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Defending ShopRite LPGA champion Stacy Lewis happy to carry tour on her back

Stacy Lewis came to the LPGA with an inspirational story.

The 2012 ShopRite LPGA Classic champion just couldn't tell it effectively. Lewis won the Kraft Nabisco Championship - an LPGA major - in 2011. The media wanted to know how she had overcome scoliosis, a curvature of the spine, to become a top golfer.

Lewis seemed to be exactly what the tour needed - an American player who could compete with the best in the world.

But she struggled for words in front of reporters. She was reportedly so shy growing up that she barely spoke when she made a recruiting visit to the University of Arkansas as a high school senior.

"I wasn't comfortable in front of the camera," Lewis said. "You could see it."

Now, Lewis appears to carry the LPGA on her back - pun and clich´┐Ż intended.

"It seems like we have more interviews with (Lewis) than all the other players combined," LPGA director of media communications Mike Scanlan said.

Lewis will defend her Shoprite LPGA Classic title when the $1.5 million tournament is held Friday-Sunday on the Bay Course at Stockton Seaview Hotel and Golf Club in Galloway Township.

Lewis, 28, worked on her communication shortcomings like she did her putting stroke or short game.

She approached the LPGA and consulted with tour staff to improve her media skills. Lewis wanted to be one of the LPGA's best and she knew top players must answer reporters' questions.

"I don't know if (the LPGA) knew what was coming," she said, "but I just feel so much more prepared for all the interviews all the requests. I'm comfortable. I don't dread doing interviews every day."

Lewis is the tour's most visible player for a variety of reasons that all came together in 2012.

She's a standout Amer-ican player on a tour starved for a domestic star. Lewis is currently ranked No. 2 in the world but was No. 1 earlier this year. Only one other American (No. 10 Cristie Kerr) is in the top-10.

Lewis' perseverance through scoliosis has given her more crossover appeal than any LPGA player since Annika Sorenstam played a men's PGA event 10 years ago. Lewis has appeared on television shows where LPGA players normally aren't seen.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta interviewed Lewis on CNN about her back troubles. She appeared earlier this year ESPN's SportsCenter. This week, she will appear on the popular Golf Channel talk show "Feherty." The interview show, hosted by popular golf commentator David Feherty, has featured some of biggest names in politics, golf and sports, including Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps and former President Bill Clinton.

Her popularity has benefited the tour. Two of Lewis' sponsors - Pure Silk and Martahn Petroleum - decided to sponsor LPGA events this year.

"It's almost too good to be true," Scanlan said.

Lewis' story is a compelling one. She wore a back brace 18 hours a day for seven and a half years from the age of 11 to 18 to try to correct her scoliosis. Doctors let her remove the brace to play golf.

The brace didn't cure her condition, however. X-rays of her back on her website - www.Stacysback.com - show her spine was shaped like the letter "S." Doctors inserted a five-inch metal rod and six screws in her back to straighten her spine during a six-hour surgery in 2003.

Lewis said she showed her back braces in public on "Feherty" for the first time ever.

She kept the first and last ones she wore. She thought about burning them when she's done with them, but she told her mother she couldn't get rid of them.

"They became a part of me," she said. "We brought them out on (Feherty). Hopefully, they'll get a good response."

But her triumph over scoliosis wouldn't mean as much if her ShopRite victory didn't help emerge as arguably the tour's top player in 2012.

Lewis won four events last year. She was the first American to win the LPGA Player of the Year Award since Beth Daniel in 1994. The Golf Writers Association of American named her its Player of the Year. It was the first time an American had won that award since Juli Inkster received the honor in 1999.

"I don't think I realized how long it had been for American players," Lewis said. "Every award I've gotten over the past year I've been the first American since. I'm proud to break that trend. It's been a long-time coming for the tour. We've lost some events here in the U.S. We have plenty of momentum outside of the United States, but we haven't had it here."

The LPGA boasts that its players are more fan and media friendly than other professional athletes. That's debatable, but it appears true when it comes to Lewis.

Lewis spoke at the ShopRite Classic media day earlier this month and addressed a ballroom full of people at Seaview with ease and grace. She handled multiple interviews with a smile and a sense of humor.

But as friendly as she seems, Lewis is also a fierce competitor. Things weren't going well for her in the final round of last year's Classic. She showed her frustration by slamming her putter into a golf bag while leaving the green.

Lewis has admitted to having a chip on her shoulder in the past as other American players - many of whom turned professional in their teens - got more attention than her despite not matching Lewis' LPGA or college success. She won the NCAA championship at Arkansas in 2007.

"I was overshadowed in college," she said. "I came out on tour (in 2009) with Michelle (Wie) and was overshadowed by that. It's nice for me to get out of everybody else's shadow and kind of create my own."

Lewis has embraced her task as the LPGA's unofficial spokesperson. That's not something past top players have done or been quick to do.

"I want to leave this tour better than when I came out," she said.

Lewis must continue to play well to sustain the momentum she's built for herself and the LPGA. She won twice in March and since then has finished in the top-10 in four of the five events she's played.

Lewis has talked to U.S. stars from the 1990s - Daniel, Betsy King and Meg Mallon - about how to manage her time and make sure she's ready to play each tournament. Lewis jokes that her agents have become good at saying no.

"It's hard," Lewis said. "I was No.1 for four weeks (this year), and I never really got to enjoy it because I was so busy running around."

LPGA officials are also careful not to burn out Lewis. The LPGA schedules Lewis' interviews around her practice time. The last thing Lewis and the LPGA wants is for 2012 to be a fluke.

With all the television appearances, Lewis now gets recognized more off the course. Strangers come up to her in the drug store or while she's picking up dry cleaning.

"You realize you have to be on all the time," she said. "That's hard. I'm Stacy Lewis the golfer all the time. It's different, but I'm getting used to it."

And after all, this is the life she dreamed about.

Her website once billed her as "The Next Great American Golfer." Now that line is crossed out and replaced by the line "The Best Golfer in the World."

Contact Michael McGarry:

609-272-7185

MMcGarry@pressofac.com

 

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