PINEHURST, N.C. – Stacy Lewis emerged from spinal surgery in the summer of 2003 an inch and a half taller thanks to a straighter spine. She spent eight weeks in bed recovering and, when it was time to start classes at Arkansas, couldn’t lift more than five pounds. Lewis’ parents moved her into a college dorm that redshirt season, and she spent much of the year working on short game because she couldn’t do much else.
Shauna Estes-Taylor, then an assistant coach at Arkansas, is a short-game specialist and spent countless hours engaged in chipping contests with the scrawny Texan who barely weighed 100 pounds. Lewis, a visual learner, benefitted greatly from Estes-Taylor’s demonstrations.
“We’d try different shots, play with the face angle, really think outside the box,” said Estes-Taylor as she walked down the eighth fairway of Pinehurst No. 2. “I think that really showed her how the golf club works and the bounce, and when you understand how all that works, you’re able to hit so many shots.”
It’s no surprise then that last week Lewis called up her old coach and asked her to come in early to the U.S. Women’s Open to walk the practice rounds. On Tuesday, Estes-Taylor stalked the greens with the World No. 1, poring over options and testing the blades of grass.
“Reading the lies is so vital this week,” said Estes-Taylor, who is now Arkansas’ head coach.
Lewis, who like many players prefers a high-lofted chip shot, will reach for a 56 this week instead of a 60 or maybe use a hybrid. Anyone who attended Martin Kaymer’s clinic last week knows that putting is often the only option.
“The brown stuff’s actually the best to chip off of,” Lewis said, “you can get a ton of spin off of that. You’ve just got to pick the right shot at the right time is kind of really what it comes down to.”
At last year’s British Open, Lewis putted from 40 yards off the green on the 72nd hole at the Old Course and walked off with birdie. The No. 2 course will again put her creativity on display.
Lewis called the condition of Donald Ross’ demanding turtlebacks “a treat” for LPGA players. She gave the course a score of nine when asked to grade its condition on a scale of one to 10.
On the par-4 seventh, Lewis picked up the black mesh the USGA put over the collection areas to see what kind of damage lay underneath.
“It wasn’t as bad as I thought it was,” Lewis said. “The grass was just more burned out there and I think they were just trying to keep what grass is there.”
Otherwise she would have given it a perfect 10.
Few players in the field are as astute as Lewis. She has risen to No. 1 in large part because of the head on her shoulders. That head will make or break her at Pinehurst No. 2, a tremendous test of patience.
But then Lewis always has liked hard. It’s an attitude born from life in a back brace.
“It made me persevere through some things and kind of get that attitude that my back is always against the wall and I got to find my way out,” said Lewis of her battle with scoliosis. “That’s the way I play golf.”
Because bad breaks are inevitable here, Lewis said, accepting that going in almost makes it easier.
Unlike many of her peers, Lewis didn’t watch the telecast of the men’s event until it was nearly over to limit the amount of carnage in her head. She didn’t come anywhere near Pinehurst until Monday morning having already developed a game plan from a previous visit three weeks ago.
“I love the golf course, I love the way you have to think your way around,” Lewis said. “It’s position golf … and that suits my game. That’s the way I play every week.”
Dale Lewis once called his middle child “our game daughter.” The ultra-competitive perfectionist can run hot, and in years past it was a weekly occurrence for a frustrated Lewis to slam her golf club into her bag.
At the suggestion of Estes-Taylor, Lewis spent a day and a half with sports psychologist Stan Beecham over the offseason. They talked about how to keep one bad shot from effecting the rest of a round; handling tough questions from the media; and negative comments from, well, anyone. Vital tools for a top-ranked player.
So far this season, Dale has only seen his daughter hit her bag one time in anger. (From what he has seen both in person and on TV.) Lewis took a break from Twitter last year after an incident in China where she criticized the atmosphere and unruly crowds at the first-year event led to backlash.
Beecham, Dale said, encouraged Stacy to go back to China this fall and turn the situation into a positive, embracing the difficulty in the same way she would the wind.
Finding her inner-calm has been a priority this season, and Lewis believes she’s making progress.
“I mean, in Texas I kicked my own golf ball and I still won the tournament,” she said.
When Lewis arrived at the course on Monday, she ran across Hall of Famer Pat Bradley who wearing a big grin.
“Is this not the coolest thing ever?” asked Bradley, who told Lewis that in her generation something like back-to-back Opens would’ve never happened.
“I think that’s what a lot of the young girls don’t realize is what an opportunity this is,” Lewis said. “I hope that seeing these other players around, I hope they learn that and they know that this is a great thing for women’s golf. While the course may not be perfect out there, I think there’s a lot more good things coming out of this week.”