Meet Nancy Lopez—Golf Legend, Philanthropist And Palm City Resident
During an interview with Nancy Lopez, the iconic, Hall-of-Fame golfer's eyes well up as she shares some of the laurels and highlights from her life and illustrious career. She's the mother of three daughters and grandmother of two grandchildren; she's won 48 LPGA tournaments; she brought home the USGA Bob Jones Award in 1998; she captained the U.S. team at the 2005 Solheim Cup; and most recently, she helmed the U.S. team as assistant captain at this year's Solheim Cup in Scotland.
“I feel like I should mention my new husband, Ed [Russell],” she says. “He's always been my best friend and my biggest supporter.”
Fixed up by their mutual friend and pro golfer, Debbie O'Connell, the couple discovered they had much in common, including a passion for travel and golf. After seven years of dating, they tied the knot in 2017. Today, when they're not traveling for work or pleasure, they enjoy spending time at the homes they share in Palm City and Denver, Colorado.
According to those who know Lopez, the New Mexico native has always proudly worn her heart on her sleeve. “She cries easily,” says Dr. Jo Geiger, a close friend and founder of AIM for the Handicapped, a Dayton, Ohio-based charity that provides language training to children with special needs and adults touched by Alzheimer's disease through movement set to music. “When you talk about these kids, she just sobs because she really loves them.”
When Lopez first met Geiger at an LPGA tournament in Chicago, she was 22 years old and had already made huge strides in her career. Before speaking with her, the now 83-year-old social services advocate had watched the charming and fantastically talented golfer in action from afar.
“I had always read how wonderful she was and that she always smiled and made time for everyone,” Geiger says. “But when I saw it for myself, I knew Nancy was what our kids really needed.”
During their meeting, Geiger encouraged Lopez to visit Dayton—where she could tour the school and meet the children and their parents. After one day at the facility, she was hooked.
“She stood in the middle of my office with tears running down her face and she looked at me and said, ‘You've got everything I have,'” Geiger says. “I've had her support for 40 years now, and she never gets credit for what she's done for us because she doesn't talk about it that much.” Lopez currently serves as the national ambassador to AIM.
In 1981, they co-launched the Nancy Lopez/AIM Golf Tournament, a one-day event that has evolved into a three-day golf tourney played at the Nancy Lopez Legacy Country Club in The Villages, Florida. The event, which commemorated its 39th season in October, has raised millions for the non-profit thanks in part to its star-studded dinner gala and silent auction, and to golf greats like Chris DiMarco who lend a hand by playing pro bono.
When she learned the charity didn't accept governmental aid, only private gifts, Lopez found more ways to aggrandize the philanthropy's fiscal footprint.
Geiger enjoys telling the story of when Nancy played at an LPGA charity auction in Houston, Texas, and she donated a round of golf to local charity Folds of Honors. Lopez, who freely admits she can chatter in perpetuum about her pet charity, said she was at the third hole when a woman asked, “If I gave AIM $100,000, would you come to Denver and play golf with me and two of my friends?” Nancy agreed. By the 18th hole, she was prepared to finance a brand new facility. “As of today, this woman has given us over $3 million,” Geiger says.
“We also have friends that help us raise money and, of course, donate all the time or will send a $100 check every month,” Lopez says. “They know me and Dr. Jo, but they fall in love with the charity. That's how you make money for charities—when you have their heart.”
Lending her star power to organizations that tug at her heartstrings has become something of a full-time job for the prolific player, but she doesn't mind. Skim through her 2019 calendar, and you'll find it inked up with special events, corporate outings, pro-ams and PGA and LPGA tournaments benefiting charities like the National Breast Cancer Foundation, the Boys & Girls Clubs of America and Swinging With Purpose, a Naples non-profit that provides aid to local grassroots organizations that are transforming the lives of women and children.
As swamped as her schedule might seem, the 62-year-old still manages to make time for other passion projects, such as overseeing the design of her eponymous collection of ladies golf apparel for Nancy Lopez Golf, a subsidiary of ACI Brands Inc.p
While many designers will seek out a muse to propel their collections, Lopez takes a page from her past. “I always seemed to play better when I felt I looked really sharp in my clothes,” she says. “It's all about comfort when you're playing golf.” Always comfortable yet tailored and classy, her sartorial silhouettes easily float from the links to après-golf apéritifs.
Nancy Lopez Golf Adventures is another source of joy and pride. Now in its fifth season, her company offers immersive and educational golfing experiences at some of the world's grandest greens. Co-taught with Teresa Zamboni and Sue Powers, both LPGA Class A professionals and LPGA Teachers of the Year, players are given game-changing tips coupled with positive affirmatives (like “playing happy is the key to playing better”) Lopez learned early in her career from her father and coach.
Her gratitude is self-evident when she speaks of her family's late patriarch. “I was successful because of my dad. He didn't allow me to be lazy, and I always knew there was a big light at the end of the tunnel if I worked for it.” Often, he would tell her that success was just about being happy. “That's what I've done all my life,” she says.
When asked what she would do if she couldn't play golf, Lopez says she went to The University of Tulsa because she wanted to get a degree in engineering. She didn't know if she wanted to build a golf course, or even what kind of engineering to get into. But as time went on, she understood she just loved to be on the golf course, “cutting grass on a big, old tractor.”
“Whenever I would smell cut grass, I would tell my dad, ‘It smells like a tournament,'” she recalls. “I always thought about that. I didn't have to be rich and I didn't have to have everything—I just wanted to have peace. I think that's my peace, the golf course.”