Stacy Lewis sat in the locker room and sobbed after giving away her singles match to Catriona Matthew at the Solheim Cup in August. It was an inconsequential loss in the grand scheme of Team USA’s thrashing of Europe, but to Lewis it felt like a stab in the heart.
She uttered the word “can’t” to her husband, Gerrod Chadwell, and he felt a similar pang of anguish.
“Every time I get a chance,” Lewis told him, “I screw it up.”
The former World No. 1 hid her tears behind a pair of shades at Des Moines Golf and Country Club and went out with her teammates. Lewis’ overall singles record had sunk to 0-3-1.
That was the low point.
Five days later, Hurricane Harvey hit.
Valley of frustration
To appreciate Lewis’ high of winning the Cambia Portland Classic in September, a victory dedicated to Houston in the wake of the storm, one has to appreciate the valley of her frustration. She’d gone 1,162 days without hoisting a trophy.
In that span the two-time major winner had finished second a staggering 12 times. At July’s U.S. Women’s Open at Trump National, she collapsed Saturday when she fatted two wedge shots on the closing 18th and made a 10.
With several disappointments still fresh and no way of knowing how the week would turn out, Lewis on the eve of the first round announced her plans to donate her earnings from the Cambia Portland Classic to Houston hurricane relief efforts. Rob Neal, a former LPGA vice president who serves as executive director of Tournament Golf Foundation, which owns the Cambia Portland Classic, immediately thought back to a conversation he’d had with Lewis’ father on the range at Columbia Edgewater.
“Stacy loves it here,” Dale said.
In 2016, Lewis quietly recorded her second runner-up finish in Portland to Brooke Henderson.
“When (Lewis) made that proclamation I thought, she’s going to win,” Neal said.
To many, it felt like a date with destiny.
5 Moments of Note in 2017
Lewis hadn’t won on tour since she started dating Chadwell, who is the head women’s golf coach at the University of Houston. He knows in his heart he’s not the reason for her drought. But the thought still creeps into his mind from time to time.
“I’d be lyin’ if I said it hasn’t been hard,” Chadwell said. He is, after all, the only variable that has changed.
Flooded out of Houston
When Lewis went to sleep on a three-stroke lead Saturday night in Portland, Chadwell was in Dallas with his team. They’d left their flooded city with nothing more than overnight bags. An overwhelmed Chadwell phoned his wife after the team went to Target to load up on necessities.
He knew they’d been luckier than most, but there was something about watching his players pull socks off the racks that hit the compassionate coach. He wasn’t prepared for this.
“Everybody wants something (or someone) that you can’t provide,” Chadwell said. “I lost it.”
Lewis had tried to get home to help earlier in the week, but the airports were closed. So she made the decision to do what felt natural, what she feels all athletes who have platforms are called to do – give back.
With Lewis in position to win, Chadwell decided at the last minute to surprise her in Portland. Honestly, he wanted to be there win or lose. He’d seen enough heartbreak.
Chadwell made up a story about his phone not working and arrived soon after Lewis teed off in the final round. To help him blend in with the crowd, organizers gave Chadwell the same light blue polo and hat worn by tournament volunteers. He watched his wife cruise around the front nine with four birdies in the first seven holes. She held a four-shot lead over two-time major winner In Gee Chun when Chadwell headed into the television booth to avoid being seen down the stretch.
“That was awful hearing the dialogue,” Chadwell said of the trailer-talk. “I should’ve just went and sat in the bar.”
While playing for a higher cause freed up Lewis, it also added another dimension of pressure. Late in the round, Lewis caught herself daydreaming about what she’d say if she won.
“Don’t go there,” she told herself.
The defining moment came on the 15th green, when something inside told Lewis that the ending already had been decided.
“I don’t know,” she said, “just kind of handed over control and said ‘Take me. Take me to the finish line. Let me know what happens, God.’ ”
Chun birdied the par-3 16th hole to pull within one.
Things could have unraveled quickly for Lewis on the 17th when her approach shot went long. She chipped it 7 feet past the hole and converted for a clutch par save after Chun missed a birdie attempt from 10 feet.
Portland’s storybook champ.
At this point, Chadwell was a bona fide wreck.
On the 18th, Lewis’ drive found a fairway bunker. Over the offseason, longtime instructor Joe Hallett told Lewis to end each practice session by hitting five shots out of a fairway bunker to test the stability of her lower body.
Lewis called her approach out of that bunker on the 18th one of the best shots of her life. She two-putted for the win and broke down in tears when her eyes locked on Chadwell.
