ROGERS — Arkansas golfer Gaby Lopez considers Stacy Lewis a role model.
So the chance to play alongside Lewis during a practice round at Pinnacle Country Club on Tuesday was thrilling. So, too, was being paired with the former Razorback during a pro-am event for the LPGA NW Arkansas Championships.
But Lopez has much bigger aspirations than just brushing elbows with Lewis during the LPGA tour event, which begins today and runs through Sunday. She wants to match Lewis’ feat of winning the NW Arkansas Championship as an amateur.
“She came out of the Arkansas team and won this tournament as an amateur,” Lopez said. “It means that I can win it. I have all the abilities. I’m trying to follow her steps.”
Lopez, who just completed her freshman season with the Razorbacks, earned a sponsor’s exemption for the tournament and will play her first round today. She tees off at 2:20 p.m. along with Michelle Wie and Caroline Masson.
She’s the fifth Arkansas golfer to earn the exemption in the seven-year history of the event, joining Lewis (2007, 2008), Lucy Nunn (2009), Kelli Shean (2010) and Emily Tubert (2011, 2012). Lewis won it, unofficially, in 2007 after sitting on top of the leaderboard after what proved to be the only round of the rain-shortened week.
Lopez wants to be the next Razorback to enjoy a memorable experience.
“I just want to play as a normal tournament,” Lopez said about the week. “I don’t want to give it a little bit more of importance or make it a little bit more prestigious.
“That’s all just pressure I put on myself and I don’t need it because I’ve played this course good enough to make the cut, to win. I know that just believing in myself and committing in every single shot will take me to where I want to be.”
It’s a philosophy that helped the native of Mexico City enjoy a successful freshman season at Arkansas. She was named an honorable mention All-American by Golfweek and a second-team All-Southeastern Conference performer. Lopez finished second on the team with a 73.77 stroke average and recorded four top-five finishes.
Arkansas coach Shauna Estes-Taylor said it didn’t take long for Lopez — who chose Arkansas over roughly 30 other scholarship offers — to “bring a spark to our team.”
“I’m very proud of her first season because, one, she’s coming to a new country,” Estes-Taylor said. “A new language. Culturally it’s quite different. And then to come and to play at such a high level I think just says a lot about her talent and who she is as a person. She adjusted very nicely for all of the different things she was faced with, coming to school and leaving her family for the first time.
“As a freshman she adjusted probably as quick as I’ve seen any kid in awhile.”
Like Lewis, Lopez will be among the crowd favorites as she competes in familiar territory as a member of the Arkansas golf team.
The tournament won’t be Lopez’s first against professionals. In fact, it’s not even the biggest she has played in as an amateur. Lopez also earned a spot in the 2012 Women’s U.S. Open field, playing alongside the world’s best in a major last July.
Lopez couldn’t make the cut during the pro tournament, but said it was still an invaluable experience before beginning her collegiate career at Arkansas.
“I was amazing playing a major at 18 years old,” Lopez said earlier this week. “That was one of the best experiences ever. My family was there, my grandparents and my coaches, (Arkansas assistant) Mike (Adams) and Shauna were there. I think that experience just helped me grow a little bit more in every single sense of my game.”
Lopez sees the NWA Championships as another opportunity to go toe-to-toe with professional golfers on her “home” turf. Lopez said she hasn’t played the course at Pinnacle Country Club often, but said after a pro-am event Monday she’s comfortable and ready to represent the Razorbacks beginning Friday.
She also knows there will be one well-known supporter in Lewis.
“She’s going to be a good player,” Lewis said Thursday. “She’s very solid.”