KOHLER, Wis. – As Amanda Blumenherst worked the 18th green at Blackwolf Run, testing every angle imaginable on a blistering day in America’s Dairyland, Stacy Lewis was up the hill and down the road addressing the national media in an air-conditioned tent. As the No. 2 player in the world, Lewis is among the favorites to win this week’s U.S. Women’s Open. Blumenherst, meanwhile, is hardly mentioned these days.
“It’s crazy to think how far apart we are,” said Lewis, who went toe-to-toe with Blumenherst during her senior year of college.
On this Fourth of July, the theme of Americana rings true as players don their red, white and blue, tweet about hot dogs and prep for their national championship. While Americans are winning more often in 2012, Lewis was the last U.S. player to win a major championship: the 2011 Kraft Nabisco.
An American hasn’t led the LPGA tour since the mid-90s. Beth Daniel was the last American player to win the Rolex Player of the Year Award, in 1994. Betsy King was the last to win the money title, in 1993.
Lewis, 27, might be the player to end that shocking streak. A two-time winner already this season, Lewis leads the LPGA Player of the Year race by nine points over World No. 1 Yani Tseng. Lewis is third on the money list, but well within striking distance. With Tseng struggling these past few weeks, the opportunity to close the gap appears to be now.
“At this time last year, Yani was just so far ahead of everybody,” Lewis said. “She was almost unbeatable at some tournaments.”
Even Lewis concedes her rise to the world’s second-best player was quick. Golf is a fickle game, and predicting one person’s success over another can be tricky. Blumenherst, arguably the greatest player in the college game to go four years in school, seemed the prime candidate to end Duke’s LPGA victory drought. (Brittany Lang finally accomplished that two weeks ago.) An AJGA First-Team All-American with a bubbly personality and girl-next-door looks, Blumenherst had her sights set on charming LPGA crowds much like her childhood idol, Nancy Lopez.
Lewis recalled going to the 2008 Curtis Cup at St. Andrews directly after the NCAA Championship, upset that Blumenherst was chosen as college golf’s national player of the year. Lewis one-upped Blumenherst that week on the Old Course, becoming the first player to go 5-0. Lewis also scored the winning point for the U.S. team, edging Blumenherst (by a handful of minutes) for the honor.
Theirs was a fun rivalry. Lewis, with her gritty game and inspiring story of physical triumph, and Blumenherst, a top-5 machine who aced every class and dated a baseball star.
Both players won LPGA Q-School to earn their cards (Lewis was one year ahead). But that’s where the parallels end. This great American rivalry, something this tour desperately needs, quickly died at the professional level.
Lewis overhauled her swing while on the LPGA and developed into one of the game’s most consistent players. As her putting improved, her confidence soared.
Lewis led the U.S. Women’s Open in 2008 in her first professional event and was overwhelmed as she sat in the media center and answered question after question about her battle with scoliosis. Fast forward four years later, and Lewis feels quite at ease with a microphone in hand.
“I feel like I belong here,” Lewis said of the media center hot seat.
Blumenherst, on the other hand, doesn’t get much ink as No. 145 in the world. As Lewis points out, her less-than-conventional swing relies a lot on timing, which is difficult to replicate on a schedule as demanding as a touring professional’s.
Blumenherst has struggled off the tee. But mostly, she’s not as confident as she was back in her amateur days. “Blu” tied for 10th at the 2006 U.S. Women’s Open, sharing low-amateur honors. She was the 2008 U.S. Women’s Amateur champion and an unprecedented three-time college player of the year.
In present time: She has missed the cut in her last six stroke-play events.
“The competition out here is phenomenal,” said Blumenherst, who will marry her college sweetheart on Dec. 29 in Scottsdale, Ariz.
’Tis a curious game. There’s no telling where these two players will be in a decade’s time. Lewis and Blumenherst could be locked again in an All-American rivalry in their mid-30s. It’s also just as easy to imagine Blumenherst as a mom, watching her husband play Major League Baseball and perhaps putting that Duke history degree to good use.
Time will tell.