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Tuesday, November 13, 2012
Stacy Lewis wins player of year, aims for more

By Mechelle Voepel

At the U.S. Women's Open in July, Stacy Lewis was overly upset with herself. She can acknowledge that now. At the time, after shooting a final-round 75 and finishing tied for 46th, Lewis looked as if her world had come crashing down.

Now, four months later, she's on top of her world. With a tie for fourth at the Lorena Ochoa Invitational on Sunday, Lewis wrapped up the LPGA's Rolex Player of the Year award.

And headed into the tour's season-ending tournament, the CME Group Titleholders, Lewis is playing with house money because it's already been such a great season. She could put a little more icing on the cake, however, with her fifth victory of 2012 at the Titleholders, which begins Thursday at the TwinEagles Club in Naples, Fla.

"I haven't figured out the U.S. Open the last couple of years, but I had the expectations of a chance to play really well there this year," Lewis said of that disappointment. "I think I let the pressure of that get to me a bit, and I got too frustrated with a game that wasn't even that far off.

"It kind of snowballed on me. But I took a step back, had two weeks off after the Open, and looked at it and said, 'I've had a really good year. I'm not going to let one bad week define the rest of my season.' That really helped me get the focus to come back and play well the rest of the year."

Indeed she has, with four victories among 16 top-10 finishes. The LPGA player of the year award is based on points given for players' finishes in tournaments, so it rewards consistency. Lewis' most recent win was at the Mizuno Classic on Nov. 4 in Japan. She also won the Navistar LPGA Classic in Alabama in September, the ShopRite Classic in New Jersey in June and the Mobile Bay LPGA Classic in Alabama in April.

With one of her wins coming in the Garden State this year, she donated $20,000 to the relief efforts in New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy. At 27, Lewis seems ready to embrace a higher profile in her sport -- and is compiling the credentials for that.

In winning the LPGA player of the year award, Lewis became the first American to do so since Beth Daniel in 1994. Lewis was just 9 then, two years from a diagnosis of scoliosis that would require her to wear a back brace for 7½ years, then undergo major surgery -- with a significant recovery time -- when she was a teenager.

What she has overcome physically has been amazing, yet she's the first to say it all seems a bit distant now. She's still a spokeswoman and fundraiser for scoliosis, but it's not just her past that makes her an especially compelling sports story. Rather, it's her present and future.

"People play their best golf at different ages," said Lewis, who grew up in Texas and is an Arkansas grad. "For me, I know I haven't played my best golf yet. That's what excites me about the next few years and makes me want to work even harder.

"Our tour in general has needed American players to step up. The only thing I could do was just play better golf and move up the rankings and get that exposure."

In the mid-1990s, the LPGA Tour began to change substantively from what had long been an American-based and American-dominated circuit. There always had been some foreign players, but they joined the tour in greater numbers and had more consistent success.

From 1995 to 2011, the player of the year award was won by Sweden's Annika Sorenstam (eight times), England's Laura Davies, Australia's Karrie Webb (twice), Mexico's Lorena Ochoa (four times) and Taiwan's Yani Tseng (twice). South Korea and Japan also had big impacts on the tour in that time. In June, Shanshan Feng won the LPGA Championship to become the first LPGA Tour winner from mainland China.

Not only has the tour's player composition changed, so has the schedule. It began to expand more beyond the United States, out of necessity and opportunity. This LPGA season, just 15 of the 28 tournaments have been in the United States, including this week's in Florida. When Daniel won player of the year, the LPGA had 29 tournaments in the United States. It really was not a "global" tour then.

None of this is meant to diminish Daniel's accomplishment in 1994, when she played 25 tournaments, won four times and earned just under $660,000. Today's players are competing for bigger purses but have to travel much more internationally and compete against the world's best at virtually all events.

This year, Lewis has played 25 tournaments and earned $1,863,956. She has befriended some older U.S. players -- such as Daniel, Meg Mallon, Betsy King and Nancy Lopez -- and values their advice. Because despite the changes, several things about being successful on the tour really are not that different.

"Over the last couple of years, I've gotten to know them pretty well, and they've helped me a lot," Lewis said. "Especially this year on what they say about managing my schedule, how much I'm playing, traveling and doing extra events. It usually ends up with me going back to them and saying, 'You were right.' They often tell me I'm too busy and doing too much.

"And Beth has been great about telling me about handling the player of the year, and the pressure that goes with that. It's just been really nice to have them to fall back on and talk to somebody who's been through what I'm doing."

South Korea's Inbee Park still appears likely to top the LPGA money list this season regardless of what happens in Naples. Park is at $2,266,638, $402,682 ahead of second-place Lewis. But the first-place prize at the Titleholders is $500,000.

As for the Rolex world rankings, Tseng is still No. 1 despite a down year by her standards. But that's a perch Lewis hopes to attain someday.

Looking at the stats, Lewis' success in 2012 is easy to understand: She's first on the tour in birdies, eagles and rounds in the 60s. She's second in greens in regulation. At her best, Lewis gives herself a lot of scoring chances.

"To be in contention, you have to make birdies," she said. "Over the last year, I've worked on my putting a lot, specifically on speed. I'm not three-putting or having 4- and 5-footers coming back all the time. To win tournaments, you have to make putts from everywhere."

Lewis also credits the competition against the likes of Tseng (the LPGA player of the year the past two seasons), U.S. Women's Open winner Na Yeon Choi of South Korea and Japan's Ai Miyazato as helping her improve her own accuracy on the greens.

"They make putts when they really need to, and that's the difference in winning events," Lewis said. "When you're putting well, it frees up everything else, especially your iron game. You're confident that, even if you miss a green, you can still get it up and down. And confidence is what golf is all about."