Last Friday night, Stacy Lewis's improbable journey in golf came full circle. In the fall of 2003 she arrived at the University of Arkansas not knowing if she would ever tee it up again. She was less than a year removed from back surgery, during which a five-inch metal rod and five pins were grafted to her spine to treat a severe curvature. Lewis weighed 105 pounds and was so painfully shy she had flummoxed her college coach, Kelley Hester, during a recruiting visit. "We thought there was no way she'd ever come to Arkansas," says Hester, who honored Lewis's scholarship offer despite the surgery. "On her recruiting trip she didn't say more than 10 words the whole time, to anyone. We thought she was miserable and hated the place."
In fact, Fayetteville is where Lewis blossomed as a player and a person, maturing into the poised, confident young woman who dazzled a thousand guests at Friday's black-tie gala celebrating this year's inductees into the Arkansas Hall of Fame, which is a highlight of the Little Rock social calendar. Lewis became the youngest inductee in the Hall's 55-year history, thanks to 13 college victories, including the 2007 NCAA championship, which Hester says "turned Stacy into a rock star in that state."
The Hall may be top-heavy with football and basketball players, but Lewis was the star of Friday's show, not least because she was only five days removed from a rousing first victory of the LPGA season, in Singapore. (She also won in Australia in January.) She looked glamorous in heels and a colorful minidress. After getting Lewis's autograph, one middle-aged gent said to a friend, "You see those thigh muscles? She's definitely an ath-o-lete." The women cooed over the deep bronze of her gams and giggled at the blinding white tops of her feet, the sock-tan that is the bane of the LPGA player's existence. Lewis didn't know she would be speaking until a few hours before the ceremony, but she winged it effortlessly. Her funny and heartfelt speech ended with a defiant note. Lest anyone think the induction was a sign she has peaked, Lewis woofed, "I truly believe the best is yet to come."
Afterward she celebrated at a bar with friends and family, washing down a burger and fries with a flute of champagne. Lewis carried a double major in finance and accounting at Arkansas, graduating with a 3.87 GPA, but she was still struggling to process that she was now a 28-year-old Hall of Famer. "This is just a little weird and surreal," she said. When someone offered a compliment on her speech, Lewis said, "The little girl who first came to Arkansas never in a million years would have been able to do that." It was after 11 o'clock when she returned to her hotel.
Six and a half hours later she was in the gym for a punishing workout.
These two sides of Lewis—belle of the ball and obsessive self-improver—explain both her success and her increasing importance to the LPGA. She has already won a major championship (the 2011 Kraft Nabisco) and last year became the first American to be named player of the year since 1994, when Beth Daniel took the honors. Lewis is third in the Rolex world rankings, and getting to No. 1 is the next logical step in her career, but an even bigger role awaits. The LPGA hasn't had a true leading lady since the double-whammy retirements of Annika Sorenstam and Lorena Ochoa in 2008 and '10, respectively. (Current No. 1 Yani Tseng has never connected with fans outside of Asia.) That the new face of the tour is a blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl-next-door with an inspirational story is the stuff of a commissioner's dreams.
"There's no question Stacy has energized the domestic market," says LPGA commish Mike Whan. "She has lifted all boats."
Two companies with which Lewis had endorsement deals have stepped up to become tournament title sponsors this year. Pure Silk, a shaving cream manufacturer, put its name on a new event in the Bahamas, and Marathon Petroleum, a FORTUNE 50 company, will underwrite what used to be known as the Jamie Farr Toledo Classic. "Certainly our relationship with Stacy showed us the value of being associated with the LPGA," says Gary Heminger, Marathon's president and CEO. "She has so many admirable qualities that we want to be associated with—character, a passion for what she does, a burning desire to be the best. She has become a wonderful ambassador for golf."
Lewis recently re-upped with Mizuno and signed a new deal with Omega watches, which explains why the $26,000 Rolex that came with her player of the year award is locked in a safe. Her ascension in the marketplace is mirrored by her elevation among colleagues as the gold standard for preparation and maximizing one's potential. Lewis hits the gym six days a week for an hour and a half each time. The metal rod in her back still restricts the rotation of her torso, so she has compensated by building up her shoulders, core muscles, hips and legs through Olympic lifts with heavy metal. Her trainer, David Donatucci, works with numerous female pros, and he says, "They all want to know what Stacy is doing in the gym." The secret is what Donatucci calls "want and will." He adds, "She is one tough young woman. She gets after it hard."
