By Tim Letcher
SEC Digital Network
Former Arkansas golfer and current LPGA Tour professional Stacy Lewis has risen through the ranks of women’s golf, becoming one of the best players in the world. But it wasn’t long ago that Lewis feared she might never play golf again.
As a child, Lewis learned to play golf with her family. “I was eight when I started,” she says. “My dad played, so I would tag along with him on the weekends. We would play as a family, and I was the only one that stuck with it.”
While growing up in The Woodlands, Texas, Lewis was a two-sport athlete. “I did swimming and golf until I got to high school,” she says. “With the high school being so big, you had to pick one sport, so I picked golf.”
It was a love for the game that helped her make that choice. But there was also another factor. “It was really more of the 5 a.m. swim practices,” she says, “which is crazy because I have to get up even earlier than that now for some rounds of golf. I didn’t like swimming like I did golf. I didn’t love getting in the water and swimming every day, but I loved being outside playing golf.”
Lewis focused her efforts on golf, and she became an outstanding player, helping her high school team win state championships in three of her four years on the team. Despite her success on the course, many college coaches didn’t take notice.
“I wasn’t that highly recruited,” Lewis says. “I wasn’t even the best player on my high school team. I visited Kansas State, Louisville and Arkansas.”
And when she visited Fayetteville, she knew that’s where she wanted to go to school. “I went to Arkansas and I fell in love with the place,” she says. “I loved the small town feel. It was a small university yet you still go to compete in a big conference and it felt like the perfect place for me.”
However, Lewis had an issue that many people, including the Arkansas coaches, did not know about. At age 11, Lewis was diagnosed with scoliosis, or an abnormal curving of the spine.
“I was 11 when they found it,” Lewis says. “Some nurses came in and did a school check and they saw something wasn’t right, and I was told to go see a doctor and I found out that I had scoliosis and right away the doctor said ‘we need to get you in a brace.’ I had no idea what it was.”
Wearing the brace was a struggle each and every day for Lewis. “Wearing a back brace for 18 hours a day was hard,” she says. “There was no guarantee that it was going to make it better. It was 50/50 whether I was going to get better or not.”
Unlike most patients, Lewis had an extended stay in the back brace. “I ended up wearing a brace for six and a half years,” she says. “Most people only have to wear it for two or three, but I decided to not grow until I was 18 years old.”
Finally, during her senior year of high school, Lewis was able to shed the brace. “I didn’t tell the college coaches I was wearing a brace or that anything was wrong because I thought by the time I got to college, I would be done wearing it, and it wouldn’t be an issue anymore,” she says.
However, just three months after signing with Arkansas, doctors delivered some bad news. “I signed my letter-of-intent with Arkansas and then went to the doctor three months later and found out my back had done worse and I needed surgery,” she says.
When asked what she was thinking when she found out about the surgery, Lewis was unsure what the future would hold. “I thought that I would never play golf again, that was my initial response,” she says. “I cried from the moment I left the doctor’s office until I got home, which was at least an hour drive. I didn’t say a word to my mom, I think she was crying, too.”
However , the prognosis for a full recovery was good. “My doctor said the whole time that I was going to play golf again, that I was going to be fine,” Lewis says.
In June of 2003, Lewis underwent the back surgery, where doctors placed a rod and five screws in her back. The doctors fused five vertebrae, using a part of one of Lewis’ ribs to hold it all in place. Her future in golf was definitely in question.
The recovery was also tough for Lewis. “The first three months, I actually had to wear another brace again, because I couldn’t bend or twist for six months, but the first three months were the most important,” she says. “I basically couldn’t do anything. My rehab was getting up and walking around the block.”
Lewis started school at Arkansas in the fall of 2003, but even going to class was tough. “I couldn’t lift anything over five pounds, so I couldn’t even take my books to class when I got to school,” she says. “I couldn’t use a backpack or any of that stuff.”
Since she was still recovering from her back procedure, Lewis was forced to redshirt her first year of college. “It was a little different transition for me than everybody else,” Lewis says. “I learned a lot in that year off of how to play. I watched a lot of golf, watched my teammates play and got to see, from my coach’s perspective, what they were doing wrong and how to manage my game better. I think I learned more sitting out that year than if I had played.”
In the fall of 2004, Lewis was ready to make her Razorback debut, and she started with a bang. “I went into my freshman year with zero expectations, I just wanted to make my travelling team,” she says. “We had our first qualifier for the tournaments, and I think we played five or six rounds, and I won it by 20 shots, so I was like ‘I guess I’m going to make the team now’.”
Her success continued once competition began. “I finished top five in the first event I played, and I won once that fall,” Lewis says. “I literally was so happy just to be playing golf again, I didn’t even care what I shot. It put things in such perspective for me.”
