June 12, 1978 12:00 PM

‘I don’t want to be a sex symbol, but I do want to look better’

Originally, Nancy Lopez says, “Dad wanted a boy.” But Domingo Lopez is not the stubborn sort and one day when Nancy was 8 and they were out playing golf together on the Roswell, N.Mex. public course, she recalls, “He saw the balls flying by his head and became interested.”

Today Papa Lopez has the distinction of being father, coach and most devoted follower of the hottest golfer on the women’s tour. Since she turned pro last July, Nancy, 21, has won five tournaments and more than $95,000. She has also become popular among both her competitors (who call her “The Kid”) and galleries, including the male groupies who stalk the women’s tour. “When I’m playing, I concentrate,” Lopez says. “But when I’m practicing, I check out the guys. I’m a sucker for men’s looks.”

In recent weeks Lopez has dropped from 150 to 135 pounds (5’4″, she once weighed 170) and now spends nearly as much time working on her tan—sometimes topless at home—as she does on her approach shots. “I don’t want to be a sex symbol, but I do want to look better,” says Lopez. Anyway, she adds, “Losing weight has helped my game. I don’t have as much to swing around.” Chubby and trim, Lopez has made golf history: No other rookie has ever won more than a single event her first year.

Lopez is not exactly par in other ways, either. She is the child of working-class Mexican-American parents in a sport populated by affluent Anglos. Her unorthodox swing (a sledgehammer cut that nevertheless produces an occasional 240-yard drive) leaves other pros aghast. She has also found that rumors about the number of gay women on the tour are not rumors at all, but has taken that revelation in stride too. “What draws the galleries,” she says, “is that the girls are personable and nice to the public.”

In Roswell, where her dad, once a cotton picker, owns an auto body shop, Nancy was a familiar sight dragging down Main Street in her canary Gran Torino. She was No. 1 on the boys’ high school golf team and, playing men’s tees, she came in fourth in the 1975 New Mexico boys’ championship. She no longer competes against males because they “hit long and straight. Women hit it shorter and straight.”

Despite Lopez’s anglicized upbringing (she doesn’t speak Spanish), some members of Roswell’s golfing community snubbed her at first. These days they’re likely to claim early friendship. “They know who they are,” says Lopez. “My other Anglo friends won’t be bothered by my saying this.”

She was always close to both parents, but her mother, Marina, died at 54 last September from complications after an appendectomy. Nancy says, “I think about her all the time.” She and her older sister, Delma, who is married and lives in California, call their dad every day, concerned, Nancy jokes, lest “some old bag may come along and take his hard-earned money.”

On a golf scholarship at the University of Tulsa, Lopez planned a major in engineering. She dropped out her sophomore year, however, both to turn pro and because her boyfriend Ron Benedetti graduated. They were engaged last November (he sells for an asphalt company in Houston), but Lopez broke it off four months later. “I was meeting other guys and I wanted to go out,” she explains. “I worry about him meeting others. But it’s a chance we both have to take.”

They talk on the phone frequently, but not so long since a $200 bill two years ago. “Not many women golfers are married,” says Lopez. “It has to do with the male ego. I don’t want Ron following me from tournament to tournament. I wouldn’t do that to him. But I’m not ready to give up my golf yet. I’m just starting.”

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