Lewis looks to add to inspiring story at Kraft

Stacy Lewis during the second round of the Kraft Nabisco Championship.

Stacy Lewis during the second round of the Kraft Nabisco Championship.

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. – Stacy Lewis’ story, on any given week, is an inspiring one. The quiet Texan was diagnosed with scoliosis at age 11 and wore a back brace under her clothes until she graduated from high school. As a freshman at Arkansas, doctors placed a steel rod in her back. Players don’t come tougher than Lewis.

This week her story tugs at the heart even harder. Lewis found out shortly before her Wednesday pro-am round that her grandfather, Al Lewis, had died at 1 a.m. He was 84.

“He’s definitely in a better place now,” said Stacy after opening with a 6-under 66 Thursday to co-lead the Kraft Nabisco Championship with friend Brittany Lincicome. On Friday, Lewis backed that up with a 69 to take a three-stroke lead over Lincicome and Jane Park midway through the day.

Stacy’s father, Dale, said it was a strange feeling watching his daughter play golf for the first time in the wake of his father’s death. Al Lewis played football in college and introduced golf to Dale, who later passed it on to Stacy. Alzheimer’s disease kept Al from fully appreciating all that Stacy has accomplished in the past several years. But the family recorded golf on TV when Stacy was in contention, and he watched those tapes over and over again, reliving her glory each time with a fresh perspective.

Lewis relies strongly on her faith in times like these. She and Lincicome attend the tour’s fellowship meetings on a weekly basis. Last December, Lewis and her mother, Carol, accompanied Betsy King on a mission trip to Rwanda. King, now retired, spends most of her time these days raising money for her organization, Golf Fore Africa. Several players, including Juli Inkster, Katherine Hull and Reilley Rankin, have gone to Africa with King in recent years.

“Obviously, I’m rooting for (Lewis) a little bit this week,” said King, who called their trip to Africa life-changing for Lewis.

In Rwanda, Lewis had a chance to bring gifts to her sponsor child, Aline, the middle child in a family of five. She described the scene inside Aline’s home in a blog she wrote for LPGA.com:

My mom looked up as we were praying just to see what the kids and everyone was doing. The whole time we were praying, Aline’s mom had tears running down her face because she was so thankful and happy for us to be there. The worst part was leaving them.

Images of children lugging buckets of water as big as them on the side of the road are seared in Lewis’ mind. It took time for her to adjust back to life in the States, the simple act of turning on a faucet now seen as a privilege.

“I saw things there that I never thought I’d ever see in my life,” Lewis said. “It was such a shock to me that people live the way that they do, but they are so happy and so grateful. It just makes me thankful for everything that I have, and it gave me a renewed purpose of what I’m doing out here.”

Lewis, a 12-time winner at Arkansas, thought that when she tied for third in the 2008 U.S. Women’s Open shortly after college graduation that she’d find “instant success.” She won LPGA Q-School, but then hit a “rut” her rookie year, waking up in Asia in the fall of 2009 with no idea what had happened to her golf swing and no coach to help.

Over the winter, she hired Joe Hallett, lead instructor at the PGA Center for Learning and Performance. They’ve been working together for 15 months now, and Dale, a 5-handicapper who looped for Stacy throughout her amateur career, marvels at how much farther his daughter now hits the ball. This year alone Lewis has gained up to 25 yards off the tee and a half-club with her irons.

Hallett credits the extra yardage to three changes: 1) a new Mizuno JPX driver, 2) work with David Donatucci, director of fitness at the PGA Center and 3) cutting out the power leaks in her swing.

Lewis plans to sell the home she bought in Fayetteville, Ark., and is moving south to Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., where she already bought a second house. She spent time down there during the offseason working with Hallett and played several casual rounds with South Florida resident Karrie Webb.

Lewis, a big fan of Webb’s swing, looked at footage of the Hall of Famer with Hallett to try and emulate her takeaway. Last week, Hallett flew into Los Angeles and worked on specific takeaway drills with her early in the week at the Kia Classic. Their work carried over nicely into the Kraft, where Lewis will try to best the field – notably, good friend Lincicome – over the weekend to honor her grandfather, and bring hope to more children like Aline.

“He gets to watch the whole round now,” Lewis said of her grandfather. Precious memories, indeed.

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