Health issues may have steered LPGA Hall of Famer Nancy Lopez away from a regular schedule on the tour four years ago, and now they may be driving her back.
One of the tour's all-time fan favorites, Lopez, who will turn 50 in January, admits her last few years as an LPGA semi-regular were more about pleasing those fans.
"They didn't care what I shot, they just wanted me to come out and play," Lopez said. "I realized that that's not what I wanted to do. I told myself I never wanted to play just to play.
"This week, I am playing just to play, because I'm working on my game. If I can shoot a good round of golf it's going to inspire me to keep working and keep playing."
Lopez tees off in the Jamie Farr Owens Corning Classic presented by Kroger at Highland Meadows today at 9 a.m., playing in a threesome with Laura Davies and another all-time Highland Meadows fan favorite, 2004
Farr Classic champion Meg Mallon.
It is Lopez's first LPGA event since last May, but she recently played in two non-tour golf events in Rochester, N.Y., and Des Moines.
Nagging pain in her feet and knees in recent years had taken a toll, both on her ability to play and to enjoy the game.
"I played horrible [in Rochester], but I really enjoyed being back there," Lopez said. "Then I played a senior event in Des Moines that next weekend, and I played pretty good. I hit a lot of good shots, and some bad shots.
"I kind of got excited about hitting the good shots and I thought, maybe I ought to start playing a little bit again. I've been working out trying to get back into shape since March."
Once the LPGA's No. 1 player, Lopez won 17 of her 48 career tournament championships in a dominant two-year run (1978-79). Entering the 2006 season, she still ranked 16th on the all-time money list with $5,320,877.
But, after 1993, she added only one more title - the Chick-fil-A Championship in 1997 - to her resume. Following 1998, when she earned more than $100,000 in a season for the last time, Lopez managed just one top-10 finish in 59 tour stops between 1999 and 2005. She played just three LPGA events in 2003, five in 2004 and two last year.
Lopez has not played the Farr Classic since 2002, when she tied for 63rd place at 3-over.
"I think really what's kept me from playing golf is being out of shape," Lopez said. "My feet hurt, my knees hurt and it kind of works its way up. It was my body telling me that it's hard to be able to compete and play.
"I finally realized that maybe if I worked out and lost some weight that maybe I can get back out here and start playing a little bit and not be in too much pain."
Insisting she is no "couch potato," Lopez admits that poor eating habits had led to weight gain and subsequent health problems. Most of them were physical, but her doctor warned her she was on the verge of needing medication to control high blood pressure, triglyceride and cholesterol levels.
Lopez put off the medication, promising her doctor she would instead eat healthier and lose weight. She dropped 10 pounds within a month, 28 total, and hopes to shed another 25.
The reduced weight and healthier body have created a rejuvenated spirit and a renewed desire to compete again.
"When I started playing golf [after weight loss] I was feeling better," Lopez said. "Things didn't hurt as much."
Lopez also changed her mental approach, accepting the fact that she can rarely hit long drives anymore. Instead, she concentrates on adjusting her game to maximize her capabilities.
Where all of this will lead, Lopez isn't sure. But she's prepared to put in the necessary work to sustain a comeback bid.
"I missed competing," she said. "I didn't really retire a few years ago. I just really kind of wanted to step away for a while. I may play five or six tournaments, I don't know. We'll just have to see."
Why did she choose Highland Meadows?
"I decided to come to the Jamie Farr because I figured the crowds would be a little easier on me if I didn't play real well," Lopez said. "I'm excited to come here because I love the golf course, and my short game is good and my putting is good. With my long game, I'm working on my swing a little bit. I'm excited to be here."
The feeling is mutual.
"It says a lot for this tournament," defending Farr champion Heather Young said. "Nancy doesn't play much, but she elected to be here and that's pretty neat."
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