Stacy Lewis is hitting her stride

PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- Stacy Lewis didn't model herself after anyone in golf. Growing up near Houston, she learned to love the game from her father and late grandfather. But the idea of becoming one of the LPGA's top players? Back then, it never occurred to her.

"I didn't really expect to be doing this for a living," Lewis said Wednesday on the eve of the LPGA Championship. "I didn't watch golf very much."

Yet here she is this week at No. 3 in the world, and now the top American, having surpassed Cristie Kerr in the latest rankings.

"I don't even know what to say. It is something that you work so hard for, and to finally get it, it's unbelievable," Lewis said. "I woke up here Monday morning and I checked my phone to make sure that it actually did happen."

Indeed, there her name was behind No. 1 Yani Tseng of Taiwan and No. 2 Na Yeon Choi of South Korea. Lewis won the ShopRite LPGA Classic in New Jersey on Sunday, her second victory in her past three starts on tour. Last year, she made her LPGA breakthrough with a win at the Kraft Nabisco Championship, the first major on the tour's calendar.

Lewis' confidence has been building steadily while her backstory -- which in this case literally is a story about her back -- has been ... well, not shrinking, exactly. It's still the thing she's asked about most. However, as her successes pile up, the health difficulties she went through fade more into the past.

Yes, Lewis is the "girl in the back brace." Or, more accurately, she used to be. Now she's far beyond that, but she understands that it still captures the attention of folks who are new to hearing about her.

"I do get tired of saying the same thing over and over," Lewis said. "But if that one more person is inspired by it, I will tell it again and again. I just feel lucky to be doing what I'm doing."

Lewis' battle with scoliosis through her adolescent years and her subsequent back surgery before she entered college at Arkansas are a defining part of who she is. But at age 27, she's nine years past the operation and is in excellent shape. Not just physically, but mentally.

"These last couple of tournaments, everything is finally coming together," Lewis said. "I've always thought my way around the golf course. Now I have a caddie I really trust, and we strategize all the time.

"I'm not the longest hitter, I'm not the straightest. I'm pretty good at everything, so I have to use what I have to get it done."

You don't need to dig too deeply into Lewis' psyche to know that the discomfort she went through for years forged a resolve that she always will be able to draw upon.

Confidence, though, is rarely a static thing in any sport. It can wax and wane even for the best, so the fact that Lewis has reached this stage doesn't mean the hardest work is done. Because to stay at this level might be even harder.

Certainly, Lewis is dealing with new things: more eyes on her, more demands on her time. She's even got Kerr, who was the highest-ranked U.S. player from November 2009 until this week, kind of riled up.

"It's a good thing for me because I've been the top American for a long time, and now I just got passed," Kerr said. "I needed that extra motivation. It does fire me up; I don't like it."

Kerr won this tournament by 12 strokes in 2010, and last year Tseng was the winner by 10 shots. Could this year bring another blowout by somebody? Lewis could see that happening.

"This golf course, I think, sets itself up for someone to run away with it," Lewis said. "If your driving is straight and you're making putts, you are going to lap the field here."

In recent weeks, Lewis has been doing both of those things. Traditionally, putting was the weaker part of her game. But she's credited the AimPoint Technologies method of reading greens with helping her better gauge her aim and speed.

Of course, all the tips and gadgetry in the world won't help if you don't have talent and, just as important, belief in yourself.

"When you reach a level where you know you are a great player and you can win at any given time, that's what the winner's mentality is," Kerr said. "Once you reach that, I don't think you ever go back. But winning is [still] tough."

Winning majors at least theoretically is even tougher, because of the course setups, the pressure and the prestige that's on the line. Lewis isn't shying away from her growing profile, and she knows major championships are the best way to enhance that.

"Careers are made and a lot is based on major wins," Lewis said. "That's what everybody looks at. The golf course is harder, so you have to be a little bit sharper with all parts of your game."

The LPGA may not come right out and say it, but the tour always is looking to boost the recognition of its American players. Some have gotten more hype than others. That's sometimes based on results, but also on the hope that something about the player will capture people's interest.

Lewis hasn't been one of the more heavily hyped Americans, but her success could change that.

"It's something that a couple of years ago, I probably wouldn't have looked forward to," Lewis said of potentially stepping into that spotlight. "But I've been trying to prepare myself for this because as I play better, there is going to be more attention with it. I do like it. I like having the pressure on me.

"I like people expecting me to do well because that's what I expect of myself. I am ready for it."

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