Stacy Lewis is where she wants to be

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With four tournament victories in 2012, Stacy Lewis earned player of the year honors, the first American to do so since Beth Daniel in 1994.

There is one -- and pretty much only one -- favorite activity at which Stacy Lewis doesn't have ambition to succeed. When she casts her line into the water, it isn't important if she gets a bite.

"I don't really care if I catch a fish or not," Lewis said. "I just love being out there and doing it. I'm not competitive about it at all. Which is … not normal for me."

She laughed at that, and so would most who know Lewis, last year's LPGA Player of the Year. She was the first American in 18 years to win that honor, and it put her where she's been aiming to be: in the top tier of women's golf.

"She always liked to be in control, even when she was a kid," her dad, Dale Lewis, said. "If we were riding bikes or going out on a hike, she wanted to be the one in front.

"It was always, 'I want to be a leader; I want people to follow me.' She always had that attitude, too, that, 'I may be little, but I can do it.' But she didn't talk out loud about it a lot; she just went about her business and did her thing."

Lewis will turn 28 Saturday, in the middle of the LPGA's season-opening event in Australia. She still likes being at the head of the pack, while continuing to not make a fuss about it.

That said, she's become more adept at being a spokeswoman for the LPGA tour.

"For me, it was just learning how to be comfortable being myself," Lewis said. "I'm kind of a shy person by nature, and it's hard for me to open up a lot.

"But I've realized people want to know you. How you've dealt with things, how you've gone through them, how you prepare every week. Really, it's a cool position to be in."

She's OK with a so-called target on her back, too. She has thrived in an underdog/overlooked role in college and the LPGA, but she doesn't need that to be motivated. She also will take on the "favorite" mantle and wear that just as comfortably.

Lewis has changed the things she's needed to change to become a world-class player. She's coaxed herself to be more outgoing, and she's gotten better at harnessing her negative emotions on the course.

But those fundamental traits -- the steely resolve, the no-short-cuts work ethic, the belief that it's not supposed to be easy -- are still there.

Central to Lewis' story, always, is her medical history: She was diagnosed with scoliosis at age 11, wore a back brace for 7½ years, and then underwent a surgery that could have paralyzed her.

She thinks of her mom, Carol, driving her to those quarterly visits to the doctor's office throughout her adolescence, with the news never really getting better. Yet Carol's optimism didn't waiver. So neither did Stacy's.

"She never gave me the option to get discouraged," Lewis said. "It was always, 'We're doing this, it's going to work out fine.' So that was my mentality through the whole thing. It made me pretty tough."

That has aided her in a golf career that is just getting into high gear. People will talk about how Lewis managed to do all she's done athletically despite her back issues. But she is more inclined to say that a big part of what she has done is because of that ordeal.

"I wouldn't wish anything I went through on any kid -- but I probably wouldn't be here if all that stuff hadn't happened," Lewis said. "It put everything in perspective. I appreciate the little things more; I appreciate just getting to practice.

"What comes out on the golf course is that person who had the door slammed in their face a lot of times, but still had to find a way to fight through it."

The buildup

Lewis won her first official LPGA title at the Kraft Nabisco Championship in 2011. Of course, it couldn't be easy. Her grandfather died the day before the tournament started. Her mother broke her leg on the traditional celebratory jump into Poppie's Pond at the Mission Hill course.

Technically, Lewis did have an LPGA win before that. In 2007, as an amateur, she shot a 65 to lead the first round of a tour event in Rogers, Ark. Rain cancelled the rest of the tournament, so she was the winner, although it was deemed unofficial.

At that time, Lewis was a senior at Arkansas; there, she won an NCAA title and got her degree in finance and accounting. As she has risen in the pro ranks, parents of talented younger golfers sometimes ask Dale for advice. What's the best path to take?

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Some might have thought Lewis' major win in the 2011 Kraft Nabisco was a fluke, but Lewis knew otherwise.

"I tell them, 'Send them to college,'" Dale said, "although a lot of them don't want to hear that anymore. But everything that happened for Stacy really started at Arkansas. It's been a learning process since then.

"Her first four years in professional golf, to me, have been a lot like her four years in college. It's like, the first year was, 'Who is this girl?' Then a little plateau the second year.

"Then the third year, it's like this takeoff. In college, that junior year is when she won the NCAA [title]. Then by her senior year, she won half of her events and felt like she could win every time she played. That's kind of what I've seen in her pro career, that same progression."

