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Time cannot dim the memory
Arnold Palmer's farewell march over the manicured lawns and through the avenues of azaleas at glorious Augusta last week, reaffirmed golf as a game of incredible longevity. In what other sport could a 72-year-old hero, well, if not actually compete, at least take part, alongside the current world-class stars?

Arnie's Army, many of them also past their three scores years and 10, trooped loyally, cheered loudly and paid homage to the King on his final glorious walk at The Masters. He deserved every moment.

In the women's game, Nancy Lopez, although almost 30 years Palmer's junior, has announced that this is going to be her final season on the LPGA Tour, and she is already experiencing the fond farewells as she makes her last strides along memory lane. As with Arnie, she is more than worthy of every plaudit.

Now 45, Lopez won the New Mexico Women's Championship at the age of 12, launched herself onto the LPGA Tour with nine wins, including a record-setting five in a row, in a unforgettable 1978 rookie season.

Since then, she has gone on to win 48 titles, including three majors, gain entry to the Hall of Fame and, just as importantly, win the hearts of everyone with her trademark smile, warm appreciation of the fans and ever readiness to deal with the media with a mixture of grace and good humour.

A great champion, Nancy, just like Arnie, had that extra 'X' factor, a charismatic personality and a total affinity with the fans. She often relates a story of when, as a youngster attending a men's Tour event, she was waiting in line for an autograph from one of her heroes. But the player in question - and she declines to name him - rudely brushed aside someone ahead of her in the queue.

'I felt so awful for the fan and I vowed that, if I ever turned professional, then I would never refuse an autograph.' It was just such an attitude that made her the darlings of the crowds and, while there may be fewer birdies on her cards these days, she still draws huge galleries.

A highly emotional soul, Nancy shed a few tears when she recently announced that she was calling it a day as a week in and week out Tour player, and buckets more are sure to flow as she is hailed a heroine at every stop on the circuit this season.

Not that Nancy is in any way retiring from golf. She will still play a few times on the Tour each year, at least for the foreseeable future, while she has already signed a deal to join the Golf Channel in America as an expert commentator.

But after a string of injuries - her knees are no longer a problem following surgery, but she claims that just about every other part of her body hurts - and a rapid descent down the rankings (she finished 157th on last year's money list), she no longer has the same hunger to grind it out in tournaments.

It is five years since Nancy last stepped onto a victory rostrum, and that was in the same 1997 season that a final chance to step onto the victory rostrum at the US Open slipped from her grasp.

In one of the greatest ever final days of a major championship, the then 40-year-old became the first, and only, player to shoot in the 60s in all four rounds of a women's Open, but she still came out one shot shy of England's Alison Nicholas. It was the third time that she finished runner-up in the one title that she would so dearly have loved to have added to her collection.

Another reason that Nancy is cutting back is that she wants to spend more time with her husband Ray Knight, a famous baseball coach, and their three daughters, Ashley (18), Errin (15) and Torri (10). Unusually, she has managed to combine a happy family life with a high-level sporting career. 'But now they deserve more of my time,' she claimed.

Of course, the good news is that both Arnie and Nancy will still be very much in evidence, one way or another, on the golfing stage.

As for Lopez, the hope is that she might include the Weetabix British Open at Turnberry this August on her farewell Tour. She would certainly be a wonderful attraction at the first women's major ever to be staged in Scotland.


©    16 - APRIL 2002



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