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The New #1

With her win at the LPGA Founders Cup yesterday in Phoenix, Stacy Lewis became the #1 ranked women’s golfer in the World. It has been the most remarkable of ascendancies.

Lewis was diagnosed with scoliosis when she was 11 years old. As a teenager, she had to wear a back brace for 18 hours a day in the hope that it would correct her back and the curvature of her spine. It didn’t. 10 years ago, just before she was to enter her freshman year at the University of Arkansas, Lewis had to have major back surgery.

The surgery that Lewis had normally requires that two rods are implanted to support her spine. Knowing that golf was already a major part of her life, her surgeon only implanted one rod and five supporting screws into her back, to provide her with more mobility after recovery. There were doubts that she would ever be able to play golf again let alone to achieve her dream of playing on the LPGA Tour.

That recovery would prove to be long and extremely painful. Immediately after surgery, Stacy went into physical therapy. Of that rehab she says, “I couldn’t bend or twist my spine for six months”.

It would not defeat this determined 28 year old Texan. In 2007, she won the NCAA Women’s National Collegiate Championship playing for the University of Arkansas. The following year she earned her LPGA Tour card by being the medalist at the Qualifying school.

Since the inception of the Rolex World Golf Rankings in 2006, only one other American has made it to the top ranking. Cristie Kerr achieved that briefly on three different occasions for a total of 5 weeks in 2010. While rankings were not kept until then, no American would have topped that list until the early 1990’s. During that time period, women’s golf was dominated by three players, Annika Sorenstam, Karrie Webb and Se Ri Pak.

As is so characteristic of every obstacle Lewis overcomes, her win at the Founders Cup came with its own hurdle. In Saturday’s third round on the 16th hole, Lewis and her caddy tested the surface of a fairway bunker before playing her second shot. While it was an inadvertent mistake on their part, it was a violation of the Rules so Lewis was assessed a two shot penalty.

Japan’s Ai Miyazato would therefore head into Sunday’s final round with a four shot lead instead of two because of the penalty. It would appear very unlikely that anyone would be able to catch the unflappable Japanese star who has made a career with her deadly accurate ball striking and perhaps the finest putting stroke in all of golf.

Game over, right? Not so.

Lewis whittled away at Miyazato’s lead and after both players hit good drives on the fairway of the 16th hole, it appeared that Miyazato still had the tournament in hand. The 16th hole would once again play a starring role in the event.

Miyazato then made an uncharacteristic blunder and pulled her second shot with a wedge left of the green into an unplayable lie. After her penalty drop, she would take 3 more strokes to finish and record a double bogey 6. Meanwhile, Lewis hit her approach shot 20 feet below the hole and sank her birdie putt for a 3 shot swing, which would give the Texan a two shot lead with two holes to play.

Lewis would then put a stranglehold on the tournament by birdieing the par 3, 17th hole while Miyazato made par. Both players parred the 18th hole to give Lewis a 3 shot winning margin.

Lewis now supplants Yani Tseng at the top of the world rankings. Tseng had held the position for 109 weeks, which is second in length of time held to only Lorena Ochoa’s 159 week stretch at the end of the last decade.

This is Lewis’s 8th LPGA Tour win and her sixth in the last 13 months. It is hard for any player to continue playing at a level like this which one needs to do, to stay atop the Rolex rankings. Doubting Lewis, on the other hand, would seem to be the very motivation that she ever needs.