x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Impossible is nothing in the life of Stacy Lewis

Achievements of her opponents and a difficult childhood keep inspiring former world No 1 to push for greatness, she tells John McAuley ahead of the Dubai Ladies Masters.

Stacy Lewis expects plenty of challenges not least from her younger opponents, but the American former world No 1 is excited by what she can go on to achieve in the near future, regardless. Razan Alzayani / The National
Stacy Lewis expects plenty of challenges not least from her younger opponents, but the American former world No 1 is excited by what she can go on to achieve in the near future, regardless. Razan Alzayani / The National

Given Stacy Lewis’s well-documented journey to the pinnacle of the professional game, perhaps the American golfer is better equipped than most to appreciate the implausibility of her latest location.

“The city’s a lot bigger than I thought,” says Lewis as she prepares to make her UAE debut on Wednesday at the Omega Dubai Ladies Masters. “I haven’t really seen much other than the hotel and the course, but we’re definitely going to visit a couple of malls.

“And I’ve got to see the indoor ski resort, or slope, or whatever it is. I just don’t know how that’s possible.”

Defying the odds is something Lewis can relate to. Diagnosed with scoliosis at age 11, the abnormal lateral curvature of the spine required her to wear an unwieldy support 18 hours every day, for six and a half years.

Bizarrely, golf provided the only relief; those few hours on the practice range where back brace was discarded, and backswing became the focus.

After her senior year at high school, by which time she was already a golfer of significant promise, Lewis had surgery to insert along her spine a permanent rod. She was forced to put down her clubs for six months, and doubted if she would ever pick them up again.

“My back is still not perfectly straight,” says the Omega brand ambassador, at Emirates Golf Club this week on invite. “But it’s a lot more manageable and not as noticeable.”

That her game has been on a steep upwards curve ever since is remarkable.

Having underscored an outstanding amateur career as a four-time All American at the University of Arkansas, Lewis excelled for the United States at the 2008 Curtis Cup, and within three years recorded her first professional victory by clinching the Kraft Nabisco Championship, one of the game’s four majors.

Last season is still considered her breakout year, though, with a quartet of wins and the LPGA Player of the Year trophy to boot. Lewis became the first American in 18 years to be voted the season’s standout.

Two more triumphs this past March and she was not only the best player of 2012, but officially the finest on the planet. It represented a remarkable ascent.

“It’s made me who I am,” she says of her scoliosis. “When something’s taken away from you like that, that’s when you appreciate things more. Because I had to fight, I had to persevere through everything. I wouldn’t wish the surgery on anybody, but I wouldn’t be where I am without it.”

Presently, Lewis’s game is in rude health. In August, she arrived at St Andrew’s, an old Curtis Cup haunt, and absconded with the Women’s British Open – her second major title. Wrecking Park In-bee’s shot at an unprecedented calendar grand slam, Lewis had contributed to her own career highlight.

“It was actually really cool to see In-bee get all the attention she really deserved … but coming into the week I really wanted to be the spoiler. And to end like that was unbelievable. After all the commotion we went straight to the Dunvegan [Hotel] and had a nice little celebration.”

The festivities would have tasted all the sweeter given the tumult in the months beforehand. By her own admission, a whirlwind 2012 demanded a supremely serene off-season, and Lewis anticipated a gentle introduction to 2013, also.

A couple of quick-fire victories later, and she was seated in the loftiest of perches.

“I thought I could get to world No 1 maybe in the summer, but I just didn’t expect to come out so quick,” she says. “To get two wins early and go to No 1, my life just got crazy. I never really got to enjoy it.”

Among the frenzy, Lewis learnt a few solid lessons: say “no” more often, put herself and her game first. She is not the first world No 1, on either the women’s or men’s tours, to reach the peak and then suffer some serious vertigo.

“It’s hard, because you finally get to that position and you want people to talk about you and write about you, but at the same time you’ve got to take care of yourself,” Lewis says. “It’s a hard balance, but there’s a way to make it work. Hopefully I can try it again.”

She has been steadily clambering back toward the summit for a while now. The British Open win precipitated a run of nine straight top-10 finishes on the LPGA Tour, her extraordinary consistency helping Lewis settle third in the global rankings, behind Park and Suzann Pettersen.

It also saw Lewis hoard yet more hardware. With a season’s scoring average of 69.484, she emerged as the first American to snare the Vare Trophy since Beth Daniel in 1994, something that not only confirms Lewis’s ability but emphasises the depth of the international game these days.

It hints at a lack of killer instinct among the US players, as well. However, while Paula Creamer, Natalie Gulbis, Michelle Wie and Morgan Pressel have continually struggled to live up to their billing, Lewis and the rapidly rising Lexi Thompson are continuing to create a hype all of their own.

“I like that I’m the one checking things off the list, but we definitely need more Americans playing well,” Lewis says. “Yet the future’s good. We’ve got a lot of young ones coming up and they’re fearless. They don’t care that they’re 18 years old. They’re just trying to win tournaments.”

As an old hand at 28, Lewis gets some teenage kicks from challenging her younger rivals.

“For sure,” she says. “I’m a veteran at 28, which is crazy. They’re so talented, but I’m more experienced so I can beat them a little bit that way. It definitely makes you want to be better.”

Lewis aims to continue her development well into 2014. In contrast to this time last year, she approaches the off-season with renewed vigour, excited by what lies around the corner.

Much has been made about another expected joust next term with Pettersen, currently the game’s in-form player, but Lewis does not see it as two-way jig.

“I’d love to keep that rivalry going, but Lexi jumps up there in the conversation, too,” she says. “I’m really looking forward to next season. The competition this year between me, Suzann and In-bee, we’ve made each other better.”

Much like her latest location, and her path to the apex of her profession, Lewis is attempting to attain the seemingly implausible.

“In-bee showed this year you can do what people think you can’t. She really opened my eyes that anything is possible.”

jmcauley@thenational.ae