As a youngster, she was forbidden to wash dishes.
"I told my wife, 'Our Nancy will not do any dishes. Her hands are meant for golf.'"
Domingo Lopez always detected something special in his younger daughter, a greatness that has burst into bloom in the last 10 months on the Ladies Professional Golf Association tour. With six victories, Nancy Lopez is establishing herself as the most dominant rookie - male or female - who ever swung a golf club for pay.
A victory today in the Bankers Trust Classic would give Lopez five straight wins, an LPGA record. It also would boost her rookie-year earnings to $153,336, eclipsing Jerry Pate's first-year PGA money record by $234. The women's version of this milestone, Debbie Massey's $46,962 last year, was wiped out a couple of tournaments ago.
The exciting thing about Lopez, however, is not her bankbook but the backdrop of her darma. She has never taken a golf lesson. Tutored only by an adoring father who could afford to rent only one bucket of balls at a time for her, Lopez has surpassed her contemporaries and joined the list of names that includes Arnold Palmer, Billie Jean King, Babe Ruth - athletes who used equal parts skill, courage and charisma to endear the public to their sport.
There has been an almost embarrassing need for such a heroine on the LPGA tour. While the women's tennis tour punctured the ozone level with provocative supertalents like King, Chris Evert, Evonne Goolagong and Martinia Navratilova, the golf tour puttered around with a group of fine but aging veterans and sexy newcomers who excelled in toothpaste commercials. The richest woman golfer ever, counting endorsement, is Laura Baugh, who has never won a tournament.
Along comes Lopez, with a swing as sweet as her smile. At last, women's golf has a super star.
The golf world is giddy over this 21-year-old girl-woman with puppy dog eyes and something her caddy calls "ruthless concentration." Her galleries are swelling, and the more people who watch, the better she plays.
"I feel the vibrations from a crowd. I feel them pulling for me," said Lopez. "I can't believe it's all happening to me. I can't believe people are running after me for autographs. I love it, though."
More than any other sport, golf hacks away at the mind, and here is where Lopez dominates her profession. There are many excellent drivers, chippers and putters on the tour, but no one else does it all so well as consistently, as easily as Lopez. She says this is partly because she has never taken a lesson. Terms like angle, path and follow through don't clutter her mind when she steps to a tee.
"I've never learned what it is you do when you hook or slice. I just swing to get it where I want it to go," said Lopez. "Right now, it seems like an easy game to me. I feel I can hit any shot."
Her caddy, Kim (Roscoe) Jones, has seen the Lopez confidence do its wonders. "If she makes a bogey, she doesn't get rattled because she knows she can make five straight birdies. It scares me," said Jones. "I didn't know anyone could be that perfect. She's not afraid of anything because she knows her own ability."
Jones has caddied for several years for both men and women. But never for anyone like Lopez.
"I think the ladies have a little tougher time concentrating. Chemistry or something," said Jones. "The ladies tend to play 15 or 16 holes, not the whole 18. Nancy plays all of them. And she plays the devil out of the last four."
In her two years of college at the University of Tulsa, Lopez dated a baseball player named Ron Benedetti, who is still her boyfriend. He says there is no separting the person from the golfer, that it all works together.
"I knew her first as a person and there was something special about her then," said Benedetti. "I don't know what it is. But it goes from her life to her golf. She has the power, the will to be the best woman golfer ever, and by a longshot. I really mean that.
"I've watched her play a lot of golf in two years, and every round she does something that amazes me, that makes me wonder, "What is this girl made of?
"Later she'll say to me, 'What do you like about me?' I say, 'Nancy, it's everything. Everything you do, you do with style, poise and maturity.'
"I think her maturity has been the key to her success. She played so much amateur golf, and she knew when she was ready. She had it in the back of her mind to gradually become a superstar. She wasn't awed by the other golfers or the whole professional scene. And finishing second in her first three tournaments sure helped.
"She's always known she was good, and now that she's on the pro tour, something has come out of her that couldn't come to before. It's not that she's playing out of her head. She's just finally getting the chance to play up to her potential."
Although it seems that Lopez has sprung unannounced onto the nation's golf courses, her game actually has been on a slow, steady climb since her childhood in Roswell, N.M. Domingo Lopez, now 63, and the widowed owner of the East Second Street Body Ship, imbued his family with the left school after the third grade to hard work ethic. Born in Texas, he help his father in the fields. At age 15, he tried to go back to school, but was told the lowest they would place him was eighth grade. He wanted to start over in third grade, and when he couldn't win his argument he left, never to return.
He was a talented baseball player, but when a semipro team offered him a contract, he refused.
"A married man has no business in baseball," said Lopez, who then was 28. "They offered me $90 a month, but I could make $250 in a shipyard."
Soon he would bring love and pride to the thankless job of straightening bent fenders, and through hard work he would attain his own body shop, even though he still reads and writes very little.
When he was 40, his boss at the body shop gave him a set of golf clubs. that is very late in life to take up so intricate a game. But within a year he was a three-handicapper, and the imagination can't resist wondering what might have happened had the hours spend toiling in fields, shipyards and bodyshops been spent instead on golf courses.
