The last time Nancy Lopez played a round in the U.S. Women's Open, she walked up the 18th fairway at brutal Blackwolf Run in Wisconsin waving a white towel in mock surrender to a course that had beaten her down. She missed the cut for only the second time in 22 appearances, going 9 over for 36 holes.

A year later, Lopez, 42 and with a pair of achy knees, nevertheless still can envision herself walking up the 18th hole Sunday, again with a beaming smile. She truly believes she has an excellent chance to win the 54th Open, the one major championship that has eluded her during a Hall of Fame career that includes 48 victories on the LPGA Tour, three in majors.

"I feel like I'm ready," she said Tuesday. "I feel like my golf game is there. I feel like my putting is there. I feel like everything is so up for me. . . . I love the golf course. I feel it likes me a little bit, too. I know my game is there. I know it can win."

Lopez has played many rounds at the Old Waverly Golf Club on the 6,433-yard, par-72 course she helped open in 1988. She is good friends with club founder George Bryant, a Mississippi native who made his fortune in the food business (Bryant Foods and Sara Lee). And she has no doubt that her local knowledge about a venue with much water and reasonably wide fairways will be a distinct advantage.

However, her disadvantage is visible. She'll be walking with a large black brace clamped to her left knee, which she described as "bone on bone" following surgery two years ago. Her right knee is not much better, and arthritis affects both knees.

"What's been causing the problems is wear and tear," she said. "I hate to say getting older, but that's really what's happening. When [the doctor] looked at me, he said my knees looked like someone who was 60 years old, so I guess I beat them up pretty good, all the bending and squatting when I'm playing. But it doesn't really hurt. I guess I should be wearing a brace on the other leg, but I don't want to look ridiculous out there."

Lopez has undergone constant physical therapy, including much exercise in a swimming pool to avoid straining her knee joints. She is not on medication but uses a few homeopathic remedies. She said she often has a hard time taking the first few steps of the morning, but she gradually loosens up and her game has not really been affected.

At home, Lopez admitted she's not getting much sympathy from her husband, former major league baseball player and manager Ray Knight, who "played with a torn Achilles', messed up rotator cuffs and everything, and he never complained," she said. "And I'm not going to complain because he's not going to say `Honey, it'll be all right.' I just have to grin and bear it and go on and play the best I can until it just kills me and I can't play anymore."

Knight will be here with their three children, and will walk every step of the way with his wife from behind the spectator ropes. He also is convinced this could be her time.

"Old Waverly holds a special place in her heart," he said. "Maybe that will give her a boost to get her over the hump. In her mind, she still thinks she can win, and that's a big key. She's been getting her game in shape. It's important for her to get a good start, having a good first round. Last year, everything that could go wrong did."

The year before, in the 1997 Open at Pumpkin Ridge in Oregon, nearly everything went right. Lopez needed a 15-foot putt to force a playoff, but missed by an inch to finish second to England's Alison Nicholas. It was her fourth runner-up spot in the tournament she desperately wants to win.

There was no consolation in being the first woman to shoot all four rounds of the event in the sixties, with a 275 total that would have won all but two previous U.S. Opens. She says she was "devastated" by that loss, taking it far worse than she did in her three previous second-place finishes. The first was against Sandra Palmer in her second Open, in 1975, when Lopez was still an amateur. She lost by two shots to Hollis Stacy in 1977, and Betsy King beat her by four in 1989.

Clearly, Lopez will not be the favorite to win this week, though she likely will attract the largest galleries. Defending champion Se Ri Pak of South Korea, Australian Karrie Webb, the LPGA's leading money winner, and Sweden's Annika Sorenstam, a two-time U.S. Open champion, are expected to challenge for a title that has been won by international players the past four years. But Lopez would like to change that.

"When I was younger and playing with some of the older players, you feel like you want to show them that you can play," she said. "I really thrived on that. Now when I'm playing with younger players, I think I feel the same way. These are the best young players of our time, and I want to play as well or better than them. You kind of pull out all the guts and grind over every shot and give it your all because I want to stay right there with them."

And this week, at least one shot ahead.