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Lopez cant forget the big one that got away

WILMINGTON, Del. ÑÊEvery time Nancy Lopez sees Alison Nicholas, she hugs her. And then she says, 'Why did you have to enter that tournament?!'

Even today, it still stings Lopez to remember the 1997 U.S. Women's Open at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club, when something so good hurt so bad. Lopez shot 69-68-69-69 Ñ a phenomenal achievement, the first time an Open golfer had shot in the 60s in all four rounds Ñ and Nicholas still beat her by one stroke.

Lopez has no Open titles, despite finishing second in the tournament four times during an LPGA Hall of Fame career that includes 48 wins. She probably won't win the Open this year, either, when it returns to Pumpkin Ridge from July 3-6.

The 46-year-old mother of three has decided not to try to qualify. Her attempt would have come Wednesday in Houston, and it would have forced her to play 36 holes in one day, a feat for someone with her aching knees, hips and ankles.

Lopez has written the U.S. Golf Association, which conducts the Open, about an exemption, but she doesn't expect to get one.

She does plan to play selected events this year and has been thinking about playing more next year. Her farewell tour last year wasn't about saying goodbye to Nancy Lopez for good.

'I'm a little rusty,' says Lopez, who has been striking the ball better than she did last year. 'Next year I might play a few more times, but I need to get in shape and lose a little bit of weight.'

She gets some pain relief from osteoarthritis through her prescription drug, Synvisc, and husband Ray Knight encourages her to keep playing some tournament golf.

'Ray's aggravated with me Ñ he thinks I should play,' she says.

As the Open's return to Pumpkin Ridge approaches, Lopez waxes nostalgic about the duel of '97.

'I hated it,' Lopez says, a smile on her face. 'I knew it was my Open. When I teed off Sunday, I felt great, physically fit, my golf game was there.

'And I didn't think Alison could hold up. I felt really charged, and I was playing well and hitting the ball well. She just hit it a little better.'

Nicholas, 41, plans to play in this year's Open, but she, too, has injury problems. An arthritis-related problem, caused by vertebrae putting pressure on the nerves in her neck, will limit her LPGA play to six events this year. She can't handle being sedentary on long flights to the United States from her home in Birmingham, England, and can't play in more than two tournaments in a row.

'I kept getting the feeling of pins and needles down my left side and left arm a couple years ago,' says Nicholas, who is scheduled to play in 14 European events this year.

In 1997, Nicholas shot 10-under at Pumpkin Ridge, a record for par-71 Open tournaments.

'Amazing week,' she says. 'Tense week. I always wanted to win a major in America, and I played well all week and picked off Nancy on the last day. Once I got into position, I wasn't going to let it go.'

Notes: The golfer to beat in this year's Open will be Annika Sorenstam, who won her fifth career major and 45th career tournament here in the LPGA Championship. In 1997, while gunning for her third consecutive Open title, Sorenstam missed the cut. É Her sudden-death playoff win Sunday over Grace Park extended her lead on the money list. Sorenstam has won $974,501 this season. Park is second with $571,284. Sorenstam has played in only seven LPGA tournaments, the fewest of anyone in the top 94 in earnings.

Lopez doesn't know whether she will return to the Safeway Classic, Sept. 26-28, at Columbia Edgewater Country Club. Nicholas plans to play in both the Open and the Safeway Classic Ñ she won the latter event in 1995.

The women's tour has three tournaments before the Open.