In an era where clubhead speed and flexibility are more important than ever, Stacy Lewis defied the odds to succeed on the LPGA Tour in the modern age.
Lewis has 13 career LPGA Tour wins, including two majors, and reached number one in the world in 2013. But during her teenage years, Lewis thought she might not be able to play golf at all, never mind playing professionally.
Lewis was born with a condition called scoliosis, a curvature of the spine that can cause severe back pain. The condition forced Lewis to wear a back brace 18 hours a day beginning in middle school that helped stabilize the spine and keep the curve from getting worse.
Wearing the brace sent Lewis into a cycle of doctor’s visits every 3-4 months. She went into each appointment hoping she would get to stop wearing the brace. But each visit brought bad news. Doctors told Lewis she would only need to wear the brace for 2-3 years, but she ended up needing to wear it for nearly all of high school.
Lewis finally got out of the brace in October of her senior year of high school, but by February her curve had gotten significantly worse, meaning Lewis needed to undergo surgery to straighten her spine.
“It was just kind of like one blow after another, like how much can you take of this?” Lewis said.
Lewis played several other sports growing up, but she decided to specialize in golf once she reached high school, in part due to the culture that was prevalent in her home state of Texas.
“Sports are so big in Texas, you had to choose one sport and that was all you did. So so golf was really it,” Lewis said. “Growing up in Houston, it's just high school sports there. You play them year round, it's not just one season or the other, so you've kind of put all your eggs into one basket.”
Even though her surgery would involve a lengthy recovery, the University of Arkansas still honored the scholarship they had offered Lewis. After redshirting her first season at Arkansas in 2004, Lewis hit the ground running as a redshirt freshman.
Lewis won the SEC Championship and was named SEC Freshman of the Year in 2005, and backed up her solid play by winning the Women’s Western Amateur in 2006. Lewis took her play to the next level in 2007, qualifying for the US Women’s Open and recorded an unofficial win at the 2007 LPGA NW Arkansas Championship.
The event was shortened to just 18 holes due to rain, so the result was not deemed official, but Lewis was at the top of the leaderboard after the first round. As a senior in 2008, Lewis won the SEC Tournament and was named SEC Player of the Year. She was also named an All-American.
“I won the national championship and everybody's asking me if I’m going to turn pro, turn pro and I'm like, I don't even know what that means,” Lewis said. “I felt like Arkansas took a chance on me. There was no guarantee I was ever going to play golf again, and they honored my scholarship and I felt like I needed another year at school.”
Lewis turned pro after graduating from Arkansas and began her transition to the LPGA Tour. Lewis credits her caddie Travis Wilson for showing her all the little things on Tour. Wilson had caddied for seven-time LPGA Tour winner Tammie Green for 13 years before taking Lewis’ bag in 2008, so he could easily show Lewis the ropes.
Lewis picked a good week to notch her first LPGA Tour win, as she won the Kraft Nabisco Championship—the year’s first major—in 2011, and her career took off from there.
Lewis won four times in 2012 and was named the LPGA Tour Player of the Year. She added three more titles in 2013, including her second major at the Women’s British Open. She won the Vare Trophy for lowest scoring average and reached number one in the world for the first time.
That momentum carried over to 2014, as Lewis won three more times, defended her Vare Trophy title, and led the LPGA Tour money list. Her individual success made her a consistent member of the US Solheim Cup team, as she made the team four straight times from 2011-2017.
Her Solheim Cup record is underwhelming at 5-10-1, but she was a part of winning teams in 2015 in Germany and 2017 in Des Moines, Iowa. She considers the 2015 event—where the U.S. came back from a 10-6 deficit on Sunday to defeat Europe 14.5-13.5—one of her best memories in golf.
“We look out for each other, but you're not necessarily cheering for each other every week. And so the big difference is it's just one common goal,” Lewis said. “When we won in Germany, the way everybody came together on Sunday was one of the coolest things I've ever been around.”
The US team was a bit more motivated that Sunday after Suzanne Petterson called out Alison Lee for taking away an 18 inch putt that Petterson had not yet given her during their Saturday four-ball match. The Europeans won the hole and eventually the match, but the US’ motivation was nearly as valuable as the point Europe won in the match.
“Everybody rallied around Alison, she was a rookie and it was just so cool to see. Everyone had their motivation that day. And everybody came together,” Lewis said.
These memories made it difficult for Lewis when she was passed up for a Captain’s pick for this year’s Solheim Cup. Captain Pat Hurst had asked Lewis months before the event if she would be interested in being one of her Vice Captain’s. Lewis said yes, but reiterated that she would prefer to play on the team.
But when it came time to travel to Toledo, Lewis was unsure how she would fit in with the team in her new role. But things ended up working out in the end.
“I kept delaying packing, I just didn't want to go. It was hard, but once I got there, the girls were great. They made me feel like a part of things. And I actually loved being on that side of it,” Lewis said. “Being a captain is a lot more relaxed, playing is stressful in that environment. I ended up having a lot of fun, but it was hard getting on that plane go in there.”
During the good times and the bad, Lewis always maintained her positive and confident attitude, in her mind that is what helped her succeed.
“it's mindset. I think if you're constantly thinking I could go do this if it doesn't work out You just have to be where you are at and know that my best golf was good enough,” Lewis said.
For Lewis, that attitude goes back long before her professional career began, all the way back to childhood.
“It made me the person that I am and kind of the fighter that I am. I don't think I would have had the career I've had without all the stuff I dealt with with my back. I came out of it a fighter,” Lewis said. “My golf swing got bad. It actually got into a better spot. My short game got better, and I got more appreciative of getting to play golf every day.”
For most people who love golf, their inspirations are some of the greatest players all-time. Players like Tiger Woods or Annika Sorenstam. I was a massive golf fan growing up, and like most people my age, my initial inspiration was Woods.
But as I eventually embarked on a career path as a writer that would allow me to interview some of the best players in the world and learn about their experiences, my inspiration became Lewis.
The spinal fusion surgery became famous when Woods had it and later won the 2019 Masters. But, as Lewis pointed out when she was awarded the GWAA Ben Hogan Award for her comeback from back surgery in 2018, Woods wasn’t the first person to succeed in professional golf after the operation, that was her.
Like Lewis, I was also diagnosed with Scoliosis at a young age. I wore the same back brace for even longer than Lewis and had the same operation in 2013. Golf had always been one of my biggest passions, and while I knew I wasn’t going to play professional golf, I was devastated at the thought of potentially not being able to play.
When I got the go-ahead to resume playing I essentially had to re-learn the game to adapt to my new body—I grew nearly two inches from the straightening of my spine alone.
My way into the golf world has been through writing, and knowing that I have someone who’s been as successful as Lewis who relates to one of the most difficult things I’ve gone through in my life is reassuring.
But what inspired me most wasn’t her golf game, it was her attitude. She was so positive and so confident despite having every reason to believe that the world was out to get her in a way. I’ll be sure to keep that in mind in both my writing and my life.