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Friday, March 22, 2013
Stacy Lewis' ranking good for U.S. golf

By Melissa Isaacson

This is just how it goes. Five minutes after the Super Bowl, the winners are asked if they can repeat. And so it was that one day after Stacy Lewis became the No. 1-ranked golfer in the world -- the second American woman to do so since the rankings began in 2006 -- there were the inevitable questions about how long she could hang on and if the pressure would get to her.

They were not without merit.

The last American to reach that position, Cristie Kerr, enjoyed it for only five weeks total in 2010. The previous LPGA player to do it, Taiwan's Yani Tseng, held on for 109 weeks, most of that time as if it were a shard of glass, which is why Lewis appears set for at least a more contented ride.

"I've learned a lot just from watching Yani," Lewis said by phone Tuesday. "For her, No. 1 became a burden, and when it becomes a burden, you're doing it for the wrong reasons. ...

"I know a ton of people would love to be in my position, and I try to keep that in my head. I tell myself, 'I've had four hours of interviews, but I'm going to enjoy it because a lot of people would love to be in my shoes.'"

More important, Lewis would love to have been in those shoes not so long ago.

When you're a teenage girl trying to find clothes that will adequately hide the full body brace that no one outside your doctor, immediate family and closest friends know you must wear for your scoliosis, not much else is likely to rattle you.

Lewis' back story, as it were -- she wore the brace for seven and a half years, removing it only when playing golf, and then, just as she accepted a college scholarship, she required surgery that could have paralyzed her and left her with a titanium rod and five screws -- is something of an old one by now. But how she will proceed from here has everything to do with where she has been.

"We talk about it all the time," said her coach at Arkansas, Shauna Estes-Taylor, who received a thank-you call from Lewis on Monday. "I'll say, 'Remember, you get to play this game for fun,' and Stacy will say, 'I know, I'm so lucky,' because at one time she really thought it was going to be taken away.

"She really carries that and values that every time she plays. You don't get tired if you feel so lucky to even be here."

How does Lewis handle pressure? Look no further than Saturday and the third round of the LPGA Founders Cup. Within striking distance of leader Ai Miyazato, Lewis was penalized two strokes after her caddie tapped his shoe on the sand to check the firmness of a fairway bunker on the par-4 16th hole. Suddenly, she was tied for second, four strokes behind Miyazato going into the final round.

Lewis responded with nine birdies on Sunday, winning the tournament by three strokes and capturing the No. 1 ranking.

"When I look at everything I went through growing up, that's the reason I was able to handle things the way I did Saturday," Lewis said. "It's weird, as soon as I walked into the trailer and saw the video, I knew I was getting the penalty, and I was OK with it. Mistakes happen.

"I don't know how to describe it, but I just knew everything was going to be fine."

It was what her mother would tell her after every discouraging trip to the doctor. And when Stacy's father, Dale, heard what had happened Saturday on his way home from the course, he told her agent, J.S. Kang, that he just laughed.

I've been the only American in the top 10 for a while, but being No. 1 is a big deal. It shows others that there may not be other U.S. players in the top 10, but we're still here, American golf is still strong. It has to be good for the tour.

-- Stacy Lewis

"Why should it be easy? It's never been easy," Kang said. "This was just another challenge."

There was her back, and a high school career that did not merit much college attention. Then the follow-up surgery that caused her to redshirt her freshman year at Arkansas and restricted her to chipping and putting practice. After college, she couldn't get her tour card because of a quirky rules exception, despite earning enough money with a third-place finish in the U.S. Women's Open.

Along the way, Lewis always seemed to exist under the proverbial radar, whether she liked it or not.

"It's frustrating sometimes not getting the attention you deserve," she said. "In college I won six tournaments my senior year and didn't win national college player of the year. Then I went to Q-school, and all the talk was Michelle Wie. Then I won the Kraft, and it was all about how Yani lost it rather than me winning it. It's just this trend that has sort of followed me. Hopefully, I can kind of step out of it."

At 28, with seven LPGA titles, including one major, she's clearly ready. And so is U.S. golf.

"I've been the only American in the top 10 for a while, but being No. 1 is a big deal," Lewis admitted. "It shows others that there may not be other U.S. players in the top 10, but we're still here, American golf is still strong. It has to be good for the tour."

Good for other young Americans, as well.

"You can look at [the Founders Cup] last week," she said, "and there were 10 Americans in the top 20, and not your typical players but Jessica Korda and Lizette Salas, young talent people haven't heard of. I think me doing what I'm doing has opened their eyes a little bit that you don't have to be a superstar like Michelle Wie to be one of the best, that you can just work hard and work your way up there."

The fact Lewis does not yet consider herself a superstar may tell us all we need to know.

"I think I'm getting to that point," she said. "But if you were to poll sports fans and ask them to name a female golfer, they'd say Michelle Wie and Paula Creamer, and that's just the way media and exposure is. I'm OK with that, I have no problem with that. I'd rather golf fans know me as a great golfer."

Who happens to be the best in the world.