With the bad taste of Bobby Petrino still lingering, Arkansas needed a good news story from somebody in the athletics department.
They got one last week, although few people noticed. Stacy Lewis, the All American golfer from the Razorback teams of 2005-08, won the LPGA Mobile Bay Classic in southern Alabama by one shot over teenager Lexi Thompson. It was a huge win for Lewis, who played the last three holes one-under par to hold off the charging Thompson.
And while a female golfer might get a collective yawn out of most SEC sports fans, the Stacy Lewis victory is more than a golf story. It is a story of grit and determination, hard work and tenacity. It is also a story that doesn’t get told often enough in a conference with six consecutive national championships in football and the reigning national champs in men’s basketball.
Growing up as a bashful girl in The Woodlands, Tex, Lewis was only noticed for one thing: the back brace that she wore for seven and a half years as she battled scoliosis. She wasn’t a gifted athlete or a dynamic personality. She was a wallflower in a contraption that held her spine in place.
“I saw so many doctors and I came home crying every time, because I was still wearing that stupid back brace,” Lewis said in a phone interview after her win in Mobile. “I thought I was the only one in the world who had scoliosis. None of my friends had it, and nobody I knew had to wear a brace like me. I was always saying ‘Why is this happening to me?’
Back problems are career killers for golfers. Fred Couples only won one major because of a bad back. Davis Love had chronic back trouble that arguably cost him two or three majors and another decade on his career. Scoliosis should be a deal killer in terms of golf, or so it would seem.
But Lewis worked on her game in the hours when she wasn’t confined to a brace. Even though she needed surgery right out of high school, Arkansas coach Shauna Estes-Taylor saw something in her and took a chance.
It paid off. Lewis won the SEC as a redshirt freshman and was a four-time All American. In 2007 she won the NCAA Tournament and was the ‘Golf Digest’ Amateur of the Year.
“A lot of it is my personality and the way I play golf, too,” she said. “Nothing has ever come easy to me. I continue to fight. I never give up. That’s the way I am in everything I do. It made it me who I am.”
It also made her the top-ranked American female golfer in the world, and the one player everyone wants to have on their side. When American Solheim Cup captain Rosy Jones asked her team members who they most wanted as a partner, the name on the top of almost every player’s list was Stacy Lewis.
“For your peers to want to play with you like that, that’s the ultimate,” she said.
The real ultimate is what Lewis does now. She is a volunteer assistant coach for the Razorbacks, despite playing a full LPGA schedule.
“My message to kids is simple” Lewis said. “Never give up. Persevere. Things might seem really bad right now, and you don’t know how you’re going to get through it, but if you just keep working hard and do what you’re supposed to do, things will get better. I know. I’ve been there
“That’s one of the reasons I’m so open with my story. I don’t want kids to be in the position that I was in. I want them to realize that it’s okay. You can go on and do what you want to do. Whatever you’re facing, you don’t have to be scared.”
So, there are good news stories in Arkansas athletics. You just have to know where to look.