Saluting the King and Queen of Golf

from The Villages LIFESTYLE magazine, winter 2003, page 15)

Some wept and others cheered as Nancy Lopez and Arnold Palmer ushered in Torri Pines Course at The Nancy Lopez Legacy Country Club. Thousands watched their heroes, and their darlings put on a memorable display.

THEY CONGREGATED AROUND THE NO.8 GREEN, holding vigil while sitting on sweatshirts to keep the mid-morning dew from tarnishing their shorts. A couple from Arkansas praised the golf gods for their luck - a two-week trip to The Villages just in time to see a pair of the sport's decorated legends, Nancy Lopez and Arnold Palmer.

A few yards away, a gentleman with a picture of Lopez in his bag began circulating a joke about a golfballhitting gorilla. Another man, Don Holton, carried a large framed picture of Palmer and himself at the Los Angeles Open during the 1980s. He squinted toward the tee box hoping beyond all hope he could get Palmer to sign the beloved keepsake - the black ink from the first signature had mostly vanished.

Then the revival happened. A near-perfect drive rolled within three feet of the cup in front of the worshipers - a par 3, 157-yard hole and Palmer didn't disappoint. Lopez' shot landed on the green too, and a group of construction workers standing in front of a house-in-progress on the edge of her course screamed in unison, "We love you Nancy."

For "Arnie's Army" and "Nancy's Navy," this glorious day was dedicated solely to golfing royalty.

"I'm just very emotional right now," said Villages resident Judy Tryon, who, with her dog Annie, broke down and wept when Palmer and Lopez walked by her on the fairway. "When you get to see great people like them in person, it's a day you'll never forget."

The King and Queen drew thousands of admirers on Nov. 21, when two of the biggest names in the history of golf played nine holes together at the grand opening of the Torri Pines Course at The Nancy Lopez Legacy Country Club.

Many of those who witnessed the spectacle cried, while others cheered.

"I had seen Palmer before at the Masters Tournament, but it's amazing to see him again in The Villages, and with Nancy Lopez, too," said Judy Brown, who hobbled through several holes on a sore leg to see her golfing idols. "We love to golf and we're fans of both."

By the time the two dedicated the Torri Pines course, named for Lopez's youngest daughter, Palmer was a fan. "It was fun, a lot of fun," he said. "It played beautifully. We hit mulligans and all sorts of stuff - really tested the golf course. Nancy did a good job."

Lopez, of course, played a major role in designing the course, the third, and final, championship nine-hole course at Lopez Legacy. On the final green - No. 9 - both Lopez and Palmer stared down long putts and both drained them in front of a passionate crowd, which trailed them around the course, hanging on each shot along the way.

"Arnold said to me, 'Let's be serious here, let's make these," Lopez said. "I made mine, then he stepped up, I knew he was going to make his, too. That's what it's all about."

"You just can't pass something like this up," Jerry Glow said, his binoculars hanging from his neck, just in case. "This is the first time I've followed professional golfers around. It's so exciting."

WEARING BLACK PANTS AND A SWEATER over a yellow polo shirt, Palmer joked around with his caddy, Tony Simpson, while warming up on the driving range.

"I think I'll go with an 8-iron," Palmer told Simpson. "Hopefully there's one in there."

Simpson, The Villages golf operations manager of the executive courses, smiled, still shell-shocked that he was caddying for the Hall-of-Fame golfer. "It's pretty indescribable at this point," Simpson said. "I grew up admiring this man and now I'm touching his golf clubs. It's a once in a lifetime experience."

Palmer and Lopez are both credited with popularizing the sport of golf through their play and the force of their personalities. Combined, they are winners of 110 professional tournaments, including 10 majors.

Palmer's springboard to professional fame was his victory in the U.S. Amateur Championship in 1954. He turned professional a few months later. His hottest period was a four-year stretch from 1960 to 1963 when he landed 29 of his titles and collected almost $400,000. He was the leading money-winner in three of those years and twice represented the U.S. in the Ryder Cup Match, serving in 1963 as the victorious captain.

He has amassed 60 PGA Tour victories and 10 Senior PGA Tour victories. He won the Masters Tournament in 1958, 1960, 1962 and 1964. He won the British Open in 1961 and 1962 and the U.S. Open in 1960.

