April 25, 1983 12:00 PM

Nancy Lopez and Ray Knight, at 26 and 30, are more alike than their sports. Both were pushed as athletes from their youth by demanding fathers and grew up to become pros in their fields. Both are religious (Southern Baptist), neither smokes or drinks (not even coffee or cola in his case), and both are notably gracious to fans. More significantly, both have had marriage failures that sent them into slumps on the job, which, not incidentally, helped bring them together. Soon they’ll have even more to share.

Lopez, who has been favored to lead the Ladies Professional Golf Association this year, announced last month that she is quitting the tour in July to await the birth of a baby—her first, Ray’s second. The Knights can certainly afford her maternity leave: Nancy recently became one of the five woman golfers who have won more than $1 million in prize money (the others: Donna Caponi, Kathy Whitworth, JoAnne Carner, Pat Bradley), and Ray’s five-year contract as first baseman for the Houston Astros brings him a hefty $2.5 million. Their marriage last October and the baby due in November represent for Nancy, in particular, a kind of joyous upheaval that had been missing from her life.

It was only six years ago that the cheery 21-year-old from a close Mexican-American family in Roswell, N.Mex. made her debut in pro golf. In an awesome first season she won five straight tournaments, a streak no other female golfer has ever equaled. The next season she took an amazing eight of 19 tourneys.

But then, almost as suddenly, her game, and her life, turned ragged. Having just broken an engagement to one man, she married and divorced another. She ballooned to 161 pounds (on a 5’4½” frame), lost the odd but natural swing she trusted, and slid from first on the LPGA money list to seventh last year (she is third so far in 1983). It was during the unhappiness of her three-year marriage to TV sportscaster Tim Melton that her game really unraveled. “I knew I needed something else in my life to make me happy,” she says, “and I would go out on the golf course and play terribly. I cried for days.”

Lopez and Knight both know the strain that jock stardom can put on a marriage, though Nancy insists the cause of her split with Melton “wasn’t career problems. We just grew apart.” Of his 1981 divorce from Terri Schmidt after a five-year marriage, Ray says, “I was devastated. I had a good wife, but she just did not understand what I was going through to achieve success.” Ray and Nancy first met in Japan in 1978, when she was in a tournament and he was playing exhibition games with the Cincinnati Reds. Pete Rose introduced them. “Ray was sweet,” Nancy says. “I saw how nice he was with autograph seekers. I know a lot of athletes, but he seemed healthier, warmer. And I loved those blue eyes.”

Later, coincidence kept them in contact. Nancy and Tim moved to Cincinnati when Melton got a job with WCPO, and he and Ray became friends. They saw each other at most of the Reds’ home games. In 1981 Tim went to work in Houston, and later that year Ray, freshly divorced, was traded to the Astros. By the time he got to Houston, Nancy and Tim had parted. Ray discovered this when he took a house near the Meltons’ place and called to say he was in town. “I had thought she was the happiest person in the world,” Ray says. “I was one of the last to know about the separation.” As Nancy tells it, “We started talking about my problems with my marriage, and we realized that we were alike. He had been devastated. So was I. I was playing poorly, and Ray could relate to that because he went into a hitting slump when he got his divorce. I really needed somebody because my family wasn’t there. The only thing I could rely on was Ray as my friend, helping me through rough times.”

When they decided to marry, both agreed they should wait until 1984 for tax reasons. But, says Nancy, “We were so in love we already felt married. So we got married.” The 100-guest wedding was held at the home of a friend of Ray’s in Pelham, Ga., and Ray and Nancy had a delayed November honeymoon in Hawaii after she won the Mazda Japan Classic. She later skipped a tournament to join him at spring training in Florida.

Their schedules make togetherness rare, and they are looking forward to having three full months away from their games between baseball’s end in October and the January start of the 1984 golf tour. Nancy plans to resume playing then and has already hired a nanny to travel with her and her child.

Nancy’s father, Domingo, who owned an auto body shop in Roswell, groomed her to win. “I started playing golf at 8 and won the women’s state amateur at 12,” she says. “But I was so scared I always threw up. I carried a trash can with me. My dad told me, ‘If you’re going to play golf, you’ve got to get over being sick.’ I didn’t want to quit, so I decided to get over it.” She turned pro after two years at the University of Tulsa. Before her mother died in 1977, Nancy told her the kind of man she wanted as an ideal mate: one who was tall, handsome, didn’t smoke or drink and was religious.

Ray fits the specs. He grew up in Albany (pronounced All-benny by the natives), Ga., where his father works for the parks department, and joined the Reds’ farm system right out of Albany Junior College. In 1979, his first regular year in Cincinnati, he was voted MVP, though he played with so many injuries suffered in games or practice he was nicknamed “Battlescar Galactica.” In Houston, Astros President Al Rosen rates him admiringly as “a tough individual who can play hurt. He will be out there 161 games out of 161 games a season if you need him.”

Both Nancy and Ray are strong-willed, or “stubborn,” as Nancy says, “and we won’t give in when we have arguments. But it’s over in 30 minutes, and we’re saying ‘I love you.’ ” He has been teaching her to hunt (“I feel bad after I kill something,” she admits); she gives him golf tips. Although she again plays as Nancy Lopez—”I felt the fans did not relate to me as Lopez-Melton”—at home she’s Nancy Knight.

Just now they have a surfeit of houses between them: two in Houston, two in Palm Coast, Fla., a condo in Cincinnati and, as HQ, a four-bedroom house with a pool in Albany. “I love Albany because I know most of the people, and family means everything to me,” Ray says. “I wouldn’t consider relocating.” Nancy agrees: “It’s a wonderful place to raise children.” The food’s good, too: “Ray’s mother is the best cook in the world—all those wonderful Southern dishes.”

They spend much time meshing three schedules—hers, his and that of Brooks, his 3-year-old son, who lives with his mother in Tampa but visits Ray and Nancy often. “Brooks understands I’m his second mommy,” Nancy says. “I spanked him once. It nearly killed me, and I said to him, ‘I hope you understand I spanked you because I love you.’ ” When she returns to golf after her baby is born, will the new member of the family be a distraction to her game when she’s playing? “When I’m standing over a hole, it’s like nobody else is there,” she says confidently. “I’m alone. I do not hear anything.”

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