One shot at a time
Stacy Lewis treats every single shot as if it might be her last. That’s because there was a time when the game she loves was abruptly taken away and there was nothing she could do to get it back.
At the age of 11, Lewis was diagnosed with scoliosis and forced to wear a back brace for 18 hours a day. Yet, after seven tough years, the problem did not go away. Her spine was not straight, and she would require surgery. When she was told, Lewis, who had recently signed a letter of intent to play golf at the University of Arkansas, simply lost it.
“Driving from downtown Houston, I cried the whole way home,” Lewis recalled. “All I wanted to do was play college golf and now that was done. There was no way I could ever play … It was the worst day.”
There were many other bad days, too many to remember. But this week, those days are long gone. Finally, she is headed to a destination which seemed out of reach for so long, the LPGA Tour. She makes her debut as tour member on Thursday in the SBS Open at Turtle Bay in Hawaii.
Much of the attention will be on Michelle Wie and Paula Creamer, but nobody could possibly be more excited than Lewis.
“Just getting to play for a living and doing something that I love to do, not many people get to do that,” she said. “I feel really lucky. I know I can compete out there.”
Lewis was a typical fifth-grader, with typical interests and priorities. Until one day, when her mom, Carol, took her and her sisters, Beth and Janet, to swim practice. Carol noticed something she had never seen.
“Their swimsuits had these slits up the side where you could see the skin,” she said. “I noticed that Stacy had a fold of skin on her side and her two sisters didn’t.”
It was the first sign of the scoliosis. Her daughter’s spine curved from right-to-left like a reverse “S.”
Carol and her husband, Dale, took Stacy to Dr. Gary Brock of the Fondren Orthopedic Group in Houston. He told them that since she was still growing the curve could get worse. She would need a brace until her skeleton matured. For most girls, this happens around the ages of 13 or 14. “I’ve even had girls finish growing at age 11,” Dr. Brock said. “Stacy was different.”
Every six to 12 months, Lewis and her mom would visit Dr. Brock, hoping to be done with the brace. Every time, they left disappointed. Lewis was still growing.
Lewis and her mom had frequent fights over the brace. The teenager was so embarrassed that she wore baggy clothes for her entire adolescence to conceal it from her peers.
“I asked myself ‘Why me?’ a lot,” Lewis recalled. “I remember asking my mom ‘Why not one of my sisters?’ ”
Her one savior was golf. The only time Lewis was allowed to take off the brace and feel like a normal kid was on the golf course. But even there, she was constantly reminded of what she could not do. Dale Lewis remembers watching her play in an elite junior tournament and being shocked by how small his daughter looked in comparison to the other competitors.
“I remember Stacy played with Paula Creamer the summer before her senior year,” Dale said. “Paula was 14 and 5-foot-10, and Stacy was all of 5-foot-1 and maybe 100 pounds.”
Lewis lacked the strength to reach a lot of par 4s in two but made up for it with consistent chipping and putting. There was no other alternative.
“I was scrappy,” Lewis said. “I just found a way to get the ball in the hole. I’m still like that now. I fight, I fight, and I fight for every shot.”
That’s what caught the eye of former University of Arkansas head coach Kelly Hester, then in her first year with the Razorbacks. Hester, now the head coach at Georgia, followed Lewis at an American Junior Golf Association tournament. She saw her double-bogey the easiest par 5 on the course before bouncing back with a birdie on the most difficult par 3. That kind of resilience stands out at the junior level.
In October of Lewis’ senior year, Dr. Brock told her the news she had been waiting to hear for seven years: the brace could finally come off. One month later, she signed a letter of intent to play for Arkansas.
“All I wanted to do was play on a college golf team,” Lewis said. “It was the happiest day of my life.”
It didn’t last long. Three months later, Stacy and Carol went back in for a checkup. Stacy’s curvature had returned worse than it had ever been. Surgery was the only option.
Carol called Coach Hester to break the news. Hester hadn’t known about the scoliosis because the Lewis family never considered that Stacy would need surgery.
“Her walking at age 35 is more important than her freshman year in college golf,” Hester said. “I told them, ‘Tell me when the surgery is and I’ll come down to The Woodlands to be there.’ ”
– Stacy Lewis on her spinal correction surgery.
Lewis will never forget that day. “My mom got off the phone and started crying,” she recalled. “At that moment I knew everything was going to be okay. I was going to play college golf.”
