Stacy Lewis an unlikely leader
Even as Stacy Lewis led the tributes to Michelle Wie for winning the U.S. Women's Open at Pinehurst last month, the world No. 1 knew another major championship, another chance to stake a claim for more glory for herself, would swiftly arrive.
And here it is, at another of the game's great venues and again back-to-back with the men's equivalent championship. The Women's British Open, where Lewis is the defending champion after her triumph at St. Andrews last year, takes place at Royal Birkdale, just a few days before and a few miles the other side of Liverpool from the men's Open Championship at Hoylake next week.
Wie might be the biggest brand name in women's golf, but it was the way she won her breakthrough major, by 2 strokes over Lewis, that made her the perfect champion to follow Martin Kaymer at the men's U.S. Open the previous week.
To fall into the trap of thinking Wie was the only winner who could capitalize on the unique staging of back-to-back Opens at Pinehurst rather misses the point about why the women's game has been so exciting in recent times -- that there is a diverse group of characters winning regularly and leading the game forward.
Lewis has become an unlikely leader of that pack. The 29-year-old Texan is the only player to win three times on the LPGA Tour this season and appears far more comfortable in her second spell as the game's top-ranked player. Comfortable in the sense of embracing the wider role as an ambassador for her tour as opposed to being safe from losing her crown, given the likes of 17-year-old Lydia Ko and South Korea's Inbee Park snapping at her heels.
Since Park won her third successive major at the U.S. Women's Open last year, there have been four different winners of the past four majors: Lewis at St. Andrews, Norway's Suzann Pettersen at the Evian Championship, teen phenom Lexi Thompson at the Kraft Nabisco Championship in April and then Wie at Pinehurst.
Wie, whom Lewis calls the "artsy, goofy" one, does not hide her admiration for the world No. 1 who overcame scoliosis to pursue her dream as a golfer. "When I see Stacy, even if she's finished third or fourth, she's still really motivated," Wie said.
"She's pissed off that she was fourth, I really admire that. Her work ethic is just unbelievable. It definitely inspires me to work harder every time I see her in the gym, every time I see her on the golf course."
Her work ethic is just unbelievable. It definitely inspires me to work harder every time I see her in the gym, every time I see her on the golf course.Michelle Wie
Lewis was third at the Kraft, behind Thompson and Wie, and second at the U.S. Women's Open, so Wie knows what to expect this week.
But noticing Lewis taking a young American player under her wing during practice at Birkdale, Wie added, "I think she's really kind, too. That's one part I think a lot of people don't see is how kind she is. She gave Jaye Marie Green a three-hour chipping lesson, got her on the course, was teaching her everything. She's definitely very kind and motivated."
In an example of how Lewis is subtly influencing her peers, Ko said it was her aim to finish her last year at high school, then go to university. Wie graduated from Stanford in 2012 and is thus an obvious role model, but it is Lewis who has been a vocal proponent of young players going to college and not jumping straight out on tour.
And it was Lewis who encouraged one of her personal sponsors, KPMG, to increase its support for the game by backing the new Women's PGA Championship that debuts next year. In an echo at Birkdale on Wednesday, it was Charley Hull, the 18-year-old English talent, who made the official announcement that the Women's British Open would be staged at her home course of Woburn in 2016.
Woburn, just north of London, was the home of the championship in the 1990s, and a return to a popular venue that always attracts large crowds -- more than 3,000 people turned out for a one-day qualifier for the men's Open a week ago -- is welcome. But the stature of the Women's Open has risen markedly since its last visit after being staged on many of the courses on the men's Open rotation.
Royal Birkdale has hosted nine men's Opens and will be staging its sixth Women's Open, but the scoring is expected to be higher than in 2010, when Yani Tseng won at 11 under par. The rough is ferocious in places, and Lewis said, "You are going to have to play smart, similar to Pinehurst a few weeks ago."
As for a Sunday showdown with Wie, Lewis said, "I love battling down the stretch with anybody, and if it's Michelle, it would be a great thing. We're never going to hate each other, we are never going to be saying bad things about each other, but we are going to fight until the end. Then you congratulate the winner and go work hard and try to win the next week."