Originally created 07/12/97

Nicholas charges into lead



NORTH PLAINS, Ore. - England's Alison Nicholas shot a 5-under-par 66 Friday to take the second-round lead in the U.S. Women's Open, and sentimental favorite Nancy Lopez charged into contention with birdies on the final three holes.

Nicholas, who began the day five shots behind first-round leader Liselotte Neumann, had a bogey-free round on the par-71, 6,365-yard Witch Hollow course at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club and was at 6-under 136 halfway through the biggest event in women's golf.

But it was Lopez, whose Hall of Fame career includes 48 victories but never one in a U.S. Open, who had the crowd roaring behind her as she rallied for a 5-under 137, tied with Neumann and Kelly Robbins one shot out of the lead.

Juli Inkster matched Nicholas' 66 Friday and was tied with Deb Richard at 4-under 138. Dawn Coe-Jones, with a 4-under 31 on the back nine, shot a 3-under 67 and was three back at 139.

Annika Sorenstam, failing miserably in her bid to become the first woman to win three consecutive U.S. Opens, ended her two-round nightmare at 8-over 150. She missed the cut for the first time since the Jamie Farr Kroger Classic in 1994, a span of 62 tournaments.

She followed her 6-over 77 on Thursday with a 3-over 73 on Friday. Ironically, she ended her round with a birdie.

The field was cut to the low 60 scores for the final two rounds today and Sunday.

Scores of 69 Thursday and 68 Friday gave Lopez her lowest 36-hole score in her 21 U.S. Opens. She has finished second in the event three times, most recently in 1989.

"I don't feel that I have to win a U.S. Open, but I would - more than anything - love to win the U.S. Open," Lopez said. "There's just something about winning the U.S. Open. I want to experience it. I want to walk up on the 18th green on Sunday and have a fiveshot lead and be winning it. And I just can't even imagine what it would feel like."

Lopez, who broke a four-year victory drought with a win in the Chick-Fil-A Charity tournament this year, said she thought about giving up golf at the beginning of last season.

"I really was so bored with the way I was playing and I wasn't enjoying it," she said.

And she was overweight.

"The first tournament of the year, I tried on my pair of size 14 shorts. I couldn't get into them," Lopez said. "And that really made me mad. I said, `I've had enough. I've got to do something."'

She began working out and watching her diet. She's lost 39 pounds and says she is feeling better than she has in years.

"I feel like my game is the best it's been at a U.S. Open for a while," Lopez said. "I'm riding on confidence and the way that I'm swinging right now."

Lopez had an erratic round before her late charge Friday, missing a pair of 3-foot par putts that left her stuck at 2-under. But on three of the most difficult holes on the course, she mounted her charge and swiftly erased the six shots that had separated her from Neumann.

Lopez knocked a 4-iron within 10 feet of the cup, then made it for a birdie on the par-4 16th. Then she hit a 7-iron to within 10 feet for birdie on the 17th.

On the par-5 18th, she hit a tricky 57-yard wedge to within 5 feet. As she walked to the green, the big crowd erupted in cheers and shouts of "Nancy! Nancy!"

"You get a few chills up and down your spine," Lopez said.

It was the 17th green she had hit in 18 tries Friday, and she made the putt.

Nicholas, 35, had long since finished her round, having gotten up at 5 a.m. to make her early tee time.

"I'm not good in the mornings, so I really had to shake myself," she said. "I was very quiet for about an hour after I got up, because I couldn't cope with talking to anyone."

The two-time LPGA winner and past winner of the British, Swedish and German opens cleared out the early-morning cobwebs in a hurry, with birdies on the first, fourth and fifth holes, and another on No. 15. She capped her birdie spree by rolling in a 25footer on No. 16.

Nicholas could have done even better, but missed birdie putts from 12 feet and closer on three holes. And on the par-4 eighth, her bunker shot for a birdie rolled over the hole before stopping 6 inches on the other side.

Neumann, meanwhile, admitted that nerves may have gotten to her.

"I know what it takes to win and I know how important this event is," said Neumann, who won the 1988 Open. "But I guess it's pretty normal to be a little nervous when you get into that position."

The lanky Swede had five birdies in the first 10 holes and was cruising along at 8-under before an ugly tee shot on No. 16 triggered her collapse.

"I just sort of let one bad swing get to me today," she said, "and it feels pretty disappointing right now."

It could have been worse. On No. 17, she smashed her approach shot over the green, but the ball hit a photographer and stopped.

"Thank God," she said, "because otherwise I think it would have been gone. That was a good bogey."

The course in the hills 25 miles west of Portland, with waist-high weeds and brush all around, does not allow for careless shots, Neumann said.

"If you can't drive it in the fairway," she said, "you're in a lot of trouble out there."