Sensational Rookie Year
Although she joined the LPGA during 1977, Lopez's first full season, and official rookie year, was 1978. "When I first came out, I pretty much felt like I was the worst player on the tour," she later explained to Golf World. "I felt like you're supposed to start at the bottom of the barrel and work your way to the top. I'd watch the other players and think, 'Gosh, my game's not even close to theirs.' My goal was to hopefully win one tournament that first year." Lopez would quickly surpass her conservative expectations to help transform women's golf into a nationally recognized spectator sport.
In February 1978, Lopez won her first professional tournament by sinking a 15-foot birdie putt on the seventeen hole to claim the lead at the Bent Tree Classic in Sarasota, Florida. She dedicated her first title to her mother, who had passed away the previous fall. A week later Lopez won the Sunstar Classic in California. Then, in April she began an unbroken record of five straight tournament wins that nearly single-handedly raised the LPGA into its highest realms of popularity and profitability. Lopez won in Baltimore, Maryland, and then twice in New York, took a week off, and won her first major, the LPGA Championship in Kings Island, Ohio, in front of a national television audience. The phenomenon of her unprecedented success provoked NBC to cut into its baseball broadcast the following week to cover her fifth consecutive win at the Bankers Trust Classic in Rochester, New York.
The week following her record five straight wins, Lopez played in the Lady Keystone Open in Hershey, Pennsylvania, traditionally a smaller LPGA event, but made into an all-out media affair by Lopez's presence. Overwhelmed by press interviews, television appearances, and sponsor-backed events, she played terribly, shooting over par all three rounds. Yet Lopez, who had developed a wonderfully friendly relationship with the media, also had a special rapport with the fans. As she walked to the eighteenth green she was fifteen strokes behind eventual winner Pat Brady, but still the gallery roared. Cynthia Anzolut, who ran the Lady Keystone Open, told Golf World, "I think they still thought she could win it. She walked on water as far as they were concerned.… The people just loved her."
Exhaustion wasn't the only thing distracting Lopez in Pennsylvania. One of her hundreds of interviews during the week was with a young sportscaster named Tim Melton. By the third round, Lopez was deeply in love, and the two were married six months later. Lopez was on the top of the world. "I couldn't think ahead," she recalled in Sports Illustrated. "I was just so excited. I was being interviewed by so many people, and all of a sudden I was making so much money. I was in awe, and I was enjoying it all so much." After ending her five-tournament winning streak, Lopez followed with seven top ten finishes, winning two more tournaments before the season's end. In all, during 1979 she won nine tournaments and took home over $200,000, setting a record for LPGA earnings.
She was named as both the LPGA Rookie of the Year and the LPGA Player of the Year and, with a per-round average of 71.76, won the Vare Trophy, given annually to the player with the lowest scoring average. She was also named the Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year. Lopez continued her storybook career into her second year on the tour, winning a remarkable eight of nineteen tournaments. She was once again named the LPGA Player of the Year and again won the Vare Trophy.