by Scott Kindberg
July 21, 2021
‘Work To Be Done’
CHAUTAUQUA — Tara VanDerveer looked to her left Tuesday morning at the Double Eagle Cafe at Chautauqua Golf Club and asked Nancy Lopez how many U.S. presidents she’d met.
“Three,” the legendary LPGA great said.
For one of the rare times in her remarkable professional life, VanDerveer, the NCAA’s all-time winningest women’s basketball coach, found herself trailing in that meet-and-greet category.
By a single visit.
Judging from the accomplishments of both Lopez and VanDerveer, however, the folks who have occupied the Oval Office in the last generation or two may have happily waited in line to have an audience with those ladies, because few have represented their respective sports, on and off the course/court, better than Lopez and VanDerveer.
And that’s why a crowd estimated at 250 filled the room to hear what the pair had to say in a conversation centered on “Women and Girls in Sports.” Sponsored by the Coalition of Women and Girls in Chautauqua County, and moderated by Tory Irgang, the executive director of the Chautauqua Region Community Foundation, the nearly hour-long session prompted the audience to give Lopez and VanDerveer a standing ovation when it was over.
That’s hardly surprising.
But what is surprising is that less than a year before the 50th anniversary of Title IX, the ladies believe there is still a ways to go before women’s sports catch up to those of the men.
“We’ve met presidents, traveled the world and sports has opened this wonderful world for us, but sometimes we feel like we’re still banging our heads against the door,” said VanDerveer, who has a home at Chautauqua Institution. “It’s such a great opportunity to share our stories with you and ask for your help, because there is still so much work to be done.”
VanDerveer’s Stanford Cardinal will begin the 2021-22 season as the defending NCAA champion, the third since she arrived at the Palo Alto, California campus in 1985. As exhilarating as that experience was last spring, VanDerveer saw inequality in San Antonio compared to what the men were experiencing in Indianapolis.
From the food to the weight training facilities, and from the “swag bags” for the players to the COVID-19 testing, she felt the “disparity between the two tournaments was so extreme.”
“It’s not to diminish in any way men’s sports,” VanDerveer said. “They’re great, we love them, but let’s show women’s sports. That’s what we have to do … whether it’s golf, tennis, basketball, softball. We have to have a better vision to show all these sports. … That’s where we’re really lacking now.”
What isn’t lacking for VanDerveer is her ability to recruit the nation’s top talent.
“The thing I’m most proud of is the improvement of our players,” she said. “We recruit great players and we work to develop them. It’s not just the X’s and O’s on the court. When they go away to college, we as coaches are mentors for these young women.”
That’s important because intercollegiate athletes are entering uncharted territory now that they can earn compensation for the use of his/her name, image and likeness.
“We are in a really different, exciting, challenging time in sports with social media,” VanDerveer said. “Sometimes people may take their eye off the ball and start focusing on making money as opposed to being a great athlete, and then all of a sudden their stock will go down. It will be an interesting time to watch.
“I’m supportive of people having that opportunity if they want to be able to leverage their name, image and likeness, but I hope they’re going to be in the gym working on their shot.”
Growing up in New Mexico, Lopez played golf for the first time when she was 7. A year later, she played in her first youth tournament, a three-day event totaling 27 holes, and she won by 110 shots. That isn’t a misprint.
“I was a little bit better than the other Pee Wees,” she said.
That didn’t mean Lopez didn’t suffer unfairness early in her high school career when she was initially denied an opportunity to play on the varsity boys team. Ultimately, she was granted permission and was part of a state championship. However, there were very few colleges that offered golf scholarships for women back in the 1970s. Lopez finally settled on the University of Tulsa where she stayed for two years before turning pro.
During her career, Lopez won 48 LPGA events, including three majors, earning a place in the World Golf Hall of Fame, but had she never succeeded in the game, she believes her legacy would still endure because she has made it a practice to be kind.
“One day, I asked myself, ‘Why did God put me on this earth?’ and the answer came at a golf tournament,” she said. “A son and the mother walked up to me, he stopped me and said, ‘I want my mom to meet you.’ She really couldn’t see very well, just shadows, and she said, ‘Nancy, I know you’re one of the greatest golfers that ever played the game. I can’t see you hit the ball, but I came to hear you hit the ball.’
“That meant so much to my life at that moment, because I realized that’s why God put me there — to entertain and make someone like that happy.”
When Lopez was a child, she made a habit of putting on her father’s golf shoes. The sound of metal spikes on pavement is when her love of the game began, fortified by role models JoAnne Carner and Arnold Palmer.
“I loved (Carner) because her attitude was always good,” Lopez said. “She had an excitement to her golf game and then, of course, Arnold, who I’d known for many years (before he passed away in 2016). He was really the king of golf. … He was a true gentleman and a great champion.”
Lopez and VanDerveer are champions, too — both in their respective sports and in their desire for equality for all.
“I’d really like to encourage the dads, the husbands and the brothers to be allies in the fight for equality and women in sports,” VanDerveer said. “For your sisters, for your wife, for your daughters, for your nieces, it’s really something that is important that we hear your voice.”