NAPLES, Fla. – Stacy Lewis makes a triumphant return to the United States this week in the CME Group Titleholders at TwinEagles Club.
After five weeks in Asia and Mexico, the LPGA is back in its American base for its season-ending event with Lewis leading the parade.
Lewis makes it an American celebration, of sorts.
With her victory in Japan two weeks ago, with her tie for fourth last week, Lewis clinched the Rolex Player of the Year award. She will receive the honor during the LPGA’s Rolex Awards Reception at the Ritz Carlton after Friday’s second round. It’s a big deal because she’s the first American to be Player of the Year since Beth Daniel in 1994.
“Stacy wasn’t afraid to be player of the year,” said Meg Mallon, the U.S. Solheim Cup captain. “She not only wanted it, she went out and got it, and I’m just so thrilled for her. I know how hard she worked for it.”
A lot of American LPGA pros are happy that the 18-year drought is over.
“A lot of reactions I’ve gotten from Americans, they’re genuinely happy for me,” Lewis said. “We are really competitive, and I’m sure they want to be doing what I’m doing right now, but they are just very happy for me. They’re probably just as tired as me in having to answer all the questions (about the American POY drought).”
The last time an American won the honor was the same year Justin Bieber was born.
It was back when Bill Clinton was still president of the United States and back before Facebook was invented.
“I think Stacy’s opened the door for all the Americans out there,” Mallon said.
This week, Lewis will seek to become the first American to win five LPGA events in a season since Juli Inkster did it in ’99. No matter what happens, Lewis will have reason to smile playing her way around TwinEagles.
Of course, those who know Lewis best aren’t expecting a lot of smiles, at least not when she’s playing.
Lewis, 27, broke through for the Americans with an intensity that sets her apart.
“Stacy has the same kind of intensity that Kathy Whitworth had, and, ironically, that Beth Daniel had,” Mallon said.
When Daniel sees the Lewis scowl during a round, she sees a kindred spirit.
“I get so mad when I hear people say Stacy needs to smile more out there,” Daniel said. “I heard that my whole career.
“Stacy’s tough on herself, and I was tough on myself. When you see her being hard on herself, she’s actually pumping herself up. She’s telling herself, `I’m better than this.’”
Daniel understands what drove Lewis to win the Player of the Year award. Daniel won three of them with the same intense focus. That’s why Lewis sought out Daniel for some advice before her win in Japan two weeks ago. Lewis said Daniel shared how miserable she made herself in ’94 focusing so hard on trying to win POY. Daniel told Lewis she was difficult to be around at the end of that year, and she wanted Lewis to enjoy the moment more than she did.
Lewis took the message to heart.
“It’s just crazy to think that there have been so many great American players, and I’m the one after Beth,” Lewis said. “It’s pretty unbelievable.”
Lewis’ peers will tell you there’s no secret in how she broke through to be the LPGA’s best player.
“She just works so hard,” said Brittany Lincicome, one of Lewis’ close friends. “She’s constantly working out. She’s up at five and six in the morning working out.”
In the gym, on the range, Lewis has strengthened every facet of her game the last three seasons.
Diagnosed with scoliosis when she was 11, Lewis has overcome a lot in her upward climb. She had a spinal fusion as a teenager.
“You look at Stacy’s life, at how disciplined she’s had to be, it translates into her golf game,” Daniel said.
Joe Hallet will second that. He’s Lewis’ swing coach.
“It’s about relentless hard work for Stacy,” Hallett said. “No matter how frustrated she may get, she always figures out a way to get through it.”
Lewis is slender at just 5 feet 5, but she’s 21st on the tour in driving distance, averaging nearly 260 yards per drive.
“As small as Stacy is, she just bombs it,” Lincicome said. “She’s little, but she’s surprisingly strong.”
So many players get lost searching for golf’s version of the Holy Grail.
So many players lose their edge in the search for power.
Practice ranges are littered with wrecks in the quest.
Lewis isn’t among them.
Through her strength program, and with Hallett’s help, she averages nearly 10 yards a drive longer than she did as a rookie. She believes she’s even longer than the numbers reveal. The power has come through a combination of strength training and tightening up her swing.
“I remember her dad watching her and saying, `I’ve never seen your swing so short,’” Hallett said. “She says, `Yeah, but I’m hitting it 20 yards farther.’ Stacy’s physical training is a huge factor in that. She has really strengthened her core, and that has helped accommodate swing changes.”
Hallett began working with Lewis three years ago. He said the swing changes were all about making her more efficient.
“We really shoot for something I like to call the `Government Employee Swing,’” Hallett said. “Minimal input, with maximum output.
“Stacy had some issues with her swing being long, and maybe a little loose. That robbed her of some power because she had to use all her strength to put things back together and hit the ball. Her physical training, her strength, has helped her maintain her posture throughout the shot. That translates into more solid contact.”
That’s also translated into a big year, the biggest on tour this season.