In the younger of his two daughters, Domino saw a glimpse of his own spirit, an abundance of intelligence and the opportunities he never had.
"I remember when she was 5 and her 6-year-old friends went to school," said Domingo. "I told her she was too young to go to school, and she said, 'But Daddy, I'm smarter than they are.'"
Even more than her intelligence, though, the gentle man's heart pounded one day when he spotted his 6-year-old in the driveway, skillfully removing the training wheels from her bike with a pair of his plyers. Her special gift, like his, was in her hands.
And Nancy, in every way, emulated her father. He remembers that she liked "baby dolls and singing," but every time her mother asked to help around the house, she said, "No. I have to help Daddy."
She shadowed him everywhere, and when she was 8 and plodding along the nine-hole Cahoon Park municipal course, she insisted her father let her play golf. He handed her a four-wood, which is something like handing a jackhammer to a debutant. She wielded the heavy club and taught herself to hit the ball. Today, her slow, sweeping swing nets an average of 240 yards off the tee, even though it is, as Carol Mann puts it, "a combination of off-setting mistakes" learned as a little girl with a big club.
By age 12 Lopez was beating her father. Suddenly their lives changed. All priorities were centered around her golf game. The family saved money and spent it on her golf rather than buying a dishwasher or a bigger house. In sixth grade, Domingo Lopez went to her school and told her teachers that he would not allow his daughter to play softball because it was ruining her golf swing. She has had, in her entire life, only one other form of employment - a one-month Christmas job in a clothing store, earning her $110. Every other minute has been spent on golf.
In her early adolescence, she was not the ice-cool pro of today. Between the ages of 12 and 15, when she swept through amateur tournaments, "I would throw up all the way there," she recalled.
But her father and mother were always at her side, prodding but not pushing. Domingo Lopez remembers one day, "I heard her crying in her room. She was in high school and her boyfriend told her, 'You either play golf or be with me. Not both.' My wife told her, 'You take golf and you'll be the happiest girl in the world. You can always get a boy.'"
In 1975 after her graduation from high school, Lopez entered the U.S. Open and finished second. There was immediate talk of her turning professional, but she had a $10,000 scholarship and wanted badly to go to college.
"I told her," said her father, "'You go to college and see what's like. But don't ever give up golf, not even if you make F, F, F.'"
College golf was little more than a waiting room for Lopez. She won 14 of 18 tournaments she played. She refined her game, by instinct.
"The strongest part of Nancy's game is that she plays by feel," said Mann, considered the LPGA's top analyst and student of the game. "All her senses come into play. That's when golf is an art.
"We know how we feel, when we're strong, when we're weak. Pace and strength are the keys. She has a sense of self, and that's all you need, really.
"The beautiful thing is, I don't think she's conscious of any of this. I saw her play at 17, and she's so much smoother, so much better now. It's just come from practice. She's probably the best putter on the tour. I don't think she's missed enough putts to make mental problems for herself. Leave her here for 10 years. It will happen. It happens to everyone."
Even Lopez's father figures, "She'll play bad sonner or later." Mann points out that Lopez's streak is being aided by the fact that "the other good players on the tour are not playing well right now. Judy Rankin hasn't played well; Joanne Carner has played well in spots, but no one has been consistent."
No one, that is, except Lopez.
Undoubtedly there is jealousy on the tour. But Lopez is such a likeable, down-to-earth woman, Mann confirms, that any jealousy is directed toward the performance, not the performer.
"Nancy is a delightful girl," said Mann. "She is respectful of the tour and its players, and they know that."
Lopez genuinely enjoys the demands of fans and the press, even though she wept when she read one magazine article that said she sunbathes topless, which she says is untrue. She has had her lonely moments. Her mother died shortly after she started playing on the tour, and she recently broke her engagement to Benedetti.
Her life is a whirlwind of change. Mark McCormack, who handles Arnold Palmer's financial affairs, has recently added Lopez to his collection. Lopez invested in a gas well in Ohio and, just last week, it came in. She has bought her sister a rabbit-fur jacket, herself a diamond ring and taken her father to Australia and Japan. In between, she gave her old clothes to needy neighbors in Roswell.
She has won tournaments in every conceivable way. She has been tied for the lead on the last day, she has come from five strokes behind, has held onto a four-stroke lead and has won in sudden death.
She has been distracted on a golf course only two times. In last week's LPGA Championship, which she won, she missed a putt after she spotted a woman in the gallery who looked like her mother. Friday, she hit a spectator in the head and knocked him out with one of her tee shots. She cried through the rest of the hole, took a double bogey, and cried through the next hole - making a birdie.
The spectator told her after the round he was all right, but she still was shaken several hours later.
"It's the first time in my life I didn't want to play golf;" Lopez said that night. "Today was awful. Everything came on top of me - the pressure to win the fifth straight tournament, the press, the fans. I just wanted to run."
Today, a little shakily, she stands on the precipice of more records and glory, and she wants it.
"That's what I want to do - break records. Make it so people will always remember me," said Lopez. "I love the people who come out to watch me. They're so much a part of me.
"I can feel them thinking that one day they want to say, 'We saw it. She was real.'
"It's kind of neat."