Stacy Lewis stopped playing defense last week in Japan.
She stopped playing as if she were protecting her lead in the Rolex Player of the Year race.
She stopped fretting over Inbee Park’s hard charge at winning the award and made a bold charge of her own on Sunday to win the Mizuno Classic and virtually lock up becoming the first American to win the LPGA’s Player of the Year award in 18 years. Lewis came from seven shots back in the final round in Japan and birdied the final three holes to win by a shot.
Lewis, 27, is teeing it up this week at the Lorena Ochoa Invitational in Mexico looking to become the first American to win five times in a season since Juli Inkster did it in 1999.
“It’s pretty unbelievable,” Lewis said. “Coming into this year, I was just hoping to win a couple times and to give myself chances. Now, to be here at the end of the year, talking about player of the year, it’s pretty crazy.”
Lewis said she was making herself crazy thinking about the player of the year race when she headed over for the tour’s Asian swing a month ago. She was coming off her third victory of the year at the Navistar Classic in Alabama with a commanding 56-point lead.
“I don’t know why, but I went over to Asia putting all this extra pressure on my shoulders,” Lewis said. “I was playing to try to protect a lead instead of going out and trying to win a tournament. I was thinking, `This shot could be the difference between me winning and not winning player of the year.’ I was thinking that instead of just playing golf.”
Lewis tied for 19th at the Sime Darby LPGA Malaysia and watched Park win to cut into her POY lead. Lewis tied for 33rd at LPGA-KEB HanaBank Classic, and then she took the next week off only to see Park finish second at the Sunrise LPGA Taiwan Championship to move within one victory of overtaking Lewis in the POY race.
Back in South Florida, in that week off before going to Japan, Lewis turned to U.S. Solheim Cup captain Meg Mallon and Hall of Famer Beth Daniel for some advice on how to close out the season.
Daniel proceeded to tell her about the wild finish to the ’94 season that led to Daniel’s Player of the Year title. The season came down to Laura Davies over a 6-foot putt at the final hole in the year’s final event. If Davies made it, she was player of the year. If she missed, Daniel was.
“Beth told me `I drove myself crazy the last couple months of that season. I was miserable to be around, nobody wanted to be around me,’” Lewis said. “She told me she just wanted me to enjoy this moment.”
Lewis went to Japan looking to do just that.
“My trainer asked me if I was happy with my season as it was,” Lewis said. “I was. All of those things helped me put things into perspective. I told myself whether I win this award or not, I know I’ve had a good year. Everything else I do is just a bonus.
“Everything for me this year has been just learning on the fly. I’ve never been in a race for player of the year. I’ve never won more than one time in a year. Everything has been just so new to me.”
Lewis takes a 58-point lead in the POY race to Mexico. A victory is worth 30 points. Park must win the final two events of the year to have a chance to overtake Lewis.
The excitement Lewis has generated among her American peers isn’t lost on Lewis.
“A lot of reactions I’ve gotten this week 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). They’ve been great supporters of me and cheering me on all the way.”
The cheers will rise another decibel if Lewis closes out and wins the award this week.