Nancy Lopez remembers she first set foot on a golf course at age 7, tagging along behind her father, an avid golfer, and her mother, who took up the sport for exercise at the urging of her doctor.
She remembers well the clicking of golf cleats on the walks criss-crossing the course near the family's Roswell, N.M., home and wanting to own a pair.
That day came a year later. Instead of shoes, her father, Domingo Lopez, owner of an auto body shop, gave her a set of Patty Berg clubs and some advice.
"He said I should stay up with him and not hold up the people playing behind us," Nancy Lopez recalled yesterday from Houston.
She was in the Texas city trying, for a change, "to relax," as a result of taking that advice to stay ahead of the field.
At age 21, in her rookie year with the Ladies Professional Golf Association, Nancy Lopez is en route to smashing course and earnings records set by men and women.
She has won three consecutive tournaments and five in the last three months, breaking Jack Nicklaus' record of three victories by a rookie. She is also, with earnings of $119,586, within reach of breaking Jerry Pate's record of $153,000, the most money won by a rookie, male or female.
She also may set a record for most money won in a year by a woman. The current record is Judy Rankin's $150,734.
"The only way she can get better is to win every tournament every week," said JoAnne Carner, Lopez' idol, who finished second in the Golden Lights tournament at the Wykagyl Country Club in New Rochelle, N.Y. Lopez finished with a course record 65 on Monday. It was the second consecutive week that Carner, the defending champion, finished behind Lopez.
"I want to break as many records as I can," Lopez said of her golfing goals. "And I'd like to win major tournaments - the LPGA championship and the U.S. Open."
Lopez won her first amateur golf tournament at 9. When she was 12, 13, and 14, she won the New Mexico Women's State Amateur. When she was 15, 16 and 17, she won the Western Junior and, at 15 and 17, the U.S. Junior.
There were a slew of other victories, including the Mexican Amateur in Mexico City. She was a member of the winning U.S. Curtis Cup and U.S. World Cup teams in 1976 (winning individual honors in the World Cup), and the Western Amateur and Trans National in 1977.
In 1975, the University of Tulsa offered her a full athletic scholarship in golf, the only college offering women such scholarships at the time.
With the college scholarship and one from Colgate-Palmolive, Lopez continued her golfing career, winning the women's collegiate golf championship in 1976.
At Tulsa, she met Ron Benedetti, to whom she was engaged until recently. She left Tulsa as a sophomore when he graduated, wanting to be near him in Houston. "We're still young and we thought we should wait a while before marriage," she explained.
But there were other reasons for quitting college. "I had been playing amateur golf quite a long time and I felt I had reached most of my goals as an amateur and wanted to further my career as a professional," Lopez said.
Last July, Lopez received her LPGA card and played tournaments in Europe, the Far East and here. Victory eluded her as she finished second in three tournaments and in the top 20 in several others.
In September, Nancy Lopez' mother died following complications after an appendectomy.
"I wanted to win a tournament very badly. I wanted to win it for her and dedicate it to her," she recalled.
In February, Lopez won her first pro tournament at the Bent Tree Classic in Sarasota, Fla. "Winning that first tournament, getting over that first hill was so important," she said. "I remember crying when I won it."
After Bent Tree, she won the Sun Star Classic in Los Angeles, the Baltimore Classic, a Jamesburg, N.J. tournament and the Memorial Day weekend's Golden Lights championship.
With her success, the 5-foot-4, 140-pound Lopez is being sought for endorsements of golf products and is flattered by people who recognize her and request autographs.
What will she do with the money she earns?
"I'm living with my father in New Mexico and I'd like to own my place - somewhere where I could play golf year-round," she said.
Lopez is considered by her peers to be the hottest rookie in golf in ages. Some predict she could pass the $200,000 mark in tournament earnings this year. There are 22 LPGA tournaments to be played this year.