RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. (AP) — Stacy Lewis put her hands on her knees and stared at the 17th green at Mission Hills. She had just made an impossibly tough 20-foot putt, and the gallery’s stunned roar still echoed in her ears.
Lewis realized she had dominated a head-to-head matchup with the world’s top-ranked player on the back nine of a major. Her teen years in a back brace with scoliosis, her rocky pro start, even her grandfather’s death Wednesday – Lewis realized everything led to this walk down the 18th hole at the Kraft Nabisco Championship.
Even a woman with a spine of steel needed a moment to collect herself.
“I was shaking, just trying to calm down,” Lewis said. “My heart was racing, and I was gathering my thoughts. I still had five more shots that I needed to make sure I paid attention to.”
Lewis outplayed Yani Tseng for a three-stroke victory Sunday, earning her first LPGA Tour victory with a 3-under 69.
Highlighted by that 20-foot par putt from the fringe with a perfect read and precise pace, she rallied from an early two-stroke deficit and finished at 13-under 275. Lewis simply stared down Tseng, who blinked when Lewis showed a grit borne from years of hard work and struggle – including surgery that corrected her spine with five screws and a steel rod.
“I had a good feeling coming into this week because I love this golf course, and I’ve played well here before,” said Lewis, who won $300,000 from the $2 million purse. “Even when my grandfather died, I was (thinking) there’s a reason that happened this week, and there’s a reason my parents were here. It all worked out the way it should.”
After nailing her putt, the 26-year-old from Texas with her alma mater’s Arkansas Razorbacks head cover on her driver watched as Tseng missed an 18-foot par putt that essentially clinched it.
Five shots later, Lewis still had one more surprise coming in her tumultuous week.
After a beer-and-champagne shower from her fellow pros in the LPGA’s tradition for first-time winners, Lewis and her parents, sister and caddie took the Kraft Nabisco’s traditional winner’s leap into Poppie’s Pond off the 18th green, holding hands while running to the water.
Lewis and caddie Travis Wilson did modified cannonballs – but Lewis’ mother, Carol, got her foot stuck in the rough and badly injured her left leg on the leap, going to a hospital in an ambulance. Lewis groaned when she got the news from her father, Dale, after the celebration: Her mother ran 14 miles earlier Sunday in preparation for a marathon.
“She doesn’t surprise me any more,” Dale Lewis said. “She just continues to go up a level every year since her back surgery.”
Tseng shot a 74 with four bogeys, losing focus in her quest for her fifth worldwide title already this year. Lewis bogeyed the 15th hole to allow Tseng to pull within a stroke, but Tseng bogeyed the next two holes.
“She handled the pressure very well,” said Tseng, the first to hug Lewis after her final 3-foot putt. “She did great, better than me.”
Morgan Pressel, Katie Futcher and Angela Stanford finished nine strokes behind Lewis in a third-place tie. Michelle Wie (75) and 2007 Kraft Nabisco champion Pressel (76) both faltered badly in their final rounds after starting the day within striking distance of Tseng and Lewis, with Wie falling into sixth place – still the former child prodigy’s best finish in a major since 2006.
The famed Palm Springs wind finally kicked up during the coolest day of the tournament, and the strong gusts might have been reflected in the scores. Lewis’ 69 matched Futcher and Julieta Granada for the day’s low round.
“The wind was swirling, and the greens were firm,” Tseng said. “I just tried to be perfect, maybe too perfect.”
Lewis shared the first-round lead with road roommate Brittany Lincicome and opened a three-stroke lead after two rounds, but Tseng blitzed past her playing partner Saturday with a bogey-free 66 when temperatures finally cooled after two days of stifling heat.
Lewis stayed in the tournament despite Al Lewis’ death in Toledo, Ohio, on Wednesday. She’s heading home for the funeral early next week.
“Everybody in the family knew he would have wanted me to finish out this week,” Lewis said. “He lived via my golf. He loved watching it on TV. He recorded it every week so he could keep watching it over and over again, but him and my grandma, they both got to see me play the whole round today. They were out there with me for sure.”
Lewis led going into the final round of the 2008 U.S. Women’s Open, finishing third in her dramatic pro debut. A year earlier, she won a trophy but not an official LPGA Tour title as an amateur when she led after the only round of the rain-shortened LPGA NW Arkansas Championship.
After honing her swing and refining her approach to every aspect of a pro’s life over the past year, she came into this season with high expectations. Lewis blew a second-round lead against Tseng in the Australian Masters seven weeks ago, but was by far the cooler pro on the final day at Mission Hills.
“I’ve played a lot with Yani, and I know I can hang with her,” Lewis said. “I know I can hit the ball with her. It’s huge. I know I can play with the best players in the world.”