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Lose a golf ball, take a fresh one from your bag. Break a club, replace it. Make a triple bogey, forget it. But lose a swing—lose a swing and pluck your eyes from their sockets, tear flesh from your wrists, hit your head against a wall and don't think about sleep until the blasted thing comes back. Especially if that little golf swing earned you nearly $500,000 in three years and brought an entire sport right to its knees.
Play has never been held up while everyone went into the woods to search for a golfer's lost swing, but that could happen to women's golf if Nancy Lopez-Melton doesn't find hers soon. That is how important this 23-year-old superstar is to her sport. Donna Caponi Young may be the hottest player on the LPGA tour this year, the wonderfully craggy JoAnne Carner may be playing like the Great Gundy again, and young Amy Alcott may be everybody's girl next door, but none of them can do what Lopez-Melton can: attract free-spending sponsors, huge crowds and the interest of the people who decide what gets on television. This is because no other woman can play the kind of dazzling golf Lopez-Melton can. That is, when she has her swing.
With her swing she has won just about every tournament in her sights from the time she was nine years old. In her first 2� seasons as a professional, she won 17 of the 50 tournaments she entered—that's batting an astounding .340—and she stayed consistently atop the money-winning list.
Even without her swing—or, rather, with that other swing she has somehow created this year—she hasn't fallen off that badly. She is still fourth on the money list and has won one of 11 tournaments. But along the way she lost her confidence and alerted her competitors—boy, are they happy!—that she can be beaten.
The original unorthodox swing was as much a Lopez trademark as the liquid eyes and bright, beaming smile. From a motionless stance over her teed-up ball, she would first raise her hands and arms a few inches to clear her rather bosomy chest. Then, almost in slow motion, she would take the club back and up, twisting her torso until her arms were stretched high over her head. There she would stop and gather her power. Her downswing was enormous, and the ball would rocket off the tee straight and high and long, longer than any other woman could consistently hit it—and many of the men. This January, when she returned to the tour after a two-month layoff dedicated to discovering the joys of young married life with her husband, Cincinnati sportscaster Tim Melton, she forgot to bring that swing with her.
After a rocky start she managed to win the women's Kemper Open in Costa Mesa, Calif. at the end of March, but could do no better than seventh in her next three outings. Then in mid-May, at the Coca-Cola Classic in Clifton, N.J., disaster struck. She shot a second-round 83—her worst round, she said, "since I was young." Reminded that she is still young, she said, "Well, since I was a kid. A pudgy, grimy kid." A tearful call went out to her daddy, Domingo, the man who taught her the game, in Roswell, N. Mex.
She took a week off to practice, but last week you could see that the signature Lopez swing was still missing when the tour stopped at Wykagyl C.C. in New Rochelle, N.Y. for the Golden Lights Championship, of which Lopez-Melton was the defending champion. Her swing in the first two rounds was flat; there was no upraising of the hands; the arms were down across her chest almost as in a baseball swing. Her galleries—Nancy's Navy—were still the largest, but her fans were rooting for pars rather than birdies as she went 75-75, six-over and eight strokes out of the lead. Her smiles were forced, the signing of autographs a burden.
Lopez-Melton hit buckets of balls after Friday's round as her father looked on. Then she worked on the putting green for half an hour. Her caddie, shaggy-haired Roscoe Jones, sat on her bag sucking a beer. "How's the swing?" he said. "It's terrible. Flat. Better now than it was, but not much. It's probably my fault. I feel responsible for the way she's playing. I let her get away with it. I saw as soon as she came out this year that the swing was messed up, but she did O.K. so I kept quiet. But it was flat. She wasn't turning, her chest was getting in the way."
Domingo Lopez told his daughter, "Leave the swing the way it is for the rest of the tournament. You playing all right, Nancy, don't do nothing now. Wait until you are off the course."
On Saturday, Domingo walked in Nancy's gallery as she got two birdies on the front nine. "She playing good," he said, eyes twinkling. "She not swinging like she used to, but she using it good. You should have seen her before, hitting to the left, duck-hooking, oh...." He slapped himself in the face. "After her 83 she call me very upset and said, 'Daddy, do you know my score?' I say, 'Yeah.' She say, 'I don't know what to do.' I say, 'You're a flat swinger now. You no turning enough to get the hands up. That's why you go to the left.' She say, 'I want you to come up to Cincinnati and help.' I say, 'Oh, oh....' "