For a period during recovery from her back surgery -- she redshirted what would have been her freshman season in Fayetteville, Ark. -- she was limited to practicing her short game. During all of that pitching and putting, a certain confidence clicked and stayed with her.

Over the years, she also has gotten physically stronger and added length on her drives, in part by doing the kind of technical tinkering most golfers attempt. Not all, though, can visualize their swings as accurately as Lewis.

When she began to work on improving her takeaway, for instance, she opted to model it after that of LPGA Hall of Famer Karrie Webb. Lewis would watch video of Webb and of herself, and then replay those videos again and again, crystal-clear in her mind.

Dale said that's something Stacy naturally excels at, just as she instinctively could throw a baseball or swing a golf club. The middle of three daughters, Stacy was the born athlete, and golf was a particular magnet for her from the time she was about 8.

"Every time I'd pick up my golf clubs to go play," said Dale, her first teacher in the sport, "she was ready to go with me."

Role model looks to role models

Lewis didn't just emulate Webb's takeaway. She also has looked to Webb and other successful tour veterans for tips on how to be a well-rounded pro -- and person. The Australian Webb and Americans Meg Mallon, Beth Daniel and Betsy King have been mentors for Lewis.

Last year, Lewis became the first American since Daniel in 1994 to become LPGA Player of the Year. That mattered to the tour a great deal. The LPGA prides itself on being a global tour, but commissioner Mike Whan readily acknowledged the benefits that come when an American earns some spotlight.

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Her father, Dale, was her first teacher in golf, and he was by her side when Lewis accepted the player of the year award.

"That's absolutely fair to say, especially in terms of American sponsors," Whan said. "It's true of other countries, too. When we added an event in Taiwan, it was because of Yani Tseng's success. We're playing in China this year in large part because of Shanshan [Feng].

"Look at Stacy Lewis' personal sponsors. One of them is Pure Silk, which is now the title sponsor of our event in the Bahamas. And one of them is Marathon Petroleum, now our title sponsor in Toledo. So you can see that successful, strong players can raise the opportunities for all players on tour. Stacy definitely had an impact on sponsorship support and, I'm sure, viewership in the U.S., especially."

The June event near Toledo, Ohio, is one of Lewis' two "homecoming" tournaments. Her parents are from Toledo, and she was born there. The family then moved to South Carolina before settling in The Woodlands, Texas.

"Her cousins and nephews get shirts made every year and call themselves the 'Lew Crew' in Toledo," Dale said. "And, of course, the tour plays just outside of Fayetteville every year, and they call the hogs for her and all that stuff."

That would be Arkansas' famed "Woo, Pig! Sooie!" cheer.

Lewis gave her fans in Ohio, Texas and Arkansas plenty to be excited about in 2012. She won four tournaments -- in April, June, September and November -- and had 12 other top-10 finishes.

"It seems like after last year, more people recognize me and know what I did," Lewis said. "I think some people kind of thought me winning that major [the Kraft Nabisco Championship] was kind of a fluke. To me, it never was. But I think [2012] showed that it wasn't."

Now, the 2013 LPGA season is here, and other than having significantly more media requests, Lewis said her outlook is the same as always.

"I was talking to Meg Mallon, and she said, 'How does it feel?'" Lewis said of her mindset after having won the player of the year award. "And you really don't feel different. I mean, you feel like you accomplished something, but it doesn't change who you are, the way you prepare.

"I've always said by the end of my career, I want to have made the LPGA better. If that's maybe bringing more kids to the sport or more sponsors in -- whatever I can do. I've always had that perspective."

There could be some big moments for Lewis and the LPGA this year. The U.S. Women's Open will be in Southampton, N.Y., in June, the first time the event has been in the Big Apple area since 1987. And the Solheim Cup is back on American soil, in Parker, Colo., in August.

Lewis competed in her first Solheim Cup in 2011, going 1-3-0 as the Americans lost to Europe in Ireland. She will go into the Solheim this year a long way from feeling like a rookie.

"Over the holidays, I was with my family for about a week and a half," Lewis said. "And I was talking to my dad about how far I've come in a really short amount of time, when you think about it.

"Coming out of my surgery, I just wanted to play golf. I didn't care how I played or where I played, I just wanted to be able to do it. So it's just been amazing. When I started last year, I never thought about winning player of the year. Sometimes it doesn't even seem real. But then again, I've worked hard enough to get there."

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