Lewis Leads Lady'Backs To SEC Tourney

FAYETTEVILLE -- Arkansas has never finished higher than fifth in the Southeastern Conference Women's Golf Championships, but that could change this weekend at Tunica National Golf Course in Tunica, Miss.

Play begins today and continues through Sunday at the new public course designed by Mark McCumber.

The No. 18 Lady Razorbacks have had six top-five finishes in nine tournaments this season, including runner-up performances in the Central District Invitational and the BYU Dixie Classic.

Third-year UA coach Kelley Hester hopes her team still hasn't peaked and is looking for a boost from her mid-range players.

"In most tournaments this spring we've had one player do well, three do average and one do not so good," Hester said.

"I know we're better than we've played. We've under-performed in the middle of the lineup."

Second-year freshman Stacy Lewis has surprised everyone by posting five top-five individual finishes, including two wins. She is ranked 13th nationally and second among freshmen.

"Stacy would be the National Player of the Year except that the best player in the country, Louise Stahle of Arizona State, is also a freshman," Hester said.

Lewis, of The Woodlands, Texas, has overcome a back injury which sidelined her last season and cast her golfing future in doubt.

"All the Texas schools are shaking their heads that they missed out on Stacy," Hester said. "She visited Louisville, Kansas State and Arkansas out of high school. She was certainly not playing her best golf back then, but I liked the way she handled herself. She interacted well with her family and fellow competitors, and could manage her game quite well."

Lewis has outplayed notable Arkansas juniors Amanda McCurdy and Courtney Mahon, who have significant national experience. McCurdy was runnerup in the U.S. Women's Amateur last summer.

"Amanda and Court are have been pressing a little," Hester said. "Golf is a funny game. Neither one of them has trusted her strengths. Amanda has a great long game and Courtney is an excellent putter, but they've worried about other things and gotten away from their strengths.

"But the SEC Tournament is a completely clean slate -- it doesn't matter what you've done before."

None of the SEC schools have competed at Tunica National, and Hester said Ole Miss is perhaps the only conference school to have practiced there.

The SEC Tournament has been contested in Mississippi just twice before -- at Jackson in 1993 and at West Point in 1994.

Arkansas' best SEC finish was fifth in 1999 under previous coach Ulrika Belline.

"We finished sixth in my first year here (2003) and we'd love to jump up a few spots," Hester said.

Ranked ahead of Arkansas in the Golfweek poll are No. 3 Auburn, No. 4 Georgia, No. 8 Tennessee, No. 11 Florida and No. 12 LSU. Georgia is ranked as high as second by Golfstat.

SEC teams rated below Arkansas are No. 31 Mississippi State, No. 46 South Carolina, No. 54 Vanderbilt, No. 64 Ole Miss, No. 77 Kentucky and No. 82 Alabama.

Along with Lewis, McCurdy and Mahon, Hester will enter UA senior Gena Johnson of Hot Springs and junior Lindsey Hinshaw of Missouri City, Texas, near Houston.

"Gena rested a back injury during our last tournament, but she's better now," Hester said. "She'll be playing with a little pain."

Hinshaw is the daughter of Rice football assistant Roger Hinshaw, a former Razorbacks staffer under Ken Hatfield in the 1980s.

Lewis, whose worst finish all year was a tie for 25th in Knoxville, Tenn., has helped the Lady'Backs to their best season ever, nationally.

"I never expected a freshman to play this well," Hester said. "But Stacy is her own best teacher. She has always taken responsibility for her own game. That's good, because in golf a coach can't yell plays from the sidelines."

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