RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. – Remember when women’s golf in the United States looked so bleak?
Back when the Americans were struggling to win the LPGA’s biggest events? Actually, when they were struggling to win any event?
Remember how weeks and months would go by in long American victory droughts?
Frankly, it felt like that going into this week’s Kraft Nabisco Championship. It felt like that going into Sunday’s final round with No. 1 Yani Tseng looking like she was going to mow down the field in a tour-de-force performance. Tseng, after all, was leading the championship in driving distance, greens in regulation and putting. She looked like an unstoppable force in her bid to win back-to-back Kraft Nabisco Championships, her third major championship in the last five and her fifth worldwide title this season.
But that’s all yesterday’s news now, old news with a bright new American face moving into Sunday’s spotlight.
The 26-year-old Texan came from two shots down in a final pairing with Tseng to win in blustery, difficult conditions on a tough golf course.
With four birdies and a bogey and no large mistakes, Lewis closed with a 3-under-par 69, equaling the day’s low round to beat Tseng (74) by three shots.
Lewis made her first LPGA title a major championship.
“To take on the No. 1 player in the world on the back nine in a major championship like that shows you what kind of grit Stacy has,” U.S. Solheim Cup captain Rosie Jones said.
Don’t look now, but Americans have won three of the last four major championships.
It took a stout heart to hold off Tseng knowing how formidably Tseng has been playing this year and for more than a year in major championships.
“I may have looked calm, but I wasn’t,” Lewis said. “I knew Yani could make birdies, and she could make a lot of them. I was never comfortable all day. I felt like I was going to throw up all day.”
Lewis played like she has an iron cast stomach. She made a clutch 18-foot putt to save par on the 17th, a big, curling right-to-left putt. When Tseng missed a 15-footer for par to follow, Lewis had a three-shot lead with one hole to play. Lewis put pressure like that on Tseng all day long.
“I could kind of tell from the third or fourth hole on that Yani just wasn’t quite herself,” Lewis said. “She was just a little off, and I knew I had to take advantage of it.”
The victory meant a lot to U.S. players who’ve endured a few years of the question: “What’s wrong with the Americans?”
This victory feels like an overnight shift in momentum because Americans have endured some serious droughts with Sweden’s Annika Sorenstam, Australia’s Karrie Webb, Mexico’s Lorena Ochoa and a wave of South Koreans dominating the tour for more than a decade.
In 2009, just four Americans won LPGA events, which ranks as the fewest victories by Americans in any season since the tour was founded in 1950. Americans went 17 consecutive events without winning that year, a record American drought. Last year, Americans won just five tour events.
“I think it’s huge for us,” Lewis said. “I know when I see other Americans playing well, it makes me want to play better, too.”
Americans claimed five of the top six spots Sunday with Morgan Pressel, Angela Stanford and Katie Futcher tying for third and Michelle Wie finishing sixth.
“The leaderboard was awesome if you’re a fan of American golf,” Pressel said.
Jones is more than a fan of American golf as the U.S. Solheim Cup captain. Lewis is in the American mix to make the team and meet the Europeans in Ireland in September.
“I think American golf is on an upswing,” Jones said.
It is in the majors with Cristie Kerr having won the LPGA Championship in a record 12-shot rout and Paula Creamer breaking through to win the U.S. Women’s Open last summer. If you go back to Brittany Lincicome’s victory at the ’09 Kraft, Americans have won four of the last six majors.
“I’ve always said it’s a cyclical thing,” former American Solheim Cup captain Beth Daniel said.
Color it a red, white and blue cycle.
Follow Randall Mell on Twitter @RandallMell