Looking back -- the Lopez / Wright Intersection

2022 Cognizant Founders Cup underway

Looking back – Lopez / Wright

Looking back -- the Lopez / Wright Intersection
Nancy Lopez (winner on right) and Mickey Wright (2nd place on left) at post round interview during 1979 Coca-Cola Classic at Upper Montclair CC in Clifton, NJ. (LPGA/LPGA via Getty Images)

CLIFTON, NJ. This week’s LPGA Tour event is the Cognizant Founders Cup. The primary focus is celebrating thirteen women who founded the LPGA Tour in 1950. But the remembrance goes beyond just those key contributors. The women who followed the founders — aptly named “pioneers” — also played a major role in creating worldwide awareness for the virtuoso performances over the years from the finest players in women’s golf.


Looking back – Lopez / Wright

One of those moments came in 1979 at the site hosting this year’s event — Upper Montclair CC in Clifton, NJ. The excitement reached a crescendo as a new force was taking women’s golf by storm to an unprecedented level and doing so by outlasting an iconic figure still considered today the finest women golfer of all-time.

How good were they?

Both are enshrined in the World Golf Hall of Fame and the LPGA Hall of Fame.


Nancy Lopez

Looking back – Lopez / Wright

But the storyline commences one year prior in 1978 with the emergence of Nancy Lopez into the professional ranks. Lopez had demonstrated a meaningful capacity to play at a high level as an amateur and was quick to demonstrate formidable skills as a professional The 21-year-old showed how impactful she was right from the outset. Lopez won nine times that year — no misprint. And even more remarkably that included five events in a row — one of which included the Coco Classic played that year at Forsgate CC in Monroe Township, NJ. 

As Nancy’s winning streak developed the attention built like a tidal wave. In years past, few knew little if anything about the LPGA. Lopez’s emergence was an epic game changer. Amazingly, in that same year, baseball great Pete Rose set a National League consecutive hitting record at 44 games. Lopez’s consecutive winning streak was duly noted with the cover of the July 10, 1978 issue of Sports Illustrated. In addition, Nancy was named Associated Press female athlete of the year as well as Rookie-of-the-Year and Player-of-the-Year on the LPGA Tour. A feat never matched.


Looking back – Lopez / Wright

Without question the Lopez juggernaut was of epic proportions.

More importantly, Lopez clearly served notice in a male-dominated sport. Fan interest grew rapidly, and in her own way, Lopez did what Arnold Palmer had done for men’s golf approximately 20 years earlier.

Lopez had the “it” factor. Authentic charisma oozed from her core. Blessed with an engaging smile, her fan base simply exploded in numbers. Tournament directors swooned over her. Having Lopez in an event was the equivalent of landing Elvis or Sinatra for a concert. 

Remarkably, Lopez did not have a sophomore slump — the rocket ship that blasted off in 1978 only accelerated faster into the heavens. Lopez won eight times that year but her most memorable triumph in that year came again in New Jersey but this time at UMCC.


Looking back – Lopez / Wright

The 1979 event field was filled with talent but Lopez was the main headliner. But there was another golfer competing who inexplicably flew under the radar — one with a golf swing Ben Hogan stated was the finest he had ever seen. 

That golfer’s name — Mary Kathryn Wright. Known to those throughout golf simply as Mickey — the San Diego star went into semi-retirement in 1969 at age 34. During her heyday when Wright played — her golf was both overwhelming and mesmerizing. 

How good? Try 82 wins — second all-time along with 13 major championships including a record tying four U.S. Women’s Open triumphs. She is also the only female golfer to have held all four major titles at the same time. Between 1956 and 1969 she won at least one LPGA tournament every year. Suffice to say, when Wright won — which was often — the dominance was there for all eyes to see. In so many ways — Wright was the forerunner to what Tiger Woods would be.


