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Lopez reclaims old role of leader

The new Nancy Lopez seems like the old Nancy Lopez. She is not just a living icon, but a tournament leader as well.

She has jumped into her first event of the season, armed with a month's practice, new irons, and a determined focus.

Lopez, LPGA Hall of Famer and mother of three, shot 3-under-par 69 Friday and led the Chrysler-Plymouth Tournament of Champions by one stroke.

"I didn't expect to get to the top, but I don't come to tournaments to finish second," said Lopez, 37. She entered today's final round at par 216. Betsy King was 1 over after a 74, and Dottie Mochrie was 2 over after 71.

"I hit the ball well and felt real good over my putts and felt pretty confident out there considering I haven't played a lot," Lopez said.

She last played an LPGA event Oct.

17 and didn't practice again until a month ago. Then she switched to Tommy Armour irons and starting thinking of playing at Grand Cypress.

When she didn't feel like practicing, husband Ray Knight, former major-league third baseman and current Cincinnati Reds batting coach, prodded her.

"I think that the only way I've pushed her this winter is mentally," said Knight, at Grand Cypress after the Reds' spring game in Plant City. "I'm telling her it is important to win every golf tournament she plays. That's the way she approached it when she was dominating. I think by being a mother she softened up. But I tell her you can be a mom and still be fierce."

Lopez attacked the course as much as it would allow, making five birdies. After starting 3 over, Lopez birdied the third hole and countered a fifth-hole bogey with a 15-foot birdie at No. 6. She had two-putt pars and birdied 10, 15 and 16, all with putts over 10 feet.

She was 1 under for the tournament before she landed in the bunker on 17, blasted out to 12 feet from the hole, and missed the putt, ending up with bogey. She parred the 18th.

Lopez, King and Mochrie all remarked that, despite the wind dying down, the course is of U.S. Open difficulty. This type of tournament fits neatly into Lopez's reduced schedule.

"I'm shooting for the majors more this year than last year," said Lopez, who plans to play about half (15) of the tournaments this year.

King isn't as picky. She would like to win any tournament _ as soon as possible. She needs one victory for the 30 needed to enter the LPGA Hall of Fame. This is the second time this year she has entered the final round in second place.

"I'm kind of getting tired of it," King said. "Out on the second hole, somebody shouted to me: "I hope you get your 40th this week.' " "I wish it was my 40th."

King had a double-bogey on the first hole. She came back with a 20-foot birdie putt on No. 3 but bogeyed No. 4. She parred the rest of the holes.

"The way I started, I'm happy I hung in there," King said. "I didn't feel like I just hit the ball as well, and at first I was battling my swing."

Mochrie, on the other hand, thought she played as well as she could, with four birdies and three bogeys.

"I'm really where I want to be," Mochrie said. "I think four or five shots on this golf course _ as today proved _ isn't out of the picture at all."