George Lopez had a tough start in life and in golf. But funny how things change.
George Lopez's improbable life is built on the power of memory. In sold-out arenas, he packs his stand-up act with dead-on details from a deprived Mexican-American childhood: the presumed curative powers of 7-Up ("Drink it all and then burp it up -- the cancer comes out"), a garden hose turning uneven patio cement into impromptu wading pools, a parent's impatient rejoinder to a plea to go to Chuck E. Cheese ("You want to see a mouse? Pull the refrigerator out!").
" 'Memmer?" Lopez asks the audience, the Spanglish inflection intensifying the nostalgia. "You 'memmer."
Lopez's past has made him, at 46, a major success: the star of an eponymous and now-syndicated sitcom, a headlining stand-up who has cable specials, movie roles and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. But that same past -- what he calls "my cycle of negativity" -- was also the source of insecurity, anger, depression, bouts of excessive drinking and ongoing therapy.
"Life is moments going by, but if you don't grab them, they're gone," he says in the dressing room after a recent show before more than 6,000 in San Jose, his husky tone and expression softer than the kinetic persona with which he commands a stage. "For a long time, the only moments that were available were bad ones. So now I make sure to grab the good ones."
He has done it in large part by turning his power of memory toward golf. "I relive my rounds all the time," Lopez says before recounting a special one that occurred on the par-5 12th hole at Poppy Hills during the second round of last year's AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. "I was on this run of natural and net birdies. I hit my second shot into the woods, but against my caddie's advice, I decided to try to hit a pitching wedge over the trees. I caught it a little fat, but it got over, and when it hit the front edge of the green, it released. All I could see was the top of the flag, but as the ball kept rolling there was this crescendo from the gallery that exploded when it just missed the hole. I ran out of the trees with my arms up. When I pulled them down, I had to wipe my eyes because I was crying."
The tears came from the flip side of the reason he had so often wept as a child growing up in the gritty Los Angeles fringe town of Mission Hills. Lopez, who never knew his father and was abandoned by his mother at age 10, was usually rendered silent when his grandmother, a factory worker who became his chief guardian, would relentlessly ask him, "Why you crying?" The question would become the title of his autobiography and the recurring punch line in his 90-minute stand-up performances, Lopez portraying both his grandmother and young self as two people lost in the cycle of negativity.
But by the time Lopez emerged from the trees at Poppy Hills, the question had an answer.
"It hit me because that experience of people cheering, of succeeding, see, I never felt anything like that as a kid, and part of me is still starved for that," he says. "I was never encouraged or congratulated by anybody or included in anything. I didn't come from a home where people asked, "Did you have a good day?" or cared what I was doing or what I wanted to be. I fill some of that void with the laughs and adulation from doing comedy. But believe it or not, golf has fed me even more."
"George grew up an outsider, always excluded," says Ann Lopez, his wife of 14 years. "Golf gave him a true friend, a real sense of belonging, the only club he actually got to join. It's a positive place, and it gives him a place to be who he really is, deep down."
Since Lopez's first round, on a lonely Christmas Day in 1981 with rented clubs on an empty executive course, he has steadily immersed himself in the game. He's now an improving 10-handicapper who has played many of the world's great courses. The energy that will often lead to a 7 a.m. starting time after a stand-up gig that gets him to bed in the wee hours comes from the drive to improve himself.
Lopez is proud to take his journey public. He jumped at the chance to become, beginning last year, the first celebrity host of the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic since the founder's death in 2003. Lopez has turned his attention to bolstering the celebrity lineup, making mainstays out of friends like Samuel L. Jackson, Ray Romano, Joe Pesci, Andy Garcia, Huey Lewis and Cheech Marin and reaching out to new recruits like Clint Eastwood, Bill Clinton, Donald Trump and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Mostly he has raised the energy, installing an In-N-Out Burger stand on the practice tee that instantly became a lively gathering spot, making himself available for functions like a '70s-night party, throwing a dinner for the pros and tirelessly interacting with the on-course gallery.
"Bob Hope had it right," says Lopez. "He entertained the world and played golf, and brought the two together. I'm doing the same thing in my own way. You know, I respect and understand how a professional golfer needs to be focused and inward to perform. I'm the same before I go onstage. But I also think that's why golf needs entertainment now more than ever."