Three years ago Lewis began working with Joe Hallett to hone a tighter, shorter, more repeatable swing that has now become a model of efficiency. (Last year Lewis tied for second on the tour in greens in regulation.) She is only 5' 5" and 135 pounds, but in 2012 Lewis sneaked up to 15th in driving distance (260.4 yards) and says she is 25 yards longer than she was three years ago. "I'm shocked at how far she's hitting it," says her father, Dale. "It's changed the way she can attack golf courses. The only downside is what it's done to my ego."
During Lewis's redshirt year, while her back healed, all she could do was chip and putt, and it shows in one of the purest strokes in golf. She used that time off in another important way. "She became like a little assistant coach," says Hester. "She would stand with the coaches watching the team play and say, 'Well, that is so stupid. Why'd she do that?' It furthered her golf education."
Lewis's ongoing success on the greens is a blend of art and science. To sharpen her feel she does a drill in which she hits a long lag putt into open space on the practice green, away from any target. Without peeking to see where the putt ends up, Lewis then drops another ball, closes her eyes and tries to hit the second ball to the same spot. "No exaggeration, 90 percent of the time the two balls are within three or four inches," says Hallett.
This delicate touch has been married to a cutting-edge system of reading greens. AimPoint is familiar to golf fans for supplying those snazzy graphics on Golf Channel telecasts that show the break of any given putt, but AimPoint is also a green-reading system that Lewis began using in 2011. She uses the sensation in her feet—and in practice rounds, a digital level—to determine the slope of the green, then factors in the distance of a putt and the angle at which she is putting across the slope. Crunching these numbers in her head gives her an exact number of inches a given putt will break. "Reading greens used to be a problem for me," Lewis says. "Now I have so much confidence in the read, I'm freed up to try to make every putt."
AimPoint founder Mark Sweeney says some 30 female pros have recently come to him to learn the secrets of his technology, including Tseng and world No. 2 Na Yeon Choi. "It's all because of Stacy," says Sweeney. "But not only does she have a big head start, she has a very analytical mind and a technically perfect putting stroke. So...." He's too polite to say that it won't be easy for the competition to cut into Lewis's advantage on the greens.
The relentless quest to be the best has pushed Lewis into unfamiliar territory: She's a favorite to win every time she tees it up. This is a paradigm shift for a young woman who wore a back brace between junior tournaments, who wasn't the best player on her high school team, who was snubbed for the Curtis Cup as a college sophomore and as a national player of the year as a senior. "I've always been the underdog, which I kind of liked," Lewis says.
The heightened expectations were her undoing last month at the Honda LPGA Thailand, where she took a three-stroke lead into the weekend. Lewis's temper was once volcanic; she has mellowed through the years, but her cheeks still redden when she's grinding on the course. In Thailand she looked flushed all weekend as she faded to a tie for third. "I was trying to force a victory to happen," she says. "I was thinking about the wrong things, and it affected me."
The next week she went to Singapore with one goal: "I wanted to be patient, which isn't my forte." She beat Choi by a stroke with a gritty Sunday performance. "I'm still learning. I'm still growing, which is exciting," Lewis says.
Those closest to her marvel at Lewis's metamorphosis. "The whole thing is like a fairy tale, to be honest," says Hester. "Stacy worked hard at golf, but it never came easy for her. Then the stuff with her back? If she can grow up to be player of the year, anyone can do it."
Back in Little Rock, at the Hall of Fame gala, Dale Lewis was reflective as he watched his little girl pose for photos with her fellow inductees. "It's pretty unbelievable," he said. "I guess the question is where she goes from here." At that moment Stacy was onstage, glowing in the bright lights. The guess here is this won't be her last Hall of Fame ceremony.
"There's no question Stacy has energized the domestic market," says Whan. "She has lifted all boats."
Getting to No. 1 is the next logical step in Lewis's career, but an even bigger role awaits.
"I'm still learning," says Lewis, who has already won twice in 2013. "I'm still growing, which is exciting."
Photograph by TODD BIGELOW/AURORA
PICTURE THIS Lewis, walking in front of a mural of photographers at Verizon Arena in Little Rock, should get used to living her life in the spotlight.
VICTOR FRAILE/GETTY IMAGES
TOUGH TO BEAT Lewis has added 25 yards off the tee over the past three years, but the strength of her game is an ability to read greens and then hole putts.
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HOMECOMING Lewis (with Dale, back left) was relaxed and confident when she was welcomed in Little Rock as the youngest inductee in the history of the Arkansas Hall of Fame.
SCOTT HALLERAN/GETTY IMAGES
ALL GRINS Lewis showed patience during the final round in Singapore, then busted out a smile after holding on for a one-shot victory.