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Lewis, LPGA POY, now says 'Why me?' for different reasons

Associated Press

11/14/2012 6:27:05 PM

NAPLES, Fla. -- Stacy Lewis might not be the LPGA Tour player of year if not for her doctor buying a raffle ticket he didn't want.

It's a bizarre twist in her unlikely path to the top of women's golf. And it's a reminder to Lewis that whenever she asks that familiar question -- "Why me?" -- the answer no longer is grounded in self-pity, but in sheer amazement.

"I guess it's fate a little bit," Lewis said.

Fate doesn't happen without hard work, and few players had it tougher than Lewis.

She was diagnosed with scoliosis when she was 11, so severe that she wore a back brace for 18 hours every day from age 11 until she got out of high school, and then had to have surgery when that didn't correct the curvature in her spine.

That's when Gary Brock, her orthopedic surgeon in Houston, entered the picture.

Brock knew Lewis played golf at The Woodlands Country Club. He just didn't know she was good enough to have earned a scholarship to Arkansas. In the months leading up to her back surgery, Brock was invited to a charity event in which one of the prizes was a series of lessons with a golf pro.

"I went with a friend of mine. He was the one who wanted to win the raffle ticket," Brock said Wednesday. "I just bought one to humour him, and I ended up winning. The pro that I worked with had worked with Stacy. All summer long, he said what a great golfer she could be."

It was enough for Brock to consider giving Lewis a chance to succeed.

The original plan was to insert two rods in her back. Brock suggested a single rod with five screws, which would allow her more flexibility and rotation for golf. It also meant going in from the side, breaking a rib and manoeuvring around two major blood vessels.

"I remember he called my wife and I and said, 'We need to do a different surgery,"' said Dale Lewis, her father. "He said, 'It's going to take twice as along. It's twice as risky. The recovery is twice as long. But she'll be so much more flexible."'

Lewis took it from there.

She spent her first year at Arkansas as a redshirt, recovering from surgery. She could only chip and putt for six months before she was allowed to swing, and she earned a spot on the team. As a junior, she won the NCAA title. As a senior, she tied for third at the Kraft Nabisco Championship on an amateur invitation. She ended her amateur career by going undefeated at the Curtis Cup.

And now this, a breakthrough year of four wins to become the first American since Beth Daniel in 1994 to win the points-based player of the year. She will be honoured Friday night during the LPGA Titleholders, and Brock is flying to Florida to join the celebration.

All because of his raffle ticket?

"Exactly," Lewis said, smiling at how something so small can lead to something so grand. "I think it's amazing how you make a decision a certain way, how little things seem to fall into place and you can look back say that was a turning point. At the time, I didn't really think the stuff with my doctor was that big of a deal. But now looking back, I mean, he doesn't win the raffle and I'm not here today? It's crazy."

Brock thinks that might be a stretch, but not much of one. Lewis still could have played golf with two rods in her back, but it's fine line between good and great, and he wonders if she could have gone as far as she has.

With Lewis, though, there was always something about her that had nothing to do with science.

"She has a spirit about her," Brock said. "I don't think anything would have held her back."

That spirit showed as a kid. Lewis despised being in a brace, and she hated it even more when she was told after three years that she needed to keep it even longer because she kept growing. Her father said she never bought clothes, such as sleeveless shirts or halter tops, that would expose her brace. It was a happy day when the brace came off for good, and Lewis thought about burning it. Instead, she keeps two of them in a closet at her parents' house -- the first one and last one she had to wear. Her agent said a photo doesn't exist anywhere of Lewis wearing the brace. She refused to be seen in it.

"She got over the bitterness and it became, 'How lucky I am that I still get to play golf,"' the father said. "She just wanted to be normal again."

There is nothing flashy about Lewis, which might explain how she reached her main goal -- becoming the highest-ranked American in women's golf -- and achieved another one that she didn't think possible at the start of the year the way Yani Tseng ruled the sport.

That also might explain why she has been overlooked for so much of her career. She didn't have the star power of Michelle Wie, the youth of Lexi Thompson, the marketing prowess of Paula Creamer.

"I didn't have all the expectations everyone else had and I think that's really helped me get to where I am," Lewis said. "I like working hard. Some girls like to do all the extra stuff off the course and the sponsor things and this and that, and I just love to go out and play golf. I don't know if that's what has gotten me to this point versus everybody else. But that's just what I like to do."

There is work left for Lewis at the LPGA Titleholders, which starts Thursday at TwinEagles Golf Club.

Lewis would have to win to have any chance of overtaking Inbee Park on the money list. Park only has two wins this year, but she collected first-place money from the Canadian Women's Open when an amateur, 15-year-old Lydia Ko, won the tournament. Park also has a narrow lead in the Vare Trophy for lowest adjusted scoring average. Otherwise, this week is a celebration.

Brock didn't realize until this week that Lewis would be honoured Friday night. He rescheduled a clinic to be there. Even now, he has a hard time believing that a change of surgery brought on by a winning raffle ticket would lead to this. That the little girl, who grew 1 1/2 inches after surgery, would become the best American female in golf.

"We would never have dreamed that in a million years," Brock said.