But it wasn’t that simple. Spinal correction is a major surgery. To correct Lewis’ curve, Dr. Brock would need to fix a titanium rod to her spine with five metal screws. He would access the curve through the front, which meant deflating a lung and removing one of Lewis’ ribs.
“I knew I could be paralyzed,” Lewis said. “In any surgery there’s a chance of dying. I tried not to think about it. You just kind of go with it.”
Lewis had the surgery soon after graduating from high school in 2003. Afterwards, she couldn’t even sit up on her own. Every part of her body hurt. She couldn’t lift anything over five pounds or bend or flex her spine. She needed help to do almost everything. Golf was the furthest thing from everyone’s minds.
“I just wanted her to get up and walk,” Dale said. “I didn’t know how she was going to play golf again. I just wanted her to walk. As a parent you’re guilty as hell. You see her sitting there with tears running down her cheeks and you ask why her and not me?”
After eight weeks, Lewis was allowed to head up to Arkansas for her first semester. She was then cleared for short sessions of chipping and putting, her first taste of the game in months. Finally, Lewis was given permission to take full swings. No one knew what to expect. No one knew if she would ever play golf again.
Lewis went to work with her instructor, Cole Smith, in The Woodlands. She had been swinging a golf club around a curved spine for eight years. She would have to swing a new way.
“She played a big hook,” Smith said. “Her right shoulder had been lower than her left, so she had a big loop in her downswing. She would hook a 7-iron 20 yards.”
Her first swings were nerve-wracking.
“Every swing I thought something was going to break,” Lewis said. “I hadn’t even been able to rotate for six months. It wasn’t pretty.”
Still, the first season back, Lewis won three college tournaments, including the SEC Championship. The new Lewis was a completely different player in terms of strength, swing, short game, course management and maturity.
“Carol and I just hoped she qualified to travel with the team that year,” Dale said. “I mean she didn’t even win AJGA or high school tournaments. Why would we expect her to win college tournaments?”
During the summer of 2007, Lewis got an invitation to play at the Kraft Nabisco Championship, an LPGA major. Lewis had never really considered the LPGA as a goal.
“I always thought I would go to school, get a degree and get a job somewhere,” Lewis said.
She surprised herself, and everyone else, by finishing fifth, ahead of Lorena Ochoa, Annika Sorenstam, Karrie Webb and Se-Ri Pak. There was no denying it. She was good enough to play with anyone on the LPGA Tour. She finished the summer by shooting a final-round 66 to win the individual title at the NCAA Championship.
During Lewis’ last season of college golf, she captured six tournaments. Along the way, she graduated with a double major in accounting and finance. She capped her amateur career by going undefeated for the United States at the Curtis Cup, sinking the winning putt at the Old Course in St. Andrews, Scotland.
Then came last year’s U.S. Open at Interlachen Country Club in Edna, Minn. She fired a third-round 67 to seize the lead going into the final day, though she faded with a 78 and finished third behind Inbee Park.
A lot of first-timers would have been ecstatic about such a showing at a major championship, and the $162,487 check. Sure, Lewis was pleased but she was more disappointed about the missed opportunity.
Her goal had been to qualify for the 2009 LPGA Tour without having to go to Qualifying School, a grueling five rounds everyone dreads. Aside from the top 20 at Q-School, the LPGA grants playing privileges to tournament winners and the top 80 finishers on the money list at the end of the season. To Lewis’ frustration, however, an LPGA rule excluded U.S. Open winnings from the season money list. She tried to earn enough money through sponsor exemptions, but came up short. She went to Q-School.
It all worked out for the best. With all the attention on Michelle Wie, Lewis shot rounds of 69-66-71-67-69 for an 18-under total and a three-shot victory. Lewis had her card.
After everything she’s been through, she takes nothing for granted. She stretches and works out frequently to maintain her back muscles and will probably always take periodic weeks off to prevent her back from being overworked. Case studies for her type of spinal surgery go back 30 years, and there is nothing to indicate her back will prevent her from enjoying a long professional golf career.
For her rookie year, Lewis has set lofty goals. She wants to win tournaments and qualify for the U.S Solheim Cup team. All that stands in her way are the best players in the world. Yet compared to a crooked spine, no obstacle seems too formidable.
Dale Lewis can’t help but think back to how far she has come already.
“As a parent you never lose those pictures of what she looked like when she came out of the hospital, the images of her struggling to get around,” he said. “I can still hear her ripping that brace off at night. I can still hear those noises.”
Alex Blair covers golf for Houston Links magazine.
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