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Nancy Lopez could boost LPGA again

Nancy Lopez, the smiling face of women's golf for the better part of two decades before retiring from the LPGA Tour in 2002, is thinking about starting another chapter in her life. She's talking about maybe tiptoeing back into competition, maybe some Legends Tour events (for women 45 and older) and, if the body holds up and she can recapture some of her game, playing some on the LPGA Tour.

The thing is, she's 54 years old now and hasn't put up any neon numbers in her limited appearances in years.

Doesn't matter to Mike Whan, commissioner of the LPGA. When GolfWorld Magazine put the question to him, Whan said, "Anytime, anywhere. Wherever Nancy goes, a crowd goes."

Whan needs all the help he can get. The women are playing ten fewer tournaments this year than they played four years ago. Only 13 are on the U.S. schedule. The weak economy is largely responsible for that but the Tour has image problems. U.S. fans have been slow to embrace the crush of foreign players who dominate tournament rosters. It doesn't help that many of the foreign players don't speak English, can't communicate well with pro-am partners, autograph seekers or media.

As charismatic as she was, and is, Nancy Lopez can't solve those problems. What she can do is add some warmth. When Arnold Palmer played in the Wells Fargo pro-am here recently, he drew a huge crowd, a "Tiger crowd," Quail Hollow Club president Johnny Harris called it. Palmer is 81 years old. But he's still Arnie.

When she was at her best, Lopez was. in many ways, to women's golf what Arnie was to men's golf. She won't draw the way Palmer did at Quail Hollow, but she can draw people who remember the way she was and people who want to see a legend. Some players have a magnetic charisma, some don't. Nancy did and she had the smile to go with it.

The way she was? She was a junior and collegiate sensation. In 1978, her first full season on the LPGA Tour, she won nine times, including five tournaments in row. Five in a row. And she won eight the next year. She finished her career with 48 wins, including three LPGA Championships, despite interrupting her career three times to have children. And she was runnerup four times in the US Women's Open. Twice she was named Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year. She's in the World Golf Hall of Fame.

Lopez is considering a limited return to tour golf in part because her kids have grown up and she and her longtime husband, Ray Knight, divorced a while back. (She told GolfWorld she's "dating someone nice.") She says her life is still too busy to dedicate herself fully to the Legends Tour but that's her goal.

Women's golf has always been blessed with graceful champions but none more graceful than Lopez. She will be welcomed back, as Mike Whan said, anytime, anywhere. So she might have a problem shooting something low at times. So does Arnie.