However, Lewis continued to deal with lingering issues from the surgery. “There were days that I couldn’t even hit shots in the practice round because my back was so sore or so tight,” she says. “I was still dealing with it at that time, but I felt so lucky to be playing, I was just playing golf and enjoying it.”
When the spring season arrived, Lewis showed that she was among the nation’s elite, winning three times, including winning the SEC championship as a freshman. She was named SEC Freshman of the Year for the 2004-05 season, and was also a first-team All-American.
In 2006, Lewis had another strong season, earning honorable mention All-American honors. That set the stage for what would be an exemplary 2007 season.
Lewis had a strong year, and qualified for the NCAA Championship. “It was strange, because I actually qualified as an individual, so my team wasn’t there with me,” she says. “Kelley (Hester), who recruited me, that was going to be her last event (at Arkansas), she was going to Georgia after that. Because I was an individual, she walked every round with me, basically was my caddie. It was probably one of the coolest weeks I’ve ever had on a golf course.”
Not only that, but Lewis was in the hunt heading into the final day. “Before I played, I said that I didn’t want to know where I stand all day,” she says. “The last round, I made the turn and I was frustrated because I was playing good, just not making any putts. Kelley told me to just relax and play some golf, and I think I birdied five holes in a row and ended up shooting 66.”
Since she asked not to know her standing, Lewis was unaware of her situation as she finished. “I finished by making an up-and-down, I made a 15-footer for par,” she says. “As I finished, Kelley gave me a high-five and said ‘you’ve got a three-shot lead’, and I thought she was kidding. It was pretty unbelieveable.”
Lewis captured the 2007 national championship that week in Daytona Beach, Fla., but was unable to repeat as a senior in 2008, despite being named SEC Player of the Year.
However, big things were just beginning for Lewis. As soon as the NCAA Championship finished in 2008, she left for St. Andrews in Scotland to represent the United States in the Curtis Cup, a Ryder Cup-style event for women amateurs.
To say that Lewis took advantage of the opportunity would be an understatement. “It was an unbelievable week,” she says. “I went undefeated (5-0) and actually was the clinching point. That was a fairy tale week.”
However, her outstanding summer wasn’t over, as she returned to the United States to add another milestone to her career. “I played the U.S. Open qualifier and turned pro at the qualifier, and made it into the U.S. Open,” she says. “The Open was at Interlachen (in Edina, Minn.), and I was leading going into the final round and finished third, so that kind of jump-started things in my first pro event.”
Lewis played some events on the Futures Tour that fall, as well as some LPGA Tour events, which she played on sponsor exemptions.
She didn’t make enough money to earn her Tour card for 2009, so she went to the LPGA qualifying school, where she won, earning her card for the 2009 season.
Her first year on the tour was a struggle. “I had a rough first year because I had these expectations of playing really good and being competitive every week, and it didn’t happen that way,” Lewis says. “I got really frustrated, but in the fall of that year, I found a coach (Joe Hallett) and he really helped me turn things around and gave me some direction on how to get better and how to compete at a higher level.”
During her second year on tour, Lewis saw improvements, especially in the fall of the year. “In the fall of 2010, we played a bunch of tournaments at the end of the year, and I finished top ten in quite a few of them and had a chance to win,” she says. “Those few events told me what I needed to do to be in contention and to get better and I figured out the little things I needed to do to win. That’s when things started to hit the mark and hit home for me.”
In April of 2011, the stage was set for Lewis to breakthrough and get her first victory, at the Kraft Nabisco Championship, a major on the LPGA Tour. But the week didn’t get off to the kind of start that anyone wanted. “My grandfather died on the pro-am day, right before the tournament started,” Lewis says. “It was a tough week emotionally, but I had my whole family out there (Rancho Mirage, Calif.), and I knew my grandfather would want me out there playing.”
And play she did, as she posted a score of 13-under par, topping world number one Yani Tseng by three shots. “It was really cool to see all of the hard work pay off,” Lewis says. “To win a major, not many people get to do that, and to get your first win out of the way at the same time is pretty cool.”
In 2012, Lewis has added wins at the Mobile Bay LPGA Classic and the ShopRite LPGA Classic. In the process, she has moved to number two in the world rankings. “It’s crazy to me to think about being number two in the world,” she says. “I don’t know if I still see myself there. It’s pretty surreal to think of how far I’ve come.”
The goal, as it is for every golfer, is to be the world’s top-ranked player. “That’s a goal down the line,” Lewis says. “Right now, it’s just going out there every weekend and trying to win golf tournaments. It’s going to take a lot of solid golf to work my way up there. So, as long as I keep playing solid, I’ll get there eventually.”
That type of determination has benefitted Stacy Lewis throughout her life and her professional career. Don’t be surprised to see this former Razorback at the top of the world golf rankings one day in the future.