This is the first in a series of profiles of the 2013 inductees into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame:
For those who follow women’s professional golf closely, it wasn’t a surprise in December when former University of Arkansas golfer Stacy Lewis was named the 2012 Player of the Year by the Golf Writers Association of America.
Lewis is the best story in women’s golf right now, having become the first American since Beth Daniel in 1994 to be the Rolex Player of the Year and the first American since Juli Inkster in 1999 to be the Golf Writers Association of America Player of the Year.
Lewis is only 27 and already her list of accomplishments is long.
She won 12 tournaments in college while putting the Arkansas women’s golf program on the map. She was the 2007 NCAA champion and the top amateur player in the country for more than two years before turning pro. Her story is even more interesting because of what she has overcome physically. She was only age 11 when she was diagnosed with scoliosis. Lewis wore a back brace for more than seven years and had a spinal fusion when she was in high school.
On the evening of Friday, March 8, Lewis will become one of the youngest inductees in the history of the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.
Lewis grew up at The Woodlands in Texas, a wealthy suburb of Houston. She was a four-time all-district selection and an all-state selection as she led her team to three consecutive state titles. Her best round in high school — a two-under 65 — came in November 2001. She had a pair of 69s and two 70s as a high school senior. Due to her surgery, Lewis redshirted the 2003-04 freshman season at Arkansas.
Her career then took off:
— As a redshirt freshman in 2004-05, Lewis posted five finishes in the top five, including three wins in 10 tournaments. She captured the 2005 Southeastern Conference individual title with a school- and course-record 67 on the final day. Her three-day total of 214 was also a school record. Lewis earned SEC Freshman of the Year honors and made the All-SEC first team. She also became the first women’s golfer in school history to earn All-America honors. She finished the year ranked fourth in the SEC and 15th in the country for stroke average.
— As a sophomore in 2005-06, Lewis finished ninth at the NCAA championship and earned All-America honors for a second consecutive year. She posted a course-record 66 in her final round at the NCAA championship with five consecutive birdies on holes 12-16. She was again on the All-SEC first team and had five top 10 finishes during the season.
— As a junior in 2006-07, Lewis won the NCAA title with a final-round 66 to finish six under par at Daytona Beach, Fla. Back problems had kept Lewis out of the SEC championship. She finished tied for third at the NCAA Central Championship and then struck gold in Florida. Lewis earned her third consecutive All-America honor, won the Dinah Shore Trophy and made ESPN’s Academic All-America team.
— As a senior in 2007-08, Lewis earned All-America and All-SEC honors for a fourth consecutive season. She won the SEC title for a second time and was named both the SEC Golfer of the Year and the SEC Golf Scholar-Athlete of the Year. During the regular season, she won three consecutive events. Lewis tied for eighth at the NCAA championship.
Lewis also stayed busy on the amateur circuit each summer. After winning the NCAA championship her junior year, she won the 92nd women’s Southern Amateur title. She was the 2007 Golf Digest Amateur of the Year, winning the LPGA Northwest Arkansas championship as an amateur in September of that year.
Lewis graduated from Arkansas in 2008 with a bachelor’s degree in finance and accounting. As a member of the U.S. Curtis Cup team that year, she became the first player to go 5-0 in the 76-year history of the event. The competition on the Old Course at St. Andrew’s in Scotland was her last as an amateur as the United States posted a sixth consecutive Curtis Cup victory over Great Britain and Ireland.
Lewis competed in seven events on the LPGA Tour in 2008 and had two finishes in the top 10, earning more than $247,000 in the process.
Her first professional victory came at the 2011 Kraft Nabisco Championship as she held off the then-No. 1 player in the world, Yani Tseng, down the stretch to win by three strokes.
Lewis won four tournaments last year — the Mobile Bay LPGA Classic in April, the ShopRite LPGA Classic in June, the Navistar LPGA Classic in September and the Mizuno Classic in November.
“What she has overcome physically has been amazing, yet she’s the first to say it all seems a bit distant now,” writes ESPN’s Mechelle Voepel. “She’s still a spokeswoman and fundraiser for scoliosis, but it’s not just her past that makes her an especially compelling sports story. Rather, it’s her present and future.”
Lewis tells ESPN: “People play their best golf at different ages. For me, I know I haven’t played my best golf yet. That’s what excites me about the next few years and makes me want to work even harder. Our tour in general has needed American players to step up. The only thing I could do was just play better golf and move up the rankings and get that exposure.”
Foreign players had dominated the LPGA Tour the previous few years. From 1995 through 2011, player-of-the-year awards went to Annika Sorenstam of Sweden eight times, Lorena Ochoa of Mexico four times, Yani Tseng of Taiwan twice, Karrie Webb of Australia twice and Laura Davies of England once. Shanshan Feng won the LPGA Championship last June to become the first LPGA Tour winner from mainland China.
Lewis earned more than $1.8 million last year while seeking advice from LPGA legends such as Daniel, Betsy King and Nancy Lopez.
“I’ve gotten to know them pretty well, and they’ve helped me a lot,” Lewis tells ESPN. “Especially this year on what they say about managing my schedule, how much I’m playing, traveling and doing extra events. It usually ends up with me going back to them and saying, ‘You were right.’ They often tell me I’m too busy and doing too much.
“And Beth has been great about telling me about handling the player of the year and the pressure that goes with that. It has just been really nice to have them to fall back on and talk to somebody who has been through what I’m doing.”
In more ways than one, Lewis is becoming the face of the LPGA.
“It’s easy to look at three of the four new sponsors on the LPGA’s 2013 schedule and draw a direct line to Lewis, last year’s Rolex Player of the Year,” a recent story at FoxSports.com noted. “Marathon takes over this year as title sponsor of a Toledo, Ohio, event that was known for decades as the Jamie Farr. In addition to Marathon, Pure Silk — another company that sponsors Lewis — will title sponsor a new event in the Bahamas. There will also be a new tournament held in Lewis’ home state of Texas.”
The story described Lewis as “an American star who can rally fans and sway corporate sponsors to back domestic events.”
It said that Lewis’ “elevated status means she’ll be in demand each week on tour. She often has said that her main goal is to leave the tour better than she found it.”
When asked if this year’s new sponsorships could be tied in part to Lewis’ success, LPGA commissioner Mike Whan gave a frank answer: “If you didn’t, it wouldn’t be fair to her.”