Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 21, 2013

Without Fanfare, Lewis Rises To The Top

As the PGA Tour’s Arnold Palmer Invitational gets under way in Orlando the main topic of conversation among golf fans is the possibility of a change at the top of the World Golf Rankings. With top-ranked Rory McIlroy taking the week off, number two Tiger Woods can take over the top spot with a victory at Bay Hill. That’s a distinct possibility, first because Woods is clearly in form having already posted two wins on Tour this year and second because he is manifestly comfortable on this golf course, having walked its fairways to victory a record seven times before.

If the tournament does end with host Palmer congratulating a red-shirted Woods on the 18th green late Sunday afternoon, golf writers will compete to see who can shower Tiger with the greatest praise for his accomplishment. A photo of a smiling Woods will grace the cover of Golf World’s next weekly edition. Somewhere a headline will include the word “resurrection.” Speculation about a new era of domination by the most dominant golfer of his age will run rampant.

If and when it happens, and even if it’s not this week there’s a very good chance that Woods will supplant McIlroy at some point soon as the 23-year old from Northern Ireland continues to adjust to changing club manufacturers, it will be a signal achievement. Woods has had three different swing coaches in his career and three distinct full swing patterns. Leading the rankings with three different approaches to striking the ball will be a testament to his raw ability and determination to succeed.

Yet all of the fanfare surrounding Woods and all of the gushing praise that is waiting to be unleashed is more than anything a reminder of the yawning chasm between the men’s and women’s game in terms of popularity and media attention. Speculation to the contrary, the likelihood of Woods dominating the game this decade the way he did through the last is fairly small. While he is manifestly not yet in decline, at age 37 it’s likely that he has at least made the turn onto the back nine of his PGA Tour career. Plus, as Woods himself pointed out in an interview earlier this week, “It gets harder and harder with each generation. The talent pool is getting better. Kids are getting more athletic.” In short the field at each week’s PGA Tour stop includes many contestants capable of claiming the trophy and the winner’s check on Sunday afternoon, as evidenced by the fact that the twelve tournaments played so far this year have produced eleven different winners.

While golf fans wait to see if the men will have a new number one, the women’s rankings have already changed this year. If one is looking for a story of emerging domination, one should look to the LPGA Tour. Yet American Stacy Lewis has risen to the top of the Rolex Rankings with almost no media acclaim. This despite the fact that her tale is far more compelling than Tiger’s climb back from his low point of 58th in the world in late 2011. For she is more than just an unlikely number one; had circumstances been ever so slightly different, Stacy Lewis wouldn’t be playing golf at all.

Lewis took up the game at the age of 8, but three years later she was diagnosed with scoliosis, more commonly referred to as curvature of the spine. The young girl was fitted with a back brace, which she was required to wear sixteen hours a day. She did so the for the next seven years, often removing the brace only to tee it up at a course near her family’s home outside of Houston. But all those hours in the brace failed to correct the condition, and at the age of 18 Lewis opted for a delicate surgical procedure in which a titanium rod was implanted against her spine, fixed in place with five screws. The operation carried significant risks, not the least of which was that Lewis might not walk again, much less play golf. Through long months of recuperation after the surgery the closest she could come to playing the game she loved was chipping balls onto a practice green. Rather than despair, Lewis used the time to develop an outstanding short game.

Once it became clear that the operation had been a success, Lewis returned to the fairways with a vengeance. She was a four-time All-American at the University of Arkansas and won the 2007 NCAA Division I golf championship. That same year as an amateur she led after the first round of the LPGA’s NW Arkansas Championship. When torrential rains washed out the rest of the event Lewis was declared the winner, though since only one round was played the win didn’t count as an official LPGA victory. One year later as a senior she won the Southeastern Conference Tournament and was named the SEC Golfer of the Year while also earning Academic All-American honors. In her final event as an amateur she became the first player ever to post a perfect 5-0 record while leading the U.S. team to victory over Great Britain and Ireland at the 2008 Curtis Cup.

Michelle Wie received all of the media’s attention at that December’s LPGA Qualifying Tournament. But it was Lewis who took medalist honors, finishing three shots clear of her closest pursuer and six ahead of Wie. Her first official LPGA win was a major, the 2011 Kraft Nabisco Championship. Then last year her career soared. Lewis won four times on Tour and showed remarkable consistency even when she didn’t finish first. She had three top-ten finishes in the four women’s majors; and became the first American since Beth Daniel in 1994 to be named LPGA Player of the Year. By the end of 2012 Lewis had risen to third in the rankings, behind Taiwan’s Yani Tseng and Korea’s Na Yeon Choi.

The turning of the calendar didn’t slowed Lewis in the least. She finished 15th in Australia and 3rd in Thailand as the LPGA began its season overseas. Then at the beginning of March in Singapore she out dueled playing partner Choi over the final holes to win the HSBC Women’s Champions tournament by one stroke for her first victory of the new season.

Last weekend the LPGA returned home for its first event of 2013 on U.S. soil. It was the RR Donnelley Founders Cup, which honors the women who founded the Tour in 1950. Lewis began the final round four strokes back of Ai Miyazato, and was still one behind as the two played the 16th hole. But Miyazato’s drive landed in a bush in the Arizona desert, the start of a series of misadventures that ended with a double bogey. When Lewis rolled in a birdie putt, a single hole had produced a stunning three shot swing and thrust Lewis into the lead. With five of the original LPGA Tour members looking on from seats of honor behind the 18th green, Lewis birdied four of the final six holes to close with a 64 and a three-shot victory. It was her sixth win in less than eleven months, and with it, women’s golf had a new number one.

In their home countries Tseng and Choi are treated like rock stars, but American women golfers can go about in public largely unrecognized, and Lewis isn’t even the best known American on the LPGA Tour. That honor probably goes to Paula Creamer, though the Pink Panther hasn’t won since her stirring victory at the 2010 U.S. Women’s Open. Or perhaps Wie is the most recognizable American, though she has won but twice on Tour and is currently ranked 82nd in the world. Yes there are more recognizable American women golfers, and of course Woods and his fellow males get vastly more attention than all the women put together. But Stacy Lewis gets the last word. Underneath her name at her official website, the headline has always been “The Next Great American Golfer.” Now there’s a thick red line drawn through the last four words, and underneath them is written “Best Golfer in the World.” Not best woman, just best. She’s out there, hiding in plain sight.

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