ORLANDO, Fla. — Nancy Lopez has never been one to do anything half-heartedly.
When she realized her game was good enough to compete with the pros, Lopez left the University of Tulsa, and she won nine times in her rookie year on the LPGA, including an incredible stretch of five straight victories in May and June of 1978.
She finished her career with 51 professional wins, including three majors, in 25 full-time seasons on the tour. On one of women’s golf’s biggest stages, the Solheim Cup, Lopez helped the U.S. win the first Cup in 1990. She later captained the team to victory in 2005.
Now she’s joined forces with Lt. Dan Rooney and Folds of Honor, a non-profit organization that provides educational scholarships for children and spouses of fallen or disabled military service members and first responders.
Since the foundation started, it has granted 51,000 scholarships or about $240 million worth of education.
Rooney, the group’s CEO and founder, and Mike Arbour, who is the chairman of the board of directors, recently asked Lopez to become part of the board. She accepted.
“We never dreamed, especially 16 years ago when I was above my garage, that Nancy Lopez would say yes to joining our national board,” Rooney said. “I just think it’s a testament to the mission that brings people together, and that’s taking care of our military and first responders. In a world where you have to pick red or blue, this is red, white and blue. And I think people are starving for common ground.”
Lopez sat down with Golfweek during the PGA Show this week at the Orange County Convention Center to discuss why she became part of the organization, what she thinks of phenom Rose Zhang and what the Americans need to do to recapture the Solheim Cup.
Let's start here: What are your impressions of Rose Zhang, what she's done and what her ceiling is?
I met Rose at the Women’s Amateur at Augusta and she was delightful.
I know she wants to finish school, which is great. I didn’t finish school. I wish I would have but I wanted to be an engineer and I don’t think I could have done that playing on the golf team.
The thing is she won and so there’s so much pressure already on her. I wish she wouldn’t have won so quickly. Because once you win … I mean, for me, I won nine times … I hate to brag, but I like to brag a little bit because I accomplished something … but I won nine tournaments and then the pressure was on to stay. How do you do that? Because the press is already asking me is there going to be a sophomore slump? Are you just a flash in the pan? And so my second year I thought I’m going to prove to them I’m not. I won eight times in my second year, but the pressure was on.
I think the pressure is on Rose right away. So I think she’ll be great and successful, and she already is, but I hope they just let her be the player that she is and let her accomplish the baby steps that she has to to accomplish on the tour.
Players are accustomed to playing more competitively at a young age now. Will that help Rose? Or is there potential for burnout?
It depends on who is supporting her. Who’s in her ear and who is positive for her? My dad was my support system and he always held me to think positive and he was always there if I needed an answer for something. It really depends on that and the kind of pressure. My dad, he wanted me to fail because I was going to learn from it.
I don’t know her parents. I have no clue if they’re that kind of parent but I’ve seen a lot of players on the LPGA tour, and the pressure that the parents put on them, that’s why they’ve failed. They probably could have won 10 more tournaments. You have to have somebody who understands. When I failed, my dad always hugged me. Some of the players today, when they fail, they’re on the driving range, hitting more balls and not getting that hug.
I always tell this story about my dad because he always hugged me and it was never why did you do this, or why did you do that? I played in the U.S. Open in Philadelphia at 17 and I really worked on my golf game. I was ready. I knew I had my best game going there and I just played terrible the first two days. I think I was 12 over par. And I was so disappointed. My dad was following me and when I finished I walked off the green and I was crying. I played for my dad. I mean, I played for myself, but I played for my dad. I sat down and said, ‘I’m so sorry I didn’t play better,’ and he just hugged me and said, ‘Honey. It’s OK. I didn’t want to see you at 25 over par anyway.’ So I went from crying to laughing because I’m like, oh my gosh, it’s OK with my dad.
I think that that’s just so important who is behind you and who supports you to help you get through things. You’re going to go through a lot on the LPGA tour because you have acquaintances, but those players are not your friends. They want to beat you. They still like you, but they want to beat you. So your parents are the only ones that are really true blue to you and will support you. And my dad was the perfect golf dad.
What was your take on the 2023 Solheim Cup?
We didn’t win. People got all over me because I congratulated the Europeans and some said they didn’t win. But they won. They have the cup. We don’t have the cup.
It’s about who wants it the most. I got to play in the first Solheim Cup in 1990 at Lake Nona and it was like, ‘what is this?’ You’re nervous. I had already won maybe 12 or 13 tournaments and Pat Bradley was my partner in the first match, Kathy Whitworth was our captain. I was scared to death. I’m like, wow, I’m playing for my country. I don’t think the players realize how much pressure there is.
When I was captain in 2005, for Natalie Gulbis and Paula Creamer, this was their first time playing and I kept looking at them saying, ‘OK, it’s not like an LPGA event. It’s going to be tough, you’re playing for your country and you’re going to tell the pressure, OK?’ They’re like, ‘alright, yeah yeah.’ Well, we get there and they’re like (motions to choking). They didn’t realize it’s different when you’re playing for your country.
Do you have any advice for Stacy Lewis?
Stacy is a great leader.
I followed my players for two years and I knew what was going to make each player, and bring the best out of each player. I knew this by watching, what I needed to say to them before they started competing. But I was all about the USA. I had flags and I had their pictures. I wanted to motivate them in a positive way so that they would know they’re playing for the country and it’s an honor. Don’t be nervous.
So somehow you have to do that with these players and make sure they realize it’s not about them. When you get 12 women to become a team, that’s not easy. I had so many events, you’ve got to make this team bond so that they have each other’s back. It’s not about one individual or making your point. It’s about the team, rooting for the team and keeping that team spirit the whole time.
Will we ever see you play in a U.S. Women's Senior Open?
First, I can’t walk 18 holes and I have bad feet. So I’ve had two new knees, I’d have to have foot surgery. And I just had shoulder surgery. I don’t want to work that hard anymore because I don’t want to just show up. If I’m going to go I want to win. I don’t know if I could give all that.
You know, I’d have to get back in really good shape. And I would have to go there feeling like I could win. Right now, I enjoy my life too much.
Tell us why you became part of the board for Folds of Honor.
People need this. They need to feel those good feelings because not a lot of people feel a lot of good feelings right now. They want to feel good about what they’re doing in their life and Folds is a great place to jump on board and be a part of it and have those good feelings of helping. You don’t have to help financially, just help find those people, bring them in and tell the story of Folds and what they do.
It uplifts me every time I listen to him and I’m like ‘god, that’s a great point’. And that’s because I have my way of saying things and he has his way and you learn from each other. You know how there’s a word or something that really gets you excited. And I want to share that with somebody else because I want them to feel the way I do when he talks about Folds.
And what was it like when you first met Dan Rooney?
I met Dan at Vince Gill’s pro-am many, many years ago. And when I met Dan, it’s just the story and how he portrayed what he believed in. I fell in love with it, because you’re always searching, especially for me. I tear red, white and blue, not just bleed red, white and blue.
I was trying to maybe find myself at that time, how I could do something for my country. I mean I would run for president if I was smart enough. I would run for president because I love my country and I feel like I could bring everybody together. So being a part of Folds, my husband was in the military, he loves Folds, and he was like, ‘Nancy, we’ve got to do this. We’ve got to be involved.’ So whenever they invited us to events, if I could be there, we went.
It was just a blessing to be able to be with a family because it’s really not just an organization, it’s a family of people that feel and believe what you believe, about your country and about helping other people.