“The person that said she couldn’t, just did it,” Chadwell said as he wrapped his arms around Portland’s storybook champ.
Lewis’ parents watched from their mercifully dry home in The Woodlands, Texas, just north of Houston. Hallett’s cable went out at his house in Franklin, Tenn., so he drove to Anytime Fitness and hopped on a treadmill to watch the finish. He was the last person in the gym when Lewis reached the final two holes. When it was over, an ecstatic Hallett videoed a congratulatory message that began with him jumping and hollering around the machines.
“It was an adrenaline rush for two days,” he said. “I couldn’t take the smile off my face.”
Travis Wilson, the only caddie Lewis has employed since she turned professional, told Hallett the biggest difference he saw in Portland was that his boss immediately looked to the next shot no matter what happened with the previous swing.
“Everything was forward,” he said.
Like Neal, Arkansas coach Shauna Estes-Taylor had a gut feeling early on that Lewis would prevail. Lewis tends to find another gear when there’s added motivation. Like the time she went into the final stage of LPGA Q-School overlooked alongside favorite Michelle Wie and won by three.
In 2011, Lewis won the ANA Inspiration (then the Kraft Nabisco) four months after she and her mother returned from a humanitarian trip to Rwanda with LPGA Hall of Famer Betsy King. She played with a renewed sense of purpose after visiting Africa.
Or how about the time Lewis was penalized two strokes after Wilson tested the surface of a fairway bunker during the third round of the 2013 RR Donnelley Founders Cup. After her post-round interviews, Lewis walked onto the practice putting green where her coach, caddie and father stood waiting. She clapped once, raised her hands and declared, “It’s over.”
“We’re forgetting about it,” Lewis said, referring to the untimely penalty. “And we’re going to win tomorrow.”
Once again Lewis found herself in a fairway bunker on the 16th hole that Sunday in Phoenix. This time she made birdie, turned to Wilson and said, “That one’s for you.” Lewis played for something bigger than herself that day in the desert – erasing Wilson’s mistake – and that victory made her the No. 1 player in the world. She immediately donated $50,000 to LPGA-USGA Girls Golf, one of the countless ways she has given back to the game.
But it’s the winner’s check in Portland that will be most remembered.
“Who knew that the missing piece was taking winning out of it?” Hallett asked.
Every week Lewis faced questions about her victory drought. In Portland, however, it was all about how she’d use the money she earned to help.
Lewis stopped focusing on winning and instead tried to pour her best into each shot, knowing what it meant for those in Houston. Being able to donate a winner’s check for $195,000 and have her sponsor, KPMG, match it, made all those close calls seem worthwhile.
“I think things happen how they are supposed to,” she said.
Back home in Houston, Lewis drove by a tattered neighborhood with spray-painted signs that read “Residents only.”
“It felt like a war zone,” she said.
Lewis knows of a family that received $15,000 from FEMA for flood damage. But they’re looking at spending $60,000 just to get the structure of their home intact.
Scores of Houstonians will be displaced to apartments and hotels for months as their houses remain unlivable. Lewis wants to help people get back into their homes, and she knows that with a rush of national crises and short attention spans, many in Houston will be forgotten months down the road.
By then the accounting and finance major will have a buttoned-up plan in progress.
“It’s very hard to donate money, is what I’m finding out,” she said. “You want to make sure it’s going to the right place.”
Doesn’t smile much when she plays
Lewis doesn’t smile much when she plays. That’s always been a sticking point with some fans. During the drought, particularly in 2016 when she was stretched thin with a wedding and the Olympics, there were times when she wasn’t herself. Life had gotten more complicated, and finishing second gets old.
There was a noticeable calmness, however, about Lewis in Portland. She credits help from a higher source. Mom, Carol, simply called it “a God thing.”
Outside the ropes, Lewis has made a career of bolstering the LPGA with personal sponsors that upgrade to title sponsors. Her impact on the tour’s bottom line is tangible.
Neal said that when business leaders meet Lewis, there’s often a strong connection. They appreciate her intelligence, her sincerity, her professionalism, and that her interest extends beyond personal success.
“That sort of quiet leadership resonates with leaders of companies that sponsor the LPGA,” Neal said. “There’s no flash with Stacy. It’s all substance.”
Lewis didn’t donate to her battered hometown to create headlines. She did it because it was the right thing to do. She won because Houston needed hope.
(Note: This story is one in a series reviewing the year in golf. It appears in the November 2017 issue of Golfweek.)