GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP - Stacy Lewis played well enough Sunday to earn one of the most convincing victories in the history of the $1.5 million ShopRite LPGA Classic.
The 27-year-old native of Woodlands, Texas, carded an even-par 71 in the final round on the breezy Bay Course at Stockton Seaview Hotel and Golf Club to finish at 12-under 201. Australia's Katherine Hull used a 3-under 68 to finish second at 8-under 205. First-round co-leader Mika Miyazato of Japan and Azahara Munoz of Mexico tied for third at 7-under 206.
Lewis' four-shot margin of victory tied the tournament record set by Dottie Pepper in 1996 and matched by Annika Sorenstam in 1998 and 2005.
"To be honest, I was relieved to be done," Lewis said. "I mean, I wanted to play well. I wanted to go out in style. I wanted to shoot under par and everything, but a win's a win. Whether it's by four, six or eight (shots), it doesn't matter to me."
Fans who packed the grandstands and luxury boxes around the 18th green erupted in loud applause after Lewis finished with a par. Fellow American LPGA players Natalie Gulbis, Paige Mackenzie, Gerina Piller and 2011 champion Brittany Lincicome rushed onto the green and sprayed Lewis with water and champagne. Linciome also urged Lewis to use at least a portion of her $225,000 first-place prize on a boat.
The group had plenty of reasons to douse Lewis, who also won the Mobile Bay LPGA Classic in late April. Her victory Sunday also meant that Lewis is expected to be the world's top-ranked American when the Rolex Rankings are released today. She will be ranked third overall behind Taiwan's Yani Tseng and South Korea's Na Yeon Choi. She will take over the top spot among American golfers from Cristie Kerr, who had held it since Nov. 23, 2009.
"It was pretty neat to have friends out there celebrating with me because most people just want to get the heck out town after a tournament," Lewis said. "One of the cool parts about our tour is that we compete against each other week in and week out, but when one of your friends wins, you're out there celebrating with them."
They had plenty of time to plan the party.
Lewis fired back-to-back 6-under par 65s in the first two rounds on Friday and Saturday, tying the tournament's 36-hole scoring record set by Amy Benz (1996) and Denise Killeen (2004). That left Lewis with a commanding six-shot lead entering Sunday's action.
"We all knew that catching her today was going to be hard," Hull said. "When someone is that far ahead, she's got to make a lot of mistakes and you've gotta shoot a really low round. Stacy's playing really well right now, so I kind of knew today was probably going to be more of a battle for second place."
Lewis started the final round as if she were going to win by double digits.
She birdied four of the first eight holes to climb to 16-under par and appeared poised to threaten the tournament's 54-hole record of 17-under par 196 shot by Sorenstam in 1998 and 2005.
But then she began to falter.
Lewis had a double bogey on No. 11 and then 3-putted for bogey on No. 12 to drop to 12-under. After she finished the 12th hole, she angrily smacked her putter against her bag before heading to the next tee box.
"I know people don't like this, but I kind of slammed my putter and honestly, it relieved me so much," Lewis said. "It got out all of the tension that was in my hands. I was so stressed out and it just got all of my tension out. From 13 on, I felt great. I kind of got my rhythm back and got my feel back."
A quick glance at the leaderboard behind the 13th green also gave her a confidence boost. Despite her struggles, she saw she still owned a six-shot lead with five holes left.
No one made a significant charge. Lexi Thompson tied for the lowest score Sunday with a 4-under 67 but still finished tied for fifth with Hee-Won Han and Anna Nordqvist. Hull and Miyazato were among the players who shot 3-under 68s. Munoz, who won the Sybase Match Play Championship two weeks ago in Somerset County, shot a 2-under 69.
"I thought I played pretty well, but when someone has a big lead like that, you know it's going to be almost impossible to catch her," Munoz said.
Consecutive victories in the LPGA's last two stroke-play events gives Lewis a huge boost of confidence entering next week's Wegmans LPGA Championship, the second of the tour's four majors, in Pittsford, N.Y.
Maybe she will also receive some much-deserved attention. Despite Lewis' accomplishments, players such Paula Creamer, Thompson, Kerr and Michelle Wie are more popular with fans. But Lewis is playing at a higher level than all of them.
"I'm so happy that I won and to think I'm projected to be third in the world now and the top American. It's just unbelievable," Lewis said. "I mean, you dream of it and you kind of can see yourself there eventually, but for it to actually happen is just incredible."
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