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Looking back – Lopez / Wright

Between 1961 and 1964 Wright won 44 times. She still holds the record for most wins in a season with 13. While her golf clubs did considerable talking, Wright was naturally shy and did not readily embrace the public spotlight. Media coverage, sadly, was lacking for much of Wright’s career. But those within the sport were well aware of the greatness she consistently brought to the golf course. Wright’s last victory came in 1973 but the 44-year-old emerged from the shadows and was in the field for the 1979 Coca Cola event at UMCC.

However, the focal point of attention centered on Lopez. Every step — every move — watched, noted and rooted for. When Andy Warhol famously said any person can have “15 minutes of fame” — he erred considerably in the case of Nancy.

Crowds flocked to UMCC invariably asking volunteers working at the club, “where is she?” There was only one “she” in their mind.

With the weight of expectations squarely on her shoulders Lopez played solid golf scoring 216 for three rounds over the challenging UMCC layout. But like the previous year — Lopez would need to settle matters in a playoff. In 1978, she defeated JoAnne Carner– another future Hall of Famer. This time four golfers tied with her. Joining Lopez in the playoff were Bonnie Bryant, JoAnne Washam, future Hall of Famer Hollis Stacey and the incomparable Wright.

The playoff commenced on one of the featured holes at UMCC — the water-protected par-3 6th on the South Nine which played as the 15th hole for the event.

Lopez rose to the occasion with a solid approach leaving a 20-foot putt for birdie. Wright seized the moment in a big-time way — hitting a laser-like approach to 3 feet. Knowing full well that failure to make birdie could likely give Wright the opportunity to snare the win — Lopez made the putt and the huge throng of those watching erupted loudly. Bryant, Washam and Stacey could not match the birdie and were eliminated. Wright made her short putt and now the tournament was down to just two — the emerging star against the titan of yesterday.

Looking back -- the Lopez / Wright Intersection
Mickey Wright

The playoff lasted just one additional hole. Lopez making another birdie from roughly seven feet with Wright being unable to match the score. Interestingly, Lopez had the same putt during the final round and missed.  As the two shook hands and hugged the intersection between past and present generations was front and center. Wright would never again come that close to victory and Lopez would go on to become the best player in women’s golf for a period of time.

There are few moments in the golf world where past and present intersect. On the men’s side the 1960 U.S. Open is often cited as Hogan faded from view and the likes of Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus would carry the men’s game to even greater heights as the next generation of superstars.

Since the heyday of Nancy Lopez, only one other female golfer has approached that kind of electric atmosphere — Michelle Wie. The difference between the two was Nancy’s ability to keep winning. The only aspect from Wie’s career surpassing Lopez is victory in the U.S. Women’s Open — a championship Nancy would finish runner-up in four times including once as an amateur. Lopez gained financially from her peak years but one can only imagine if she had been born in existing times. The same could be said for Wright. The explosion via social media would have been stratospheric. 


Looking back – Lopez / Wright

Sadly, on February 17. 2020, Wright passed away after suffering a heart attack. The 85-year-old is rightly revered for her outstanding golf skills and the grace of her demeanor when doing so. Without doubt — Mickey had the Wright stuff.

In winning the 1979 Coca Cola Classic Lopez earned $15,000 from a total purse of $100,000. This year’s Cognizant Founders event is among the highest in women’s golf — $3 million total with a first-place purse of $450,000. How times have evolved is self-evident.

To kick-off this year’s event, tournament organizers provided for a ceremonial tee shot to be played. The choice on who would hit it was simple. Nancy Lopez.

The Cognizant Founders Cup commenced Thursday with a ceremonial tee shot hit by Nancy Lopez. Courtesy: LPGA

Looking back – Lopez / Wright

Now, 65 years old, the 48-time LPGA champion and winner of three major championships showed fine form with a swing as smooth and sound as the one demonstrated 43 years ago.

This year’s Cognizant event will be a contested one with players from around the world battling for the title However, the golf tournament that took place in 1979 at UMCC showcased two colossal figures dramatically displaying tour de force golf linking different generations front and center. 

It is only fitting the Cognizant Founders is now the new home at UMCC. Past and present inexorably intertwined with new chapters to be written for women’s professional golf. The one from 1979 rightly cemented into the annals of golf history.