Chip Souza is the sports editor of the four daily newspapers that comprise Northwest Arkansas Newspapers. Chip has been a sports writer for most of the past 26 years, earning numerous awards in Texas and Arkansas. Chip was named the sports editor of The Morning News of Northwest Arkansas in 2004 and the sports section earned six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards, including Top 10 Daily, Top 10 Sunday and Top 10 Special Section in its circulation category.
Lopez ready to put injury behind her, swing back into action
Gaby Lopez drives from the 2nd tee during during the final round of the Tournament of Champions LPGA golf tournament Sunday, Jan. 19, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Gary McCullough)
Gaby Lopez needed a change of scenery as the days turned into weeks.
With the LPGA season on hold because of the covid-19 pandemic, Lopez tried to work on her retooled golf swing at home in Mexico City. Lopez, 26, crushed shot after shot into a practice net, going through her bag from driver to irons.
At a glance
YEARS ON LPGA TOUR 5
CAREER EARNINGS $1.8 million
TOUR WINS 2
TWITTER HANDLE @GABYLOPEZGOLF
CHATTER Earned her second career LPGA tour victory in January at the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions, firing a 271 to earn a $180,000 payday. … First win came in 2018 at the Blue Bay LPGA Classic. … Was the runner-up at the NCAA Championships in 2015 at Arkansas. … Competed in the 2016 Summer Olympics for Mexico. … Tied for 13th at the 2019 Northwest Arkansas Championship. … Made the cut in 22 of 28 starts in 2019.
That became boring after a while.
"I had to go hit some balls somewhere else," she said. "I couldn't just keep hitting it into the net. It's hard to see if you're hitting it well because every shot goes the same way. I needed to see the whole shot. I didn't just want to stay at my house and hit balls into a net for three months."
With courses closed in Mexico City, Lopez packed her bags and headed three hours away to Acapulco, the resort mecca on the Pacific Ocean, where she found a course she could practice on.
There, she has been able to continue to work on a new swing necessitated by constant pain in her neck toward the end of the 2019 season.
"It was the only place I could find with the golf course open so that I could practice," she said. "I've been able to practice, hit balls and play a little bit. There are only one or two courses open, so I've been lucky to find one that has the resources to stay open.
"They have raised the cup, so you don't have to touch the cup or the pin. They have moved the tees on the range. They have been really good on social distancing."
Toward the end of the 2019 season, the former University of Arkansas golfer began experiencing severe neck pain on her golf swing. The pain became so overwhelming that it sent Lopez to the hospital.
Over 20 years of playing and thousands of swings were taking their toll on Lopez. Over her final five events of the 2019 season, she had just one top-10 finish. In three of the last five tournaments, she finished 33rd or lower.
"It was just the repetition," she said. "My downswing has been to take the club more in front of my chest, but 20 years of swinging it the same way, it was causing the pain. "I actually went to the hospital in November. I was hitting the ball horrible, shanking it. It was tough mentally and physically.
"I had a great year last year and to not be able to hit the ball because of my neck was a bummer."
Lopez turned to her longtime hitting coach Horacio Morales to find a solution. She also went through a lot of physical therapy that included acupuncture.
Morales helped her make some subtle changes in her swing that reduced the stress on her neck. But changing a swing pattern that was more than 20 years in the making had its challenges, Lopez said.
"I had to change everything," she said. "I had to learn to be more efficient. He helped me figure everything out. I had to trust him when I was hitting it the worst. He gets a lot of credit, but I'm glad that is over. It was hard. Now I feel great."
Lopez took her new swing into the start of the 2020 season at the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions in January.
If she needed any validation that the changes in her swing were on track, it came quickly. Lopez shot an opening 65 and rode that momentum to her second career victory over two familiar names from the Northwest Arkansas Championship -- Nasa Hataoka, the 2018 champion, and Inbee Park, winner of the 2013 event.
On the seventh playoff hole, Lopez drained a 25-foot birdie putt to hold off Hataoka. The two battled into the darkness on Sunday and had to return to the course the following day to complete the playoff.
"Coming into that first tournament, I was full of energy," Lopez said. "I didn't have any pain in my neck. Everything felt right. When you change your swing, you're always a little nervous, but it felt good, and I just played with a lot of confidence."
That momentum did not carry over to the next event when she shot an opening-round 78 and failed to make the cut at the Gainbridge LPGA at Boca Rio in Boca Raton, Fla.
Lopez did not travel to Australia for the two events held there. Hee Young Park won the ISPS Handa Open, and Park headed the leaderboard at the Australian Open. That proved to be the final event before the LPGA halted the season as the coronavirus began to spread.
"It's been a bummer, to be honest," Lopez said of the shutdown. "But it's been good. I've been able to stay safe, able to settle down."
When the tour shut down, Lopez returned to Mexico City where she and Morales continued to work on her swing before making the decision to head to Acapulco for what she thought would be a weekend of golf. That was over a month ago.
"When I got here it was perfect," she said. "The weather was perfect, so I just decided to stay."
The LPGA initially planned a June restart, and the Northwest Arkansas Championship was to be the first event, but those plans changed and now the tour's restart date has been pushed to mid-July. The Northwest Arkansas Championship has been moved to the last week of August.
Lopez said she is ready to go when the season starts back.
"I've been practicing hard the last month or so," she said. "I still have to change a lot of little things to make it consistent so I don't fall back into the next injury.
"I think more than confidence, I have a lot of energy. I'm excited to see how everybody comes back. I feel happy and that's the most important part. The more peaceful I feel that's when I perform my best."
Lopez admitted it will take some time for the tour to return to normal once it gets the green light to resume.
"It's going to be hard to get everything going again," she said, "but the better we all handle this, the quicker we get out of this."
Sports on 05/13/2020
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