The ramrod posture is still that of the fabulous champion who has won a staggering 79 professional golf tournaments.

But as the angular Kathy Whitworth scales the small slope at the edge of the 18th green, there is the tiniest trudge in her step, as if she is dragging the weight of the huge gallery she always deserved but never had.

She is introduced to a writer and asked for an interview, and she is smiling when she says, "I have my Nancy Lopez speech down pat." Seventy'nine victories. All forgotten.

Everyone wants to know about Lopez, the 21-year-old rookie phenom who tees off today in the Lady Keystone Open in search of a sixth straight win that fellow LPGA pro Beth Stone says is likely for Lopez, because the holes are long.

Whitworth never saw the great hauls of money, adoring grins or clicking camera lenses that Lopez has known in 11 historic months on the LPGA tour. Withworth's greatness was unfurled in private.

But Whitworth, 38, talks about Lopez with zest in her voice, because Lopez is doing something Whitworth herself could not have managed, even in her prime.

"At 21 to waltz in and do what she's doing, I could no more handle it than fly. I'd be scared to death," said Whitworth. "When we were playing (at that age), no one knew who we were. It was hysterical, when you think about it."

They know who Lopez is. After her practice round yesterday at the Hershey Country Club, a 67-year-old retired clinical psychologist who had driven 2 1/2 hours to see Lopez asked for her autograph. He had been at Rochester last week for the history-making fifth straight Lopez win, and he plans on being at Noblesville, Ind. next week for what could be No. 7.

"I graduated magna cum laude, I have a credential in clinical psychology and I can't understand this," said Joe Ovnick of Forest City, Pa. "I can understand cloning better than I can understand this.

"I'm just doing this to see if I can at least come up with a hypothesis. My premise is: how can she play like this when she's only a girl, equal rights notwithstanding, she couldn't have learned this much about such an intricate game in her short time on earth.

"It's not just practice. If that's what it was there would be 150 Lopezes. She's unique. She's something like Einstein in her field. She must have perfect genes."

Thirteen-year-old Greg Lewis of nearby Palymra didn't draw any conclusions about her genes. He walked around with her 18 holes yesterday because, "I want to improve my golf, and because she's nice. She's always smiling."

And always winning.

Stone says, "I've got the person who's going to break her streak." She points to Kathy Cornelius' daughter Kay. "She'll be up in seven years."

In seriousness, Stone, the president of the LPGA, flat out expects Lopez to win this tournament.

"I'll be very honest with you. This is a long, hard golf course and that favors her. This course won't beat her," said Stone. "A lot of us will be struggling to reach the green on the par 4s, while she can reach it easily. This golf course she ought to eat up."

Perhaps it will never end.

Whitworth feels that way sometimes about the slump she is in.

"Just the thought of winning five in a row would put me under. I'd just go bananas," said Whitworth. "When you are tired, you can't imagine how that sounds.

"It takes a lot to bear that pressure, to keep concentrating. Youth is the primary thing - the stamina you must have to go through this, to play the way she's been playing.

"I don't look at her and wish I was starting now. I wish I was younger, only so I could stay out here longer. But I've had some great moments.

"I have times Nancy can't look back on. Ours was a whole different world. We were not readily accepted. We still had the image of a truck drive and it was hard for us to shake that. Had Nancy come along 10 years ago, I don't think she would have had nearly as much impact. The public wasn't accepting us. Timing is so important. Things have changed so much in the last five or six years."

One wonders if Whitworth covets the attention Lopez has stirred worldwide.

"It's nice to have adulation to a point. But it's not something I've had to have," said Whitworth. "I don't feel cheated at all.

"The greatest recognition you can have is from your peers, and I have that. I've won a great many tournaments. I plan on winning a few more."

If she does get a win she can count on playing to a larger audience than in her previous official 79. The Rochester Classic last week drew more than 30,000 spectators, up from last year's count of 20,000 - which was considered a great crowd at the time.

The three major networks dickered with the LPGA this week for the right to broadcast feed-ins of today's round. Stone recalls a time when the LPGA had a sponsor and the money to buy television time but still was unable to get the particular tournament on the air.

Writers from Boston, Detroit, Philadelphia, Washington and even a feature writer from the Albuquerque N.M., Journal mill around LPGA press rooms once foreign to their ilk.

"Before" said publicist Chip Campbell, meaning "Before Lopez," "we were lucky to get three paragraphs in any of those papers."

Stone says a golfer can't help wishing she played as well as Lopez, but says she has never heard an unkind word about her.

"Everyone out here is smart enough and has struggled enough to realize that she is doing noting but good for us," said Stone. "Nancy knocks 'em out with everything she does. All she has to do is smile.

"Laura Baugh help us in that way, too. But the big difference between them is that Nancy can really play. She can win."