We might never see another rookie season like the one Nancy Lopez had in 1978. Then 22, she won five LPGA Tour events in a row and four more before season’s end, including the LPGA Championship. To put it in perspective, the second-best rookie season in LPGA history came from Se Ri Pak in 1998, when she had four wins, including two majors.
“It was a great time in my life,” Lopez recently told Golf Digest. “I was young; I had the attention of the world. I was really comfortable with people and the press—it was fun. I was hitting great shots, making putts, hearing the fans. If I had a blind shot into a green, I knew how far it was from the pin by how loud the crowd was cheering. I truly miss it.”
In recognition of the 40th anniversary of that amazing season, we went to our archives to gather 18 of her best tips on how to play the game and asked her to revisit them. Lopez was a Golf Digest Playing Editor for several years and delivered quality golf advice on our pages.
When I was a freshman at Tulsa University, the pro at nearby Cedar Ridge Country Club, Buddy Phillips, changed my grip. The club used to rest in the palm of my right hand, and when I opened that hand the palm faced the sky. Buddy placed the club more in the fingers of my right hand. With that new grip, my hand faced the target more, and I started hitting the ball solidly with a slight draw. The new grip put my hand in a more natural position, making it easier to return the clubface to square at impact. If that hand is turned under the club’s handle at address, you’ll probably shut the face at impact and hit a duck hook. Put it in a more neutral position.
2.) IRONS SETUP
Keep the hands ahead of the ball and the left wrist firm. From this position, you’re able to push the club back with your left hand instead of pulling back with the right when you start the takeaway. If the right hand takes over, you’ll make a scooping motion when you strike the ball and won’t hit it very well. Even during the swing, keep the hands a little forward. The left wrist leads the club toward the target after impact and then releases.
After I turned pro, Buddy came down to Dallas when we were in town for a tournament and looked at my swing. Even with the grip change, for a while I was hooking the ball and couldn’t tell why. Turns out, nothing was wrong with my grip or my swing, he said. The problem was that my stance wasn’t square to the hole. My feet were a little closed, which caused me to swing with a shut face and hook it. The lesson? Don’t overlook your setup as the cause of a swing problem.
When I’m swinging my arms and turning my shoulders during the backswing, I’m winding up like a spring. The spring tightens and tightens until I can feel the strain in my upper body. That’s when the backswing should end. Then let all that tension release as you start down.
My follow-through is a big, sweeping extension of the rest of the swing. I just let everything go as though I couldn’t stop if I wanted to. When I finish, the club is wrapped around my shoulders, and my entire body is facing the target. To complete your swing, pick a spot about five inches ahead of the ball in line with the target, and swing past the ball over that spot, keeping the clubhead low to the ground.
I prefer a slower tempo for consistency. With a fast tempo, you never seem to swing the same way twice.
And under pressure, the tendency is to swing even faster. If you want to slow down your swing, think about finishing your backswing. That simple thought slows things down and allows you to transition smoothly into the downswing.
7.) SWING SPEED
I used to swing much faster, but then I saw somebody swing slow at a U.S. Open, and it really caught my attention. I told myself, That looks like a good way to do it. I had a quick backswing then, and I felt if I slowed things up, I was going to move the ball better and be a lot more consistent.
I get a lot of power by pushing off my right leg on the downswing. I can feel the pressure causing my right foot to dig into the turf, moving my weight toward the target. It gives me the strength I need to get through the shot.
9.) CLUB SELECTION
When deciding between two clubs, Curtis Strange taught me to always take the longer one and grip down on it. That way, I wouldn’t have to let up on the swing. I could take a full swing with my wedge and hit it 80 yards instead of 90.
10.) PRE-PUTT ROUTINE
The only way to prevent nonchalance on the greens is to adopt a specific, unvarying routine before every shot. Don’t take more time to make a short putt than you do to hit a drive, but don’t take less time, either. Choose your line, set up to your line, then hit the putt. Once your routine becomes habitual for all shots, you won’t take an easy putt for granted.
11.) SHORT PUTTS
It’s embarrassing to miss a three-foot putt, and we battle that fear on tour just as much as you do at your course. That’s why a 15-foot putt is less taxing mentally than a five-footer. To counter the fear of missing, develop a stroke that will contact the ball with crisp acceleration. Here’s a drill that helps: Pick a spot on your line a few inches in front of the ball and put a ball marker on that spot. When you putt, keep the putterhead moving until it moves over the ball marker. Also, keep the putterhead low.
12.) PUTTING SPEED
One way of ensuring that you don’t leave a putt short is to visualize another hole about a foot behind the real one, and that becomes your target.
‘CHOKE DOWN FOR BETTER CONTROL AROUND THE GREENS. … THE BALL COMES OFF THE FACE LIKE IT CAME OFF A MARSHMALLOW.’
Choke down on the club for better control around the greens. Many times, I grip it right down to the steel. Short-game coach Dave Pelz gave me that tip. It makes the club almost dead, so the ball comes off the face like it came off a marshmallow. It gives me more control of direction and distance.
14.) COURSE MANAGEMENT
I respect hazards and play away from out-of-bounds and stroke-eating bunkers. And if I’m not certainI can clear a water hazard, I’ll lay up. My dad taught me course management such as, if you’re gonna lay up, lay up. Don’t take the shot for granted. And if you’re in trouble, make sure your next play gets you out. Don’t try something that leaves you in the same situation twice.
15.) DOGLEG STRATEGY
Play away from the corner on most dogleg holes. It will add a club or two to your next shot, but you won’t be rattling around in the trees.
I went out the last day of what would be my first LPGA Tour win thinking, I bet everybody else feels the pressure, so if I can go out there and not feel it, I’m going to have an advantage. Let everybody else be scared. I got myself ready that way. I won by only one shot, but it worked. How did I relieve the pressure? I’d focus on some fun memory to take me away from that moment until it was time to hit the shot. Then I’d just focus on making a good swing.
Try to recognize the critical moment in your game, the time when your opponent gives you the opening. Don’t let it slip by. Grab it by the throat, so you can experience one of the great thrills of a golfer’s life—winning under pressure.
18.) THE KEY TO ’78
I made one slight alteration in my putting grip that year, moving the forefinger on my right hand down onto the shaft for better control. With that change, there were days out there when I felt that I could hole everything.