By Beth Ann Baldry
Stacy Lewis ran circles around the field at the Harder Hall Invitational, a feat made even more impressive by the fact that 21⁄2 years ago she could barely walk to the refrigerator in her Texas home.
Diagnosed with scoliosis at age 11, Lewis underwent back surgery the summer before her freshman year at Arkansas and couldn’t swing a club for six months. She came back with a vengeance, however, becoming the first player in school history to earn All-American honors, thanks to three victories as a redshirt freshman.
Nowadays the novelty of seeing Lewis’ name atop a leaderboard has somewhat subsided, but the story of her incredible comeback grows stronger with each trophy.
Lewis’ wire-to-wire victory at the Harder Hall Jan. 7 places her among an elite group of youthful champions. At age 20, Lewis seems the wily veteran on the Harder Hall pro shop’s board of distinction. For the last four years, prominent juniors such as Morgan Pressel, Brittany Lincicome and Aree Song dominated the Florida Orange Blossom circuit opener.
“I can’t believe that I’m on that list now,” said Lewis. “It’s crazy.”
After opening with back-to-back 69s, Lewis played the last two rounds 4 over for a 2-under 286 total as temperatures in central Florida dipped into the 30s and winds picked up.
The Arkansas sophomore finished 11 shots in front of Augusta State’s Garrett Phillips, who closed with a 78. Auburn’s Abigale Schepperle shot her second consecutive 73 to finish third.
The 6-foot-1 Phillips stood out as the lanky teen learning to control an arsenal of power. Her caddie and Augusta State teammate, Sarah Mooney, spent four days filling the massive divots Phillips took with each swing.
Few women in the college game take such descending blows with their irons. Even fewer can boast
of tee shots like the 302-yard drive Phillips sent screaming off the tee on No. 14 Friday, a rare sight on any level of women’s golf, even if it was downwind.
Watching the 5-foot-4 Lewis step up to the tee after a booming Phillips drive, however, reminded one of the importance of short game. Lewis, never known for her great length, was afraid she’d lose even more yardage following her surgery.
After spending ages 11-18 hiding a back brace under her clothes, Lewis found out the curvature in her spine required further treatment.
Shortly after signing a letter of intent with Arkansas, she was told by doctors that she’d need surgery within the next five years.
Lewis opted to have the procedure in summer 2003, then redshirted her freshman season. Following a six-hour operation that required doctors to deflate a lung and move organs in order to insert a steel rod, Lewis couldn’t even sit up on her own. For the next three months she didn’t leave her home, grappling with intense pain as she learned to walk again.
When she began her freshman year in Fayetteville, Lewis began chipping and putting because carrying anything over 5 pounds was against doctor’s orders. Six months after her surgery, a timid Lewis swung a club for the first time.
“For a while I wondered if I could ever trust that nothing was going to happen to my back while I was swinging,” said Lewis.
The following season Lewis shocked everyone in college golf, including herself, by becoming the first Arkansas player to win three titles in a single season. She started off with the Central District Invitational in February, moved on to the Betsy Rawls Longhorn in March, then outplayed a stacked SEC field to kick off postseason play.
“I think it all just happened so fast I didn’t even realize what I had done,” said Lewis. “I never expected anything like this.”
Lewis, however, doesn’t need to be reminded of her good fortune. Walking down the fairway without a brace is a gift in itself.
Trophies are icing.