By Phillip Howley
Edina, Minn. – You might think it is surprising to see 23-year old Stacy Lewis atop the 54-hole leader board at the U.S Women’s Open. You might think it truly would be something for the former University of Arkansas star, who has overcome serious back problems in her young career, to make her first win as a professional a major championship.
But to be honest, Lewis kind of feels like she is owed one. To explain:
As an amateur, she was leading the LPGA’s P&G Beauty NW Arkansas Championship presented by John Q. Hammons in Rogers, Ark. last year when weather caused the tournament to be canceled after one round.
That one round was one Lewis won’t ever forget. She opened the tournament with a field-topping 7-under-par 65. But when the event was suspended, it was as if it never happened. She has nothing to show for it.
|Stacy Lewis' remedy for calming her nerves Saturday? Smiling more, she said. (Hunter Martin/USGA)
"That was the best round of my career," said Lewis. "And then it was wiped off the books completely, that was pretty hard. But I thought it was good. I was kind of in the middle of a big controversy and my name got out there.
"I can say I beat 143 of the best players in the world in one day, so there’s nothing wrong with that."
Lewis is in position to be able say something a little bit stronger. Her 6-under 67 on Saturday at Interlachen Country Club puts her in position to make that 18-hole round in Rogers, Ark. seem like child’s play. In the solo lead at nine under par for the championship, she is in position to win the U.S. Women’s Open.
You might be surprised; Lewis isn’t in the least.
"Truthfully, I’m not really that surprised," said Lewis. "I felt like I could play at this level and compete at this level. It was kind of my goal to put myself into contention to win going into the last day. That’s kind of what I try to do at every tournament."
If not surprising, Lewis’ path to the post at Interlachen is certainly compelling. When she was 11 years old, she found out she had scoliosis. For the next 7 ½ years, she had to support her weak back by wearing a brace for at least 18 hours a day. While she was not the best player on her high school team in Woodlands, Tex., she was good enough to draw a scholarship offer from the University of Arkansas.
She signed in November of her senior year. But the following March, it was discovered that the brace had not corrected her back condition. She had to have surgery. She feared the worst. "I was crying," she said. "I thought I would never play college golf.
"Because I just wanted to play college golf, that was all I wanted to do. And then I thought from there, I was done."
Instead, something miraculous took place. Once she was out of the brace, once the surgery was performed, once the nine months of rehabilitating her muscles was complete, she was good as new. In fact, she was better.
"Her body changed dramatically after the surgery," said Arkansas coach Kelly Hester, who was at the hospital when Lewis went under the knife and never pulled back on Arkansas’ commitment. "When she was 17, she looked like she was 14. After the back surgery, it’s like her body matured. Nobody could have foreseen that her body could have changed that much."
Lewis red-shirted her freshman year at Arkansas. The following season, she knew she was ready to compete again when the team had an evaluation tournament and she won it by 20 strokes.
She went on to become an All-American, winning the 2007 NCAA Division I individual title with a final round 66. She was named the 2007-08 SEC Player of the Year. She remained an amateur to compete in the Curtis Cup at the end of May.
She led the U.S. team to a convincing 13-7 win in St. Andrews, Scotland, becoming the first player in history to go 5-0 in match play. When she returned to the states, she turned pro the day before playing in U.S. Women’s Open sectional qualifying. She won the qualifying tournament by four strokes.
All of these trial and triumphs have brought her to within 18 holes of a national championship in her first outing as a bona-fide pro. And Lewis is perfectly comfortable in that skin.
"I really think over the past couple of years, I have prepared myself for this tournament and for turning pro."
Lewis will begin the final round with a one-stroke lead over the more celebrated Paula Creamer, and two strokes ahead of former major championship winner Helen Alfredsson and Korean Inbee Park. But if it comes down to desire, Lewis said she has as good a chance as anyone.
"I’ve accomplished my goal for the week," she said. "It was just to put myself in contention and whatever happens tomorrow happens. I hope I win. I want to win probably more than anybody here."
She added: "I only play in golf tournaments to win … People might see that as arrogant, but I think if you’re not here to win, you’re never going to be successful."
Some might say, after beating back surgery, Stacy Lewis already is successful.
Phillip Howley is a freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on www.uswomensopen.com.