed after a car crash late in 2009, followed by a public, bitter divorce and the revelation of a number of extramarital affairs.

Woods has risen back to No. 2 in the world golf rankings behind Rory McIlroy after opening the 2013 season with a victory in the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines.

"For me, when I was my happiest I played my best," Lopez said. "You can kind of brush all of your problems to the side, because in golf you have to be mentally tough, and if you are thinking about other things it's really hard to focus on what you are doing on the golf course.

"That's been his biggest issue, concentrating on what he is doing on the course instead of all the pressure he has got the last few years from people saying, 'Will he ever win as many as he did before?' That's a lot of pressure on some one, because once you win and are on the top, everyone wants to knock you down and beat you. It's tough to stay at the top once you get there."

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