Although Lopez recently finished her final full year on the LPGA, she has had a storied career. She was12 years old when she won the New Mexico Women's Amateur, and in the following years she won the USGA Junior Girls Championship twice in 1972 and 1974.

She has 48 LPGA Tour victories and won the LPGA Championship in 1978, 1986 and 1989. She was the Rolex Player of the Year four times and was recognized during the LPGA's 50th Anniversary in 2000 ad on of the LPGA's top 50 players and teachers.

"These are two very special people," Ken Creely, director of The Villages country club operations, said. "What a treat to have an opportunity to stand next to Arnie and Nancy. The Villages is so fortunate to have them here with us ... You have the two most prominent golfers of all time walking the course. Now that's unique."

For several hours before Simpson was to caddy for Palmer, he reflected on what it would be like walking next to greatness for nine holes. "While he was playing I wanted to say something to him but they played so quick," Simpson said. "Then we were walking down the ninth fairway and I got my chance. I told Palmer what an honor it was to have the chance to caddy for him."

Palmer replied, "Well, I enjoyed it, too."

WITH NOBLE TREES SPOTTING EITHER SIDE, Torri Pines takes its place alongside Ashley Meadows and Erinn Glenn, all named for Lopez's and her husband, Ray Knight's daughters, bringing to 27 the number of holes of championship golf at Nancy Lopez Legacy Golf and Country Club.

"I like trees," Lopez said. "I'm a tree person."

While Palmer has had a hand in the layout of more than 12 courses worldwide, Legacy was Lopez's first foray into golf design.

"I think everyone is going to be impressed," said course architect Ken Ezell of the Deltona firm of Clifton, Ezell and Clifton Golf Design Group. "The course is very playable, very enjoyable. Some think it might be a little tougher than the other two courses. It will be a chance to test your strategy."

Lopez has been involved in the planning of the course from start to finish. "She had a vision of what she wanted," Ezell said. "She has a lot of ideas on what makes a good golf course. I think it's everything she was hoping for."

And more.

"When we set out to design Nancy's Legacy, our goal was to design a golf course that people will enjoy playing every day," Lopez said. "My golf course, like all golf courses at The Villages, was especially designed to appeal to both men and women golfers."

Although Torri Pines was named for 11-year-old Torn, the youngest wasn't able to make it out in November.
"She always hates it when we go somewhere without her," Lopez said. "Of my daughters, she's the most serious golfer, the one who likes to come out and practice and hit golf balls with me. She'll come play this course one of these days soon."

FROM TORRI PINES, Palmer and Lopez made their way to a barren field off County Road 466 near the Buena
Vista entrance to The Villages. With a hard hat and signature grin, Palmer put down his golf club and balls, grabbed a shovel and took his place next to Lopez.

"This is a pretty flat field but this won't look the same in a year," he said looking out at the field, littered with a small tent, machinery and a few people. "It's going to be very attractive. Other than these trees you see here, and don't touch one of these trees, it will be a very different place."

After a few shovelfuls of dirt and ceremonial tee shots, Palmer and Lopez officially set into motion the building of a Palmer signature course in The Villages. It was Palmer who returned the morning favor, inviting Lopez to help in the groundbreaking ceremony in the afternoon.

"I don't really feel like I should be here," she said. "It's all his (Palmer's), but I was glad I was included."

Palmer has designed courses for Dominion Valley Country Club in Prince William County, Va. and The Den at Fox Creek in Bloomington, Ill. Palmer and his Arnold Palmer Management Company also have sprinkled courses throughout Michigan, including Legend Golf Club at Shanty Creek, the Ravines Golf Club, the Preserve in Fenton and Northville Hills Golf Club.

His Villages course, scheduled to be ready for play in December 2003, isn't named yet.

"I've done quite a few courses and I know one thing, this is a perfect place to build a golf course," Palmer said. "It's beautiful."

As far as the course itself, Palmer promises to make it unique.

"I try to be different with each one," he said. "I want to try and make it golfer friendly."

He also plans on keeping an eye on the course's progress. "I'll sneak in a have a look at it from time to time," he said with a twinkle in his eye.

When it's completed, golf's legends may make their return to a community that reveres them.

"I look forward to playing with Nancy again," said Palmer, and then looking at the Queen, he said, "Nancy, hopefully, a year from now, we'll do this again."

< Go Back