The youngest woman ever to be inducted into the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) Hall of Fame, Albany resident Nancy Lopez won forty-eight tournaments and earned more than $5 million in prize money during her career.
Nancy Lopez was born on January 6, 1957, in Torrance, California, to Mexican American parents. When she was eight, her father, Domingo, who ran an auto-body repair shop, gave Lopez her first set of clubs. At age nine she won her age group at the California State Golf Championships and at twelve she won the New Mexico Women’s Amateur. In 1972 and 1974 she won the U.S. Golf Association Junior Girls’ Championship.
Because there was no girls’ golf team at her high school, Lopez joined the boys’ team, which won two state titles while she played with them. In 1974 she accepted a scholarship to the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma and the next summer entered the U.S. Women’s Open as an amateur, placing second. In 1976 she won the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women collegiate championship and was named an all-American.
Late in 1977 Lopez left college and joined the LPGA tour. She played in the last six events of the year and placed second in three. The following year she won nine tournaments, including a record five in a row. Among her victories was the LPGA Championship. In 1978 the LPGA named her both rookie of the year and player of the year, and the Associated Press (AP) named her female athlete of the year. She also won the Vare Trophy, which recognizes the lowest stroke average per round; Lopez’s average was 71.76 for 1978. The following year she won eight events and captured her second Vare Trophy with a stroke average of 71.2.
The 1980s proved to be Lopez’s most successful period, both professionally and personally. By the end of 1982 she had won eight more tournaments, including her second major: the 1981 Dinah Shore. In 1982 she married her second husband, baseball star and Albany native Ray Knight. Although she took time off in 1983 for her first pregnancy, she won twice both that year and in 1984. In 1985 she not only won her second LPGA Championship but also her third LPGA player of the year and AP female athlete of the year awards. She set a record for both yearly earnings, at $416,472, and scoring average, at 70.73. She delivered her second child in 1986 and the following year became the youngest inductee into the LPGA Hall of Fame. In 1988 she became only the fourth woman golfer to surpass $2 million in career earnings. In 1989 Lopez won her third LPGA Championship.
Injuries and family responsibilities limited Lopez’s playing time in the 1990s, though she won six tournaments during the decade, the last in 1997 at age forty. She was inducted into the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame in 1998 and the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame in 2002. Lopez retired from the LPGA at the end of the 2002 season with 48 wins (sixth all-time) and $5,310,391 in career earnings (twelfth all-time).
Although Lopez was a fiery competitor, she was also known for her courteous behavior toward fans and fellow players, and she was a leading force in raising the popularity of women’s golf to its current level. During her career she became a visible spokesperson for women’s rights and Latino issues. She continues to sponsor an annual golf tournament, the Nancy Lopez Hospice Golf Classic, in Albany to benefit the Albany Community Hospice, as well as an annual tournament in Stockbridge to benefit Winshape, an organization founded by Chick-fil-A owner Truett Cathy to provide foster care to children.