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Last Friday night, Stacy Lewis's improbable journey in golf came full circle. In the fall of 2003 she arrived at the University of Arkansas not knowing if she would ever tee it up again. She was less than a year removed from back surgery, during which a five-inch metal rod and five pins were grafted to her spine to treat a severe curvature. Lewis weighed 105 pounds and was so painfully shy she had flummoxed her college coach, Kelley Hester, during a recruiting visit. "We thought there was no way she'd ever come to Arkansas," says Hester, who honored Lewis's scholarship offer despite the surgery. "On her recruiting trip she didn't say more than 10 words the whole time, to anyone. We thought she was miserable and hated the place."
In fact, Fayetteville is where Lewis blossomed as a player and a person, maturing into the poised, confident young woman who dazzled a thousand guests at Friday's black-tie gala celebrating this year's inductees into the Arkansas Hall of Fame, which is a highlight of the Little Rock social calendar. Lewis became the youngest inductee in the Hall's 55-year history, thanks to 13 college victories, including the 2007 NCAA championship, which Hester says "turned Stacy into a rock star in that state."
The Hall may be top-heavy with football and basketball players, but Lewis was the star of Friday's show, not least because she was only five days removed from a rousing first victory of the LPGA season, in Singapore. (She also won in Australia in January.) She looked glamorous in heels and a colorful minidress. After getting Lewis's autograph, one middle-aged gent said to a friend, "You see those thigh muscles? She's definitely an ath-o-lete." The women cooed over the deep bronze of her gams and giggled at the blinding white tops of her feet, the sock-tan that is the bane of the LPGA player's existence. Lewis didn't know she would be speaking until a few hours before the ceremony, but she winged it effortlessly. Her funny and heartfelt speech ended with a defiant note. Lest anyone think the induction was a sign she has peaked, Lewis woofed, "I truly believe the best is yet to come."
Afterward she celebrated at a bar with friends and family, washing down a burger and fries with a flute of champagne. Lewis carried a double major in finance and accounting at Arkansas, graduating with a 3.87 GPA, but she was still struggling to process that she was now a 28-year-old Hall of Famer. "This is just a little weird and surreal," she said. When someone offered a compliment on her speech, Lewis said, "The little girl who first came to Arkansas never in a million years would have been able to do that." It was after 11 o'clock when she returned to her hotel.
Six and a half hours later she was in the gym for a punishing workout.
These two sides of Lewis—belle of the ball and obsessive self-improver—explain both her success and her increasing importance to the LPGA. She has already won a major championship (the 2011 Kraft Nabisco) and last year became the first American to be named player of the year since 1994, when Beth Daniel took the honors. Lewis is third in the Rolex world rankings, and getting to No. 1 is the next logical step in her career, but an even bigger role awaits. The LPGA hasn't had a true leading lady since the double-whammy retirements of Annika Sorenstam and Lorena Ochoa in 2008 and '10, respectively. (Current No. 1 Yani Tseng has never connected with fans outside of Asia.) That the new face of the tour is a blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl-next-door with an inspirational story is the stuff of a commissioner's dreams.
"There's no question Stacy has energized the domestic market," says LPGA commish Mike Whan. "She has lifted all boats."
Two companies with which Lewis had endorsement deals have stepped up to become tournament title sponsors this year. Pure Silk, a shaving cream manufacturer, put its name on a new event in the Bahamas, and Marathon Petroleum, a FORTUNE 50 company, will underwrite what used to be known as the Jamie Farr Toledo Classic. "Certainly our relationship with Stacy showed us the value of being associated with the LPGA," says Gary Heminger, Marathon's president and CEO. "She has so many admirable qualities that we want to be associated with—character, a passion for what she does, a burning desire to be the best. She has become a wonderful ambassador for golf."
Lewis recently re-upped with Mizuno and signed a new deal with Omega watches, which explains why the $26,000 Rolex that came with her player of the year award is locked in a safe. Her ascension in the marketplace is mirrored by her elevation among colleagues as the gold standard for preparation and maximizing one's potential. Lewis hits the gym six days a week for an hour and a half each time. The metal rod in her back still restricts the rotation of her torso, so she has compensated by building up her shoulders, core muscles, hips and legs through Olympic lifts with heavy metal. Her trainer, David Donatucci, works with numerous female pros, and he says, "They all want to know what Stacy is doing in the gym." The secret is what Donatucci calls "want and will." He adds, "She is one tough young woman. She gets after it hard."
Three years ago Lewis began working with Joe Hallett to hone a tighter, shorter, more repeatable swing that has now become a model of efficiency. (Last year Lewis tied for second on the tour in greens in regulation.) She is only 5' 5" and 135 pounds, but in 2012 Lewis sneaked up to 15th in driving distance (260.4 yards) and says she is 25 yards longer than she was three years ago. "I'm shocked at how far she's hitting it," says her father, Dale. "It's changed the way she can attack golf courses. The only downside is what it's done to my ego."