Late in July, Bethesda Country Club will host a landmark golf tournament when the LPGA Championship (sponsored by Mazda) becomes the first women's golf tournament to offer a $1 million purse.

Making the moment more special is the fact that the defending champion is Nancy Lopez, who has probably done more to boost the tour's popularity than any other player.

Lopez was in Bethesda yesterday to promote the LPGA's richest tournament, set for July 26-29. She said she was excited about the $1 million purse, partly because she will be one of the 144 golfers competing for the winner's share -- $150,000 -- and partly because of what it means to the tour.

"It's great. I'm just thrilled," said Lopez. "I remember winning {the Greater Baltimore Open} my first year {1978}, and first place was $7,800. And now we have the chance to win $150,000. I think this is going to raise the purses of the other tournaments, because they're going to want to stay competitive."

Few athletes are as synonymous with their sport as Lopez with women's golf. At 33, she already is a member of the LPGA Hall of Fame, closing in on the $3 million mark in career earnings.

She has been named LPGA player of the year four times, including both of her first two full seasons on the tour. She has 42 career victories.

Having already accomplished all her goals, she said that sometimes motivation is a problem for her: "My biggest goal was always getting into the Hall of Fame. And after I was inducted, I lost a little desire, because I have always been a goal-setter. I didn't know what to do next. I didn't know what goal I could set."

She said she sometimes has to rely on her husband, former major league baseball player Ray Knight, for inspiration.

"He sets a lot of goals for me and makes me work on my game, because he doesn't want me to waste my time if I'm not going to play the way he thinks I can," Lopez said. "He motivates me by saying so many positive things.

"But what motivates me the most, I think, is just winning. Once you've been to the top, you really want to stay there. I just love golf. I love it when I'm inside the ropes and I'm there by myself with my caddie trying to hit that great shot that can give you a thrill. It's really not the money anymore. It's competing and trying to beat all those great players."

In recent years, the LPGA has competed with the Senior PGA tour -- at a level not far below the PGA Tour -- for television exposure, sponsors' money and attendance. But lately the senior tour, bolstered by such superstars as Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino, has taken a firm hold of second place. It is not because of a dropoff in interest in women's golf; the senior tour has just grown faster.

But Lopez thinks the LPGA, behind second-year commissioner William Blue, is on its way, pointing out that sometimes something as superficial as personal appearance can make a difference in an audience's perception.

"People always compare us to the PGA Tour," said Lopez, "which is a shame because we're not a men's organization. We're a women's organization, and we should be compared to other women's sports. I think it's important to show that you don't have to look like a man to play women's golf, but instead show a little femininity there. I think people appreciate seeing a feminine woman hitting a golf ball 250 yards.

"When people come out to see me, I want to be a lady and I want to be a professional."

Lopez said Bethesda's course, site of the LPGA's 1989 Greater Washington Open, suits her game. "It's the type of course I like to play -- it's tight. And the greens are just tricky enough to make you work hard. It's the type of course where you might have to leave your driver in the bag, take your par and move on."