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Rookie golfer Nancy Lopez wins her first Coca-Cola Classic

On May 21, 1978, 21-year-old rookie golfer Nancy Lopez defeats her childhood hero, JoAnne Carner, on the first hole of a sudden death playoff to win the Coca-Cola Classic in Jamesburg, New Jersey. The next year Lopez beat out 44-year-old Mickey Wright, again in a playoff, to repeat as Coca-Cola champion. As Wright had been the dominant women’s golfer of the 1950s and 60s, Lopez’s victory was seen as a passing of the torch.

Nancy Lopez was born January 6, 1957, in Torrance, California. Her family soon moved to New Mexico, where she began her golf education at age eight under her Mexican-American father’s tutelage. With an unorthodox, yet effective swing and poise beyond her years, Lopez emerged as the top young golf talent of her generation and turned pro at just 19 years old.

Lopez stormed on to the LPGA tour in 1978 with nine tournament wins, including a record five in a row. The charismatic young star led the tour in earnings and was named Rookie of the Year, LPGA Player of the Year, an honor she went on to receive three more times, and the Vare Trophy for best scoring average. Lopez remains the only LPGA player to have won Rookie of the Year and Player of the Year in the same year. In her first two full years on the tour, she won an astounding 17 tournaments. In 1979 she was again named Player of the Year and won the Vare Trophy.

Although her streak of dominance ended, Lopez remained a force on the tour into the 1980s. At just 30 years old in 1987, she became the 11th inductee to the LPGA Hall of Fame. She had qualified for the Hall with her 35th career victory six months earlier, but her induction was postponed until she had been on the tour the requisite 10 years.

Lopez won the LPGA championship for the third time in 1989, but finished second in the U.S. Open, the third of four times she would do so. If there is a mark against Lopez in her career, it has been her inability to win the U.S. Open, and a lack of majors in general.

A mother of three, Lopez retired from full-time competition in 2002, although she continues to play limited tournaments. In 2005, she was asked to captain the U.S. Solheim Cup team. That year, Paula Creamer, Julie Inkster, Meg Mallon and Lopez led the U.S. to victory over Europe, 15-12 1/2, at the Crooked Stick Golf Club in Carmel, Indiana.

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