Things couldn't be much better for Stacy Lewis these days.
She's fresh off the best season of her short professional career, becoming the first American to win the LPGA's Rolex Player of the Year honors since 1994, and in just her fifth year on the tour.
In 2012, Lewis won four times, including her final event at the Mizuno Classic in Japan, where she overcame a seven-stroke deficit by shooting 64 in the final round.
"When I look back it's been unbelievable," Lewis said. "I normally struggle starting the year. I definitely got off to a better start and from there got some confidence. I won early and won by quite a bit in the next one; I don't know, it was just kind of confidence to keep things rolling. At the end of the year there was a lot of pressure with player of the year, and to play well when I really had to when the attention was on me, that just kind of gave me confidence to end the year."
As you might imagine, her success has played well in both her hometown of The Woodlands outside Houston and her adopted home in Arkansas. Lewis, who graduated from the University of Arkansas in 2007, has become the poster child for the Razorbacks' golf program.
"Stacy is a huge ambassador for our program at all levels," said Arkansas women's golf coach Shauna Estes-Taylor, who coached Lewis as a collegiate. "She's very passionate about the Razorbacks and people see that. I was watching something the other morning on the Golf Channel and there was a big, red Razorback on her golf clubs. She's very proud of where she went to school. I think it shows people we're able to develop talent and give them the resources they need to achieve all their goals."
But Lewis' success transcends just her sport. As the most decorated female athlete in the history of the university, she is carrying the banner for women's athletics at Arkansas, and the argument could be made she is the most successful former Razorback currently playing on any level, of any gender.
"I never thought I would be the one to really carry the banner for anything," Lewis said. "I'm shy by nature and to have my name and face out there is still kind of strange to me. It's cool that I've been able to put Arkansas on the map and for people to look and say, 'I could go to school there and play golf or tennis, or softball.' It has put it into people's minds that maybe they should check this place out."
In addition to her play, Lewis is helping her alma mater more tangibly. Last fall, she donated $100,000 to the Razorbacks' golf program, becoming the first former female athlete to join a group of donors identified as The Century Club.
"That speaks volumes to what she felt her experience was like here, but also to Stacy wanting to give back," said Bev Lewis, an associate athletics director at Arkansas who served as head of women's athletics during Lewis' tenure. "She's just a neat person. She's happy to come out when she's in town to talk to the players, give them advice and be around the team.
"I think she's an outstanding person. She's proud of her time as an Arkansas Razorback. She gets attention from playing with a Hog head cover on her bag and talks about her experience here, and credits her coaches and what the institution gave to her."
For her contribution, Lewis was recognized prior to Arkansas' final home football game of the season against LSU in November. The reaction she received surprised her.
"I wasn't really sure how people would react," Lewis said. "We got to the end and they announced my name, and it was probably the loudest cheer I've ever heard in my life. I was a little shocked at how many people were cheering. Somebody actually tweeted a comment that even the LSU fans were cheering for me. That was pretty cool."
Getting to this point hasn't been easy for Lewis, though. Born with scoliosis, being a world-class golfer wasn't expected.
After wearing a brace each day from age 11 to 18, Lewis had a rod and five screws inserted into her back, which threatened to end her budding career. She redshirted her first year at Arkansas in 2004 as a result of the surgery, but bounced back as a freshman in 2005, earning Southeastern Conference newcomer of the year honors.
"I think early on I felt that when I had to have the surgery done I wouldn't be able to play golf again and I was done," Lewis said. "It has put things in perspective and still does today what I get to do every day. Somebody with a rod and screws in their back isn't supposed to be playing golf every day. It's a constant reminder for me that I'm really lucky and to make sure I take advantage of the opportunities I have, and not take it for granted. There are a lot of kids who look up to me because I play golf and I'm an inspiration to them. The whole process of everything with my back kind of shaped who I am."
Lewis has thrived since the operation, which is believed to be the only of its kind for a member of the LPGA Tour. She missed the SEC Tournament because of another back operation in 2007, but recovered in time to win the NCAA individual championship later that year.
"People never saw the number of hours that kid put in while she was here," Estes-Taylor said. "Every tournament with her back and stuff, if we were teeing off at 7 a.m., we would get up at 4 and go to the hotel gym. She would do everything she needed to do to give herself the opportunity to win and help our team accomplish our goals. It was just a tireless work ethic that was unbelievable.
"We would get back at midnight from a tournament and she would be back out the next day practicing and honing her skills. I just think that's why she is where she is today because she worked so hard and efficiently. It's amazing to see what she would endure to become her very best."
Disappointment, but promise, characterized Lewis' early days as a professional. She made a name for herself on the LPGA circuit with an opening-round 65 at the Northwest Arkansas LPGA Classic the same year, though the final two days were rained out. Lewis earned her tour card at the age of 23 in 2008 and nearly won her first event - the U.S. Women's Open - before blowing a final round lead.
Her first win was at a major, however, when she came from behind on the final day to win the 2011 Kraft Nabisco Championship. No stranger to adversity, Lewis won the event despite the death of her grandfather two days prior to teeing off at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, Calif.
Lewis trailed Yani Tseng - the world's No. 1 player - by two strokes entering the final round. Tseng even hugged and kissed the event trophy on the first hole.
"I knew Yani had all the pressure on her - she was number one in the world and everybody expected her to win," Lewis said. "I came out on Sunday and started really good. We were tied after four or five holes and I don't think she expected me to do that. It put her in a position she wasn't used to and luckily I was able to hold on and get it done. A lot of people were surprised my first win was a major, but those who know me really well, they weren't surprised at all."
Lewis made the customary splash into Poppie's Pond after winning the event, followed by her parents, brother and caddie. Her mother, Carol, made as many headlines following the event for her awkward landing.
"She hit her foot really hard on the bottom and initially they thought it was broken, but it wasn't," Lewis said. "I still give her a hard time about it. I told her that when I win the Kraft again it's going to be me and her jumping in because she's going to have to redeem herself."
Many on the golf circuit believe a second win there is likely in what appears to be the sport's most promising career. At 27, she's still hungry to accomplish more.
She is still ranked No. 2 in the world behind Tseng, who won LPGA player of the year honors the two years prior. She also finished second in the money rankings behind Inbee Park.
"I think there are always ways to get better," Lewis said. "Inbee played great at the end of the year and she almost caught me. There are plenty of things I want to accomplish and want to do going into next year to give myself opportunities to win. The wins kind of take off all the rest of the problems."
For now, she is enjoying the perks that come with being the world's best golfer. She was recently introduced at a Denver Broncos football game and in December played on a team with Beth Daniel - the last American LPGA player of the year - at an event in Phoenix. Earlier this month, she was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.
"Growing up, I wasn't the prodigy child and wasn't supposed to be doing this," Lewis said. "I wasn't the best at any level, so it's just crazy to think about."
Stacy Lewis and Jeff Long walk onto the field at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
Photo by Marc F. Henning, Hawgs Illustrated
Stacy Lewis